Peanuts Specials

DVD Review: This Is America, Charlie Brown – The Peanuts Gang Takes On History Not Holidays

The various Peanuts specials have always been near and dear to me. They are a very fond memory of my growing up years, and something I like that I could pass on to my own children. The specials truly are timeless, despite the rather primitive animation when compared to what’s currently being done. They had heart and meaning, something many animated shows miss capturing currently.

During the late 1980s the specials that make up This Is America, Charlie Brown appeared on television to bring the beloved characters from so many holiday specials into various parts of American history. This is not a real series, such as showing the gang imagining themselves during parts of history during a history class or anything like that. It’s a series of independent episodes showing them as characters during certain pivotal points in history, such as the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk or as Pilgrims on the Mayflower voyage.

Many of these stories talk about small facts that are glossed over when we studied our history books in school, such as the terrible storms the Mayflower went through and how it almost turned back after one of the ship’s main beams broke. It’s fun to watch as well as being educational.

Adults are shown here, but the majority are historical figures and it works better than the few other Peanuts specials that incorporated adults into the world of the characters. Seeing Ben Franklin or the Wright Brothers interacting with the gang has a purpose, rather than having them talking with the adults of their town who have traditionally never been seen.

The animation is the traditional kind. The activity usually takes place in front of static backgrounds. In the case of showing sky and clouds, it seems the same loops are used over and over again to show waves and clouds floating through the sky.

The transfer to DVD is excellent. The images are clear and richly colorful. There are two DVDs to the set with eight specials total. Some of them are stronger than others, although all are fun. My only complaint is that there are no extras – what you see is what you get. It would have been nice to hear reflections from those who worked on these. The price these are selling for is a real bargain when you consider what is in the set

The Mayflower Voyagers

Takes the Peanuts characters back to the sailing of the Mayflower. They participate in the voyage as the children on the voyage. Adults are shown on the trip as well as part of the crew.

The girls do wear traditional clothes during the episode, as do the boys although Charlie Brown does appear in the familiar yellow shirt with the black zig-zag across it. Snoopy and Woodstock are here as well.

The special is largely narrated by Charlie Brown. He tells most of the history while the story is illustrated. Sometimes there are funny moments amid what was both a scary and inspiring time during this country’s history.

It may seem odd to think of Marcy, Peppermint Patty, Lucy, and Linus among the Pilgrims, but it works. The Linus and Lucy instrumental is also here, albeit with a different spin.

The Birth of the Constitution

Once again narrated by Charlie Brown, this gives historical facts while scenes of the time period are re-enacted in a somewhat humorous tone.

The rest of the Peanuts gang is here helping out the delegates as they meet. Linus hands out assignments including bringing water to the delegates, cleaning the floor, checking the inkwells, and keeping the area clean. Charlie Brown gets to take care of the grounds and to valet-park the horses. His first “customer” is General George Washington.

The debates surrounding the Constitution are shown using animated delegates. This is interspersed with humorous snippets of the gang which keeps it from bogging down and becoming less interesting.

One funny moment is how Snoopy has created a treadmill that also rotates a roast over the fire in the fireplace.

The Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk

This is narrated by Linus’ cousin Dolly. It starts out with the history of man’s desire to achieve flight, back to the Greeks and Leonardo da Vinci.

It’s December 16, 1903, and Charlie Brown and Linus are on their way to visit relatives of Linus who live in Kitty Hawk in a buggy driven by Snoopy in a top coat and top hat. Upon arrival, they meet Dolly who fills them in on what the Wright Brothers are doing.

When Charlie Brown breaks the bicycle he is riding, they head to the Wright Brothers’ shop to ask them to fix it. There, they come across the kites and Charlie Brown attempts to fly one, believing he is safe from the kite-eating trees. He does meet with disaster while trying to fly the kite, but this helps the kids gain the attention of the Wright Brothers and become some of the witnesses to their historic flight.

The NASA Space Station

Linus and Charlie Brown are working on projects about the “newest” space station, due to go up sometime in the 1990s. As Linus drifts off to sleep, he is thinking about the project. This leads him to a dream where the gang makes up the whole crew of the space station for 90 days.

Walter Cronkite is a reporter covering their story, including how they must work together when a meteorite impacts the Space Station.

Some funny moments are when Linus’ hair stands out the way it does when illustrating the weightless atmosphere of the space station.

The Building of the Transcontinental Railroad

Charlie Brown is doing a report on this period in time, just after the Civil War. Sketches are used to depict some of the histories. Most of it is acted out by the Peanuts characters while Charlie Brown narrates. There are a few times that it cuts away to independent action, most notably when Snoopy’s brother Spike plays harmonica in a railroad saloon.

There are a number of scenes repeated during the course of his report. However, overall it does a good job showing the history behind it, including how Chinese workers were used and abused. These specials don’t gloss over some of the darker sides of American history.

The Great Inventors

Sally Brown narrates the story of inventions and famous American “firsts” between the years 1870-1900. Some of them are pretty obscure, like the first pizzeria, the first earmuffs, and the first toothpick. Snoopy does a demonstration behind her, and it’s not quite what she envisioned.

Linus then takes his turn highlighting other inventions during the time, after Sally’s seem somewhat superfluous. Now we get to see the Peanuts characters interact with Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison.

The Smithsonian and the Presidency

The Peanuts gang visits Washington DC and sees some of the monuments. They spend quite some time in the Smithsonian and then interact in a historical setting with Presidents such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

The Music and Heroes of America

Schroeder is featured in this one, as you might expect. Lucy joins him as they talk about a variety of American songwriters and musicians, such as Stephen Foster, Catherine Lee Bates, John Philip Souza, George M. Cohan, and more. The gang backs him up playing the songs he is talking about.

Lucy, meanwhile, wants to discuss famous women such as Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton.

This is a great DVD to have at home and share with your children. Adults will enjoy it especially for the nostalgia it brings. The timeless quality of the Peanuts gang makes it something special for all generations and my kids enjoy it as much as I did.