Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Who Are You, Charlie Brown?—on Apple TV+

Snoopy has been NASA’s semi-official mascot ever since the Apollo 10 lunar and command modules were nicknamed in honor of him and Charlie Brown. They also own Christmas thanks to the beloved TV special and Vince Guaraldi’s iconic soundtrack album. Plus, there were movies and a frequently revived stage musical, but creator Charles M. “Sparky” Schulz remained as unassuming as the round-headed kid he brought to life. Shulz and the beloved Peanuts franchise are celebrated in Who Are You, Charlie Brown?, directed by Michael Bonfiglio, which starts streaming this Friday on Apple TV.

Schulz did not have a particularly happy childhood and he did not do particularly well at school. Parallels between his life and Charlie Brown are not coincidental. However, he discovered he had a passion for cartooning that developed into a specialty for writing and drawing children. Thanks to the everyman appeal of Charlie Brown and Snoopy’s wild flights of fancy,
Peanuts caught on big, but Shultz never changed.

Who Are You
covers most of the truly pivotal moments in Peanuts history and Shulz’s life, like the Apollo 10 mission, the classic Merry Christmas Charlie Brown, and the continuation of the strip after Shulz’s stroke, but the hour long documentary-tribute really only scratches the surface. There is no discussion of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown (a huge hit Off-Broadway), the theatrical films, the Christian theological interpretations of Shulz’s writings, Guaraldi’s records and scores, or more darkly, the failed kidnapping attempt of 1988.

Who Are You is far from definitive by any stretch, but it wonderfully soothing to revisit Shulz and his cherished characters. In between biographical segments, Bonfiglio incorporates a new animated story, featuring Charlie Brown as he wrestles with home assignment to write an autobiographical essay. Maybe best of all, these segments feature Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” and “Skating.” Arranged by Jeff Morrow, they still sound quite faithful to the classic originals.

It is also nice to hear some of Shulz’s colleagues (most notably Lynn Johnston of
For Better or For Worse) and cartoonists he influenced explain the master’s influence. It makes sense to include Al Roker, who conducted Shulz’s final interview, but Kevin Smith hardly seems like an obvious choice (but he is becoming a usual suspect of pop culture docs, nearly as ubiquitous as John Waters).

Don’t call it nostalgia, because
Peanuts has never lost its prominence. Regardless, Who Are You holds a wistful appeal similar to Dear Mr. Watterson, the Calvin & Hobbes doc, but it actually lets viewers hear from Shulz himself, through archival footage. The only complaint is that it is too short, but that means it never drags and leaves fans wanting more. It is Apple TV’s latest Peanuts release, but we would love to see them stream more of the vintage specials, especially It’s a Mystery Charlie Brown, featuring Snoopy in a deerstalker cap and one of Guaraldi’s funkiest scores. Highly recommended just as new Peanuts programming, Who Are You, Charlie Brown premieres Friday (6/25) on Apple TV.