Ids are for kids: The psychological barriers to a “Peanuts” comeback
In one of my favorite “Peanuts” strips, Lucy decides she isn’t going to sit idly by and inherit the mistakes past generations have left to hers. She puts the entire adult world on notice that it only has until the day she reaches maturity to iron out all the problems there are everywhere.
“What if they can’t do it, Lucy?” Charlie Brown asks. “What if they need more time?”
“Tell them not to bother wiring for an extension,” she responds. “There won’t be one!”
Poor Miss Van Pelt never got that perfect planet she felt she so richly deserved. (Fortunately, she seems to have made it work for her: The last time I saw her on TV, she was hawking insurance.) But now I’m starting to wonder if the gravest danger to Lucy and her gang didn’t come from previous generations, but from the one that came after.
It was announced this week that Fox will be releasing a new animated feature film starring the “Peanuts” characters. Paul Feig (Freaks and Geeks, Bridesmaids) will produce, with direction by Steve Martino (Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who) and script work by Charles Schulz’s son and grandson. The goal is obviously to reposition the classic characters as box-office draws three decades after their last outing, the prophetically named Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!)
Yet I’m having serious doubts as to whether a return jaunt is actually possible. His omnipresence in Hallmark stores notwithstanding, Charlie Brown is a creature of a different time. The heyday of the “Peanuts” strip, from the 1950s to the 1970s, was a period – let’s call it the Era of Introspection – in which Americans were very interested in opening up their brain caps to see what was inside, then staring at it intently for as long as they could manage. The postwar years saw the rise of psychiatry and psychotherapy, as well as a host of self-analytical literature that lined bookstore shelves. The fact that seeing a shrink carried with it a serious stigma, at least during the Eisenhower years, didn’t do much to quell its popularity among folks who were certain they really needed it. Obsessive self-examination coupled with abject shame? That’s Charlie Brown all over.
We don’t do so much questioning of our motivations these days. Oh, we still spend just as much time examining our feelings; but now, that process consists mostly of periodically updating our list of impulsive wants. We barely even bother with questioning the motives of others. Instead, we simply assume them – all the better to fashion straw men to stand between us and those aforementioned desires.
How will the spectacle of goof ol’ messed-up Charlie Brown forking nickel after nickel to find out what’s wrong with him resonate with a society that knows little to nothing of self-critique? Is explaining to your toddler that Snoopy’s owner is just seeking the inner peace Tony Soprano sought from Dr. Melfi really going to help her navigate the narrative?
“Peanuts” wasn’t just intellectual property, but an intellectual property. And intellect – particularly when it’s turned inward – isn’t something we celebrate much in the 21st century. When the Broadway musical You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown was revived in 1999, it featured a new song in which Sally Brown tried out a series of personal philosophies – from “Oh yeah? That’s what you think” to “Why are you telling me?” The joke traveled because, by that time, the world had caught up with kid sister Sally, whom Schulz had introduced as a cautionary character emblematic of the new irresponsibility. If you had a problem with her, it was your problem, which meant she would have felt right at home as the millennium approached. But on another level, the number still came across as an anachronism. Because hey, what’s a “personal philosophy” anyway?
When “Peanuts” was in its fullest flower, philosophy was a genuine cultural force. Our schools still taught it, and if you stopped random Americans on the street, at least some of them could identify actual philosophers by name. A few might even know which school of thought was the hot new paradigm. Now, philosophy has basically been mothballed as a concept. (One of the consequences is that organized religion has come to exert an unsettlingly stepped-up influence over public policy, since there’s no longer an official secular framework for discussing matters of morality and ethics. That state of affairs might have troubled Schulz, a devout man who nonetheless feared the negative capabilities of the church as an institution.) The 1999 revival of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown closed within four months, taking all of Sally’s pet philosophies with it.
I guess I should be more optimistic about the chances the new film will live up to Schulz’s vision, given that his offspring are so closely involved with it. But let’s remember that Ted Geisel’s widow signed off on those god-awful Grinch and Cat in the Hat movies. And to listen to Noel Blanc talk about his father Mel’s voiceover work, you’d think Bugs Bunny had been Albert Schweitzer and Neil Armstrong rolled into one, rather than a street-smart Flatbush bunny with a mean TNT-throwing arm. I’m particularly concerned by something Schulz’s son Ted said in announcing the movie deal:
“As we continue on our creative journey to bring my father’s characters to life, collaborating with a talent like Paul (Feig) is a great step forward. Knowing how Peanuts, especially Charlie Brown’s never-give-up-attitude, has influenced him throughout his life makes this partnership even more meaningful.”
“Never-give-up-attitude”? No, that’s Darrell Issa he’s thinking of. “Peanuts” is not the story of a cockeyed optimist who never says die. It’s the story of a hopeless neurotic and social pariah who repeatedly summons up the strength to launch his ass into the fray, only to have it kicked up and down the block every single time. Yes, Chuck is back out on the pitcher’s mound on opening day of every season. But the joke isn’t complete until he’s flat on his back, clothes strewn hither and yon, felled by another vicious line drive. And underlying it all is the awareness that, even if all of society’s slings, arrows and kite-eating trees were removed from the equation, his intrinsically nonexistent self-esteem would still make him a loser. And he knows it. Because he just can’t stop thinking about it.
God knows how that conceit would play in an era in which nobody wants to admit to losing, and certainly not because of anything he himself might have done or been. Yet absent that essential navel-gazing component, I can’t see that a new “Peanuts” movie would be received as anything more than an innocuous romp for the MetLife kids. If that’s what happens, tell Feig not to bother pitching a sequel – there won’t be one.
Five cents, please.
Days without a response from the publication that plagiarized from me and won’t come clean: 130.
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