We can all relate to Charlie Brown. The “lovable loser who can never seem to catch a break” — whose goal in life is to kick a football that is constantly tugged away from him at the last second, and to woo the adorable redhead down the street — became a household name since his debut in the ‘50s. As did his creator, the veritable Charles Munroe ‘Sparky’ Schulz.
So it was exciting when Apple TV+ announced Who Are You Charlie Brown? , a documentary on the late cartoonist and his imagination. The 54-minute documentary is a curation of cartoon clips, video and audio archives of Schulz over the years and many piece-to-cameras of other famous faces such as Schulz’s wife Jean, journalist Al Roker and Noah Schnapp (who voices Charlie Brown in the newer releases), among others.
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The documentary sets the scene with Charlie Brown tackling an essay on ‘who I am’ which drifts into dialogue around Schulz’s childhood as a perpetually stressed-out and shy kid... sound familiar? Yes, a lot of Charlie Brown’s traits come from Schulz himself, except for the fact that Schulz was so smart he skipped a grade whereas Charlie Brown’s low grades were a source of his anxiety. But it is Charlie Brown’s friends who remind the boy that he is someone truly special.
I was really pleased that all this is set against the well-recognised jazzy tunes originally composed by Vincent Anthony Guaraldi, which will have your foot tapping as you watch.
The film does have some joyful moments such as the debut of the comic strip, Snoopy’s wild imagination and Peppermint Patty. It is not surprising that Charlie Brown, Snoopy and friends have been a part of not just our childhoods but our adult lives, too. We want to share these timeless stories of friendship and perseverance with the next generation. But the story of Schulz’s friendship with tennis player Billie Jean King, which fuelled the release of Peanuts , does not have the screen time it deserves.
‘Disrupting intimate storytelling’
Some of the celebrity appearances such as Drew Barrymore and Kevin Smith do come across as random and almost unnecessary, which actually disrupts the otherwise intimate storytelling. For a name as big as Peanuts , the documentary does not need the additional star power. Roker’s presence makes absolute sense as he talks about being a young black child when Schulz introduces the character Franklin on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. But Barrymore’s empty statements on the fun Lucy offers very little value.
Though the experience is narrated by Academy Award-winner and big-time Peanuts fan Lupita Nyong’o, it would have served the documentary better to have Jean or one of Schulz’s kids take this role.
Above all Woodstock, the beloved little yellow bird and Snoopy’s best friend, barely gets a mention!
The documentary takes seven decades of rich history and undeservedly packs it into an hour. This could have easily been a multi-part series, given the questions that remain unanswered: What of Charles’ approach to his craft? What about Schulz’s children’s role in continuing his legacy? What about the massive wealth of the Schulz estate owing to Peanuts ’ success? In answering these questions and more, Who Are You, Charlie Brown? could have been something of a landmark production for Apple TV.
But the documentary is a bit of a let-down on Apple TV’s part, which long had the license to Peanuts content. The company usually invests heartily in its creations and this production could have used more time in the oven. Die-hard fans may feel robbed. It is a classic case of ‘when you’re given gold, don’t produce steel’.
At least Apple TV did not skimp on the final scenes of the documentary which detail Schulz’s last days before his retirement, and you will definitely shed a few tears as Schulz says in a choked voice, ‘And still, Charlie never got to kick that football!’
Who Are You, Charlie Brown? is streaming on Apple TV+