When A Charlie Brown Christmas first premiered back in December 1965, neither the network nor the filmmakers had high expectations. After all, the Christmas special was deliberately-paced, had a jazz score, contained adult humour, and was equipped with an anti-commercialism message that wouldn’t like be well-received during the holiday shopping season. Added to this, the story does not involve Santa visiting the protagonists – it climaxes with Bible verses being recited. But lo and behold, in spite of concerns, A Charlie Brown Christmas played during primetime to much critical acclaim, becoming one of the most beloved Christmas specials of all time.
As Christmas is approaching, Charlie Brown (Robbins) feels depressed and disillusioned. He knows he should be excited by the festivities and the prospect of presents, but Charlie nonetheless feels down in the dumps and isn’t sure whether the festive season is worth much enthusiasm. He seeks to find a deeper meaning to Christmas, but his friends only ridicule him for the effort. After seeking advice from Lucy (Stratford) and Linus (Shea), Charlie agrees to direct his school’s annual Christmas play which might cheer him up.
Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts characters first debuted in comic strips back in 1950, and the gang held appeal for children and adults alike due to Schulz’s insightful commentary on human nature. For A Charlie Brown Christmas, Schulz chose to explore the commercialisation of the Christmas season and the true meaning of the holiday. In this day and age, the holiday spirit seems to be more about receiving gifts and putting up gaudy decorations; about greediness rather than anything more meaningful. Thus, unlike most Christmas specials (or Christmas flicks in general), A Charlie Brown Christmas seeks to answer the question of why Christmas is so special, rather than just reaffirming it. And considering how much of a sad sack Charlie Brown is, the character was an ideal candidate to question blind good cheer.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is blessed with simplistic but expressive animation. While it may look primitive in terms of detail compared to contemporary animation, it’s smooth and assured, and it carries an old-world charm that’s hard to replicate. Another asset is the score by jazz artist Vince Guaraldi, which adds a unique flavour to this special. Jazz was an odd choice which paid off, and the music went on to become a best-selling album that’s still played annually in households across the world. Furthermore, Bill Melendez’s decision to cast actual children was a masterstroke. Thus, the kids voicing the Peanuts gang actually sound like kids rather than adults trying to sound youthful. As a result, every word is adorable, and the dialogue is delivered with convincing conviction which allows the characters to come alive.
From its humorous opening to its touching ending, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a sweet, good-hearted 25 minutes of holiday magic which hammers home a terrific message about the spirit of the Christmas season. Even if it is a bit too lax, you’d have to be a cold-hearted Scrooge to not be won over by A Charlie Brown Christmas.