Thursday, September 4, 2008

Farewell, Mr. Melendez

I’ve always had a soft spot for Charlie Brown, but for sheer childhood innocence, it’s Linus Van Pelt all the way.

Watch him here in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” So happy to help his sister by hauling a giant pumpkin to their home, despite the obstacles of the fence, the pumpkin’s sheer bulk and its weight as it drags him along after he tries in vain to stop it after he sends it for a roll.
Then to see his eyes bug out as he describes to Sally the anticipation of waiting to see the Great Pumpkin “with his own eyes.” You have to have a heart of stone not to feel like a kid again when you hear his eager innocence.

Then there’s his speech in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I can’t read those Bible passages now without concluding, “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Religion without pretention, a rarity these days.

Now Bill Melendez is dead.

Melendez, the ex-Disney and Warner Brothers animator, worked with Charles Schulz to bring “Peanuts” to television, with that first holiday special so many years ago. They worked on a shoestring – animating “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in Los Angeles, then sending the cels to Mexico to be painted, where the artists used ordinary house paint. Many deride the art as simplistic, the storytelling mawkish and moralizing. I don’t care. These shows are precious to me, and to have Melendez pass on saddens me.

Peanuts and the Melendez cartoon specials certainly belong to a bygone era. Today, some would focus cynically on Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the Christmas special; then again today, with our cynical culture it’s hard to imagine a Christmas special as low-key, unpretentious, innocent and decent as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” being made today, unless there were men like Schulz and Melendez behind it. I’d like to be proved wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

No matter. We have these specials to watch. Our children watch them and laugh. They don’t seem to care the shows seem old-fashioned, the messages too overt. They just like it when Linus swoons in the pumpkin patch, and when Snoopy battles it out with the deck chair in “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.”

Thanks, Bill. Animate a bit more heaven for us.

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