Linus Van Pelt once said, “Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browiniest.” And that’s true. There is a little Charlie Brown in all of us and a new documentary aims to prove that. Despite its title, Who Are You, Charlie Brown?, this isn’t really a documentary about the cartoon character, but rather his creator, Charles Schulz. And unlike other specials, this one almost completely centers on the comic strips and the influences in Schulz’s life that shaped it.
Now streaming on Apple TV+, Who Are You, Charlie Brown? is sort of a hybrid of an animated classic Peanuts TV special and a classic documentary. Narrated by Lupita Nyong’o, it will appeal to both children (as not being too “highbrow”) and their parents (by not making it too “child-like”). Not only is the subject matter kid-friendly, the whole design and approach is too. This makes sense since the special focuses on the multi-generational popularity of the Peanuts comic strip featuring “Good ‘Ol Charlie Brown.”
The special begins with an animated sequence where Charlie Brown discovers that his teacher has assigned the class to write a school essay answering the question, “Who are you?” Like many of us would be in that situation, he is lost for words. From here, the special bounces back and forth from the animated cartoon and the documentary interviewing people like Jean Schulz, the widow of Charles Schulz, other cartoonists who knew his well and various celebrities young and old including Drew Barrymore, Al Roker, Kevin Smith, Billie Jean King, Paul Feig, Ira Glass, Noah Schnapp, Miya Cech, Keith L. Williams, Chip Kidd, Lynn Johnston, Robb Armstrong and others. It also features a lot of previous interviews with Schulz, including his last with Al Roker.
During the 60-minute documentary, it is revealed that just about everything in the Peanuts universe revolved around Charles Schulz’s own life. He was essentially Charlie Brown. The pet dog he had growing up became snoopy. Every symphony that Schroeder played was a favorite of his. He had learning disabilities in school – so did Charlie Brown, etc.
There is a touching story in the film about when Schulz created Franklin, the strip’s first African-American character. At first the syndicate didn’t like it and threatened to fire him if Schulz used the character. Schulz didn’t back down and obviously, he wasn’t fired. Just about every aspect of Schultz’s life is represented and explored here. Except for one. His faith.
A similar event happened when Charles created the first TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. CBS did not like the fact that Linus would be reciting scripture from the bible and thought viewers would be upset by its inclusion. They told him to cut it out of the special but Charles refused. Since this special only briefly mentions the TV specials, it is understandable that this story would not be included in the special. However, as many other biographies have pointed out over the years, Charles Schulz had a strong Christian faith, but his faith wasn’t mentioned at all during the special.
Ironically, despite the exclusion of faith element, the special does treats Schulz as if he is a patron saint of cartoonists. And maybe he is. Personally, I am very fond of the man and maybe the point of this documentary was to keep things light and avoid any controversial topics, like religion, in order for it be “safe” for kids. I don’t know.
(Main Image: Apple TV+)
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