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Childhood Revisited: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

Childhood Revisited: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown

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What childhood movie did you love? Which scared you? And how does it play now, watching it again as an adult? In this new feature, our writers revisit the films that affected them as kids.

Another Halloween is upon us, and here I sit, a grown man prepared to dress up in a bear costume and allow himself to be publicly seen and recognized. But before I abandon all logic and apparent social survival strategies, I sat down to watch a beloved childhood memory. This time around, it was “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” the “Peanuts” gang entry into Samhain territory. Since its debut on television in 1966, it’s been arguably overshadowed by the previous winter’s iconic “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but really, who could compete with that pathetic, lovable little twig and also the tree that was featured in that special?

Like most Americans born after 1950, or just ones with a heart and soul, “Peanuts” has always held a special place in my heart. Part of the enduring quality of Charles Schulz’s poignant empire is its empathy; who hasn’t felt the heartbreak of Charlie Brown pining for the little redheaded girl or for his kite lost to that terrible tree or any other of the awful things that continually happen to him? As a sensitive child (read: shy nerd), I felt for Charlie Brown and saw myself in him, to the point of even writing Charles Schulz a fan letter. I received a form letter reply on Snoopy stationery, incidentally. That Schulz was a good guy, or at least his publicist was. Watching the special hit all the beats was entertaining and the show is surprisingly dense. In a brief 25 minutes, we have Snoopy WWI sequences, the old football fake-out, a musical interlude with Schroeder and even a redux along the lines of “DOG GERMS!” But what I had apparently forgotten about “Peanuts” in the rather dull interim since adolescence was that childhood anguish really stings.

Yes, after all this time, the tale of Linus van Pelt staying out all night in cold, dark October to wait for the fabled Great Pumpkin still had power to sadden me terribly. Charlie Brown himself takes the back seat in this one, despite the title; it’s pretty much the Linus show all the way around. And while Schulz’s efforts to blatantly moralize have been obvious since the bizarre momentum killer of Linus’s speech in the Christmas special, they’re relatively restrained this go around. Linus’s unwavering belief in the Great Pumpkin and its eventual appearance could stand in for just about any kind of faith you’d care to name, but it’s actually bewildering whether it means to support it or take a potshot. After all, Linus is a decent kid and sticks to his beliefs even in the face of overwhelming ridicule. But here’s another thing I forgot: the Great Pumpkin never shows up.

Over the years, some kind of sympathy must have kicked in in my memories, because I honestly thought the Great Pumpkin would show up to reward Linus in some form or another. Maybe a dream sequence or perhaps the other kids would soften and dress up to make him think his gourd-based benevolent deity had arrived (hey, he seemed like a decent kid, not a bright one). But at the end of the special, the Pumpkin never appears, the kids still mock him, everyone is depressed or upset and yet it concludes with Linus stubbornly, angrily insisting he’ll be continuing his vigil next year. Whether Schulz intended to promote the virtues of innocent faith or skewer blind adherence in the face of facts is surprisingly open-ended, and more subtle than he’s generally given credit for.

Similarly, while the animation had the same distinctive simplicity I remember, it also had flashes of true artistic depth that I hadn’t recalled. In particular, the evocative, dreamy autumn night skies that appear are things of beauty, full of color and shading. But art aside, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” surprised me in both its bleakness and its unwillingness to come to a simplistic conclusion. Charlie Brown’s world is a rich one, but it’s also harsh. It’s a beautiful little story, one that still has the power to affect.

by Nathan Kamal

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