The Great Pumpkin was first discussed in the Peanuts comic strip in 1959. And now, over fifty years later–and forty-four since the animated special based on the character and those strips first aired–it’s like most things involving classic Peanuts. It’s aged well and does not suffer from a senior moment. And when CBS first aired It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in 1966, they had no idea that they were leaving a huge footprint on American popular culture for generations to come.
The third Schulz feature (and first with the brilliant Bill Melendez) Great Pumpkin helped turn Halloween into a big time holiday while introducing the catch phrase “I got a rock” to future generations.
The story is pretty basic. Charlie Brown, who still can’t kick any football Lucy puts in front of him, again goes through another drama on a holiday as he ineptly screws up making his ghost costume. Despite his wardrobe malfunction, he goes through the motions of Halloween only to be embarrassed at every turn.
However it looks like The Great Pumpkin is a bit more persnickety then Santa or The Easter Bunny because if you deny your faith in his existence in any way he will ignore you on Halloween. Despite this, and the mocking of The Peanuts gang, Linus passes on going trick or treating to wait for the arrival of The Great Pumpkin in the pumpkin patch. This is an annual right of passage for Linus but this time he has suckered poor Sally into coming along with him. As a result Sally misses Halloween candy collecting and is less then thrilled with Linus. Linus also has no idea that Sally has a massive crush on him.
Lucy Van Pelt remains the ringleader of tormentors. She torments Linus and Charlie Brown in equal portions and her witch costume is quite appropriate. Despite being a real bitch, the neighborhood kids are easily manipulated by her. Although Schulz uses her as a conduit for commenting on family and peer pressure, Lucy Van Pelt could be one of best/worst Halloween monsters ever.
Snoopy has his hands full fighting off his nemesis, The Red Baron. Snoopy puts up a nasty offensive but in the end succumbs in a dogfight for the ages. All the years later, his dogfight scenes remain terrific fun to watch. The audio effects used to pull off this fight are quite remarkable and underappreciated in their own right. As usual in Schulz’ specials, Snoopy provides some comedic reprieve from the depression on screen even though things don’t go his way all of the time. Snoopy doesn’t get the massive screen time in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown but he does help keep it light and also serves to move the pacing.
Despite the melancholy and rather not-fun ending Great Pumpkin remains incredibly charming even after all this time. The moments of frustration and sadness only make you love the characters more. Plus Schulz doesn’t candy coat things: kids can be mean and disrespectful. There are also deeper messages of tolerance, acceptance and popularity thrown in for good measure, but for the most part this special remains pure eye candy.
The passage of time hasn’t really inhibited the animation. It still looks believable and the characters are brought to life with a richness and depth that a lot of contemporary animators miss out on. One of the great things about Bill Melendez is that he knew how to direct animation and make stories flow without compromising character development. He also knew when to let up on the reins and let it all hang out. As a result he got decades of kids to really appreciate and accept the characters in the Peanuts’ world. Without Schulz’ characters and Melendez’ direction the richness and emotional texture of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown would unravel.
Any of the Peanuts scores from Vince Guaraldi are brilliant, timeless and have a life of their own. However his work here is often overlooked. His score underpins the entire story and makes Great Pumpkin feel like autumn in such a believable way. Sixty years later his record sales rival some rock stars in duration.
When you think about it, the whole thing is a bit of a bummer. Linus never sees The Great Pumpkin, Sally misses Halloween trick or treating and Linus still doesn’t know she exists. Charlie Brown, who gets a rock, still cannot kick a football and remains the target of collective emotional abuse and disdain. Poor Schroeder is forced to perform a random selection of WWI fight songs–much to his chagrin. Even the normally lighthearted Snoopy, although valiant, never gets to shoot down the Red Baron.
Nonetheless, forty-four years later we still love this and watch It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Maybe it’s the nostalgia or the way Melendez and Schulz skillfully bring the awkward adolescence of Peanuts onto the screen. (I’d like to think it’s because they knew that holidays generally suck and never live up to the hype.)
Each Halloween I find twenty-five minutes and I watch the special and savor it like great wine. This is because they don’t make stuff like this any more. It has everything: youthful innocence, childhood silliness, statements of individuality and those generally touching moments that only Charles Schulz could make where the dreadful and sad become touching and special.
I think the greatest testament to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is that it has never gotten old. It is still loved and appreciated. It also is one of the few nonscary, nonbloody, noncorpse-y Halloween traditions that live on in today’s world of zombies, vampire slayers and demons.