The Great Pumpkin at 50: A parent’s guide to a holiday classic?

This week’s blog post is by The Paternity Test co-host Matt Boresi, who lives in the Edgewater Glen neighborhood of Chicago with his wife (“Professor Foster”) and their 5-year old daughter, Viva, in her trusty Sopwith Camel fighter plane.

This year, “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” turns 50 years old. Most living generations can now recall spending their childhood sitting cross legged in the living room, watching the swirling CBS Special logo and an onslaught of Dolly Madison Zinger ads before the annual airing of the animated adventures of the Peanuts gang. But does it hold up to modern expectations? Should you let your own little one watch it?

In short, you’re welcome to try, but they probably won’t like it … because it is bad. And you’d better have a talk with them first, because they’re liable to pick up some nasty habits.

1966 was a lousy year for animation. This wasn’t the era of lush, painterly features like “Snow White” or “Dumbo.” No, 1966 brought us the scribbly goblins of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” 1966 is year the rough-hewn orangutans from “The Jungle Book” lead to Walt Disney’s actual death. You read that right–animation in 1966 was so terrible it killed Walt Disney. (Well, that and smoking.)

The first thing you’re likely to notice about the cartoon is that it looks cheap. The way The Chipmunks looked cheap. The way Mister Magoo looked cheap. The way The Beatles cartoon looked cheap. (The episodic one, not the submarine one.) The backgrounds are lazy, the movement is choppy and the wobbly characters never seem to stop walking and walking and walking (through leaves that don’t move). The second thing you’ll notice is the dentist’s office score by Vince Guaraldi. It’s like being trapped in an elevator full of sketches. Notice what happens every time Linus feels embarrassed–hastily scratched red lines appear all over his face to jazz music. It looks like he was attacked by a wolverine made of colored pencils and it is very upsetting. Plus, a psychedelic opening sequence featuring the gang being menaced by semi-transparent ghouls starts the proceedings on disturbing footing.

We tried to show Viva this cartoon last year and she was too scared to watch it. This year she watched it at school after a disclaimer by the teacher. A disclaimer was definitely required, because once you’ve gotten over the look and feel, you’re going to notice the most problematic thing about movie: the language and tone. The first thing said on-screen? “You didn’t tell me you were going to kill it!” (Linus to Lucy, after she stabs the pumpkin he’s chosen with butcher knife.) Funny in a comic strip, but now I’ve got to have a talk with my daughter about killing. Thanks, Shulz and Melendez.

That infraction is minor, but the verbiage gets rougher from there, and it’s largely Lucy’s fault. She calls everyone stupid. And dumb. And “blockhead.” She says she hates things. She pulls the football away from Charlie Brown and lays him out–probably causing traumatic brain injury and definitely sending him to the chiro. She finds lonely little Charlie Brown dancing a jig because he’s just been invited to a party, and she tells him it must be a clerical error, because he is unlovable human garbage whom no one would deliberately invite to a party. That takes the wind out of his sails. (Remember that Lucy runs her own counseling stand and I’m guessing she’s undermining everyone’s self-worth to drive up her billing hours.) She tells her “stupid” brother Linus his beliefs are bogus. She screams at Snoopy. “I’ll pound you,” she tells her friends. She’s a shrill, mean-spirited bully, and she gets away with it. Lucy alone requires a litany of parental disclaimers, and my daughter found her very upsetting. I cannot imagine Viva won’t be trying out the abusive language the moment she isn’t monitored, though. I have a feeling a lot of things are going to be called “stupid” in the coming weeks.

Charlie Brown is endlessly victimized (including by the neighborhood parents, who seem to recognize him from his sad ghost costume and only give him rocks for trick-or-treating–about a million times.) all the way through the end of the piece. There’s no happy ending and no lesson learned for poor, hated Charlie Brown or deluded pumpkin-cult acolyte Linus. In the end, Linus has a mind-snap on Charlie Brown as Brown consoles him over his false idol’s failure to be made flesh. The credits roll over the developmentally stunted and philosophically deluded Linus shouting at poor old Charlie Brown for trying to be a friend. The whole thing is intermittently funny in a subversive way (although the World War I flying act stuff is INTERMINABLE), but it sure ain’t for modern kids.

You can stream any cartoon you want these days, and not having to show up in front of the TV at a date and time certainly takes a lot of the special-ness out of an animated special. You can watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in June. You can watch “It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown” in November. You can watch “It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown” in April. (I didn’t make that one up.) If you much watch them, though, I suggest you watch them without the kids. I never thought I’d become the mollycoddling, nanny-stating parent who won’t let their kid watch a Snoopy cartoon because Lucy called someone stupid. I’m sure when I was my daughter’s age I was sneaking off to some school chum’s rumpus room to watch Michael Myers stab people in the neck. (It was the ‘70s/’80s after all, and there was plenty of cable television to be snuck while most of the parents were busy divorcing.) I know I can have a talk with my daughter about the attitudes and language on display, but why? So she can fidget through a poorly-made cartoon about beating down a bald kid?

1966 brought us the Richard Speck murders, search and destroy sweeps in Tay Ninh Province and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” Let’s leave all of those things a half-century in the past.

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