Length: 30 minutes
Release Date: January 1, 1986
Directed by: Sam Jaimes, Bill Melendez
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
The original “Peanuts” specials starring Charlie Brown and the gang are animation classics, bringing Charles Schultz’s characters to life in a way that few adaptations can match. All of them are essentially packaged nostalgia and have been included on various DVD and Blu-ray releases in recent years. “Happy New Year, Charlie Brown” doesn’t quite have the following of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” or “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” although in its defense, there are only a few holiday specials that do.
As with the other “Peanuts” specials, the story of this one is fairly straightforward. Peppermint Patty is throwing a New Year’s Eve party, and in her usual manner insists that Charlie Brown attends. Unfortunately for Charlie Brown, he still needs to read “War and Peace” and write a book report on it before school starts again the next day.
Charlie Brown tries a few different tricks to get out of reading the entire book, including checking to see if there were any filmstrips available at the library so he could simply watch the story instead of reading it. As is usually the case, things don’t exactly go his way, and he’s left without an easy solution; as Linus tells him, “No book report has ever been finished by just reading the dust jacket.”
Dragging around “War and Peace,” Charlie Brown tries to not only find a way to conquer Tolstoy’s tome, but also to find the courage to ask the little red-haired girl whom he has a crush on to the party. This also doesn’t go as planned, with Charlie Brown at one point getting his hand stuck in the mailbox as he tries to send her an invitation. This is classic Charlie Brown, inexplicably finding himself foiled by tasks that most other people would find easy.
In the end, Charlie Brown goes to the party but leaves early when he’s beaten at musical chairs. Falling asleep, he wakes up after midnight only to find that Peppermint Patty is mad at him and Linus had actually danced with his red-haired dream girl while he was gone. His only consolation is the fact that he did manage to get the book report finished on time…only to earn a D minus on it and a scolding for turning in a report that reads like it was written on the last day of Christmas break.
As with the other “Peanuts” holiday specials, this one makes the point that things don’t always go the way that you want them to, but in the end, that’s mostly okay. Charlie Brown didn’t get the girl or a high grade, and even his attempts to come out on top were kind of a disaster. It was just another day in the life of Charlie Brown, and he’ll get another chance tomorrow.
This is the reason that the “Peanuts” specials hold such a high place in many people’s memories, even though they don’t always have the stereotypical happy endings. They remind us that it’s okay to not be the best, and it’s okay to fail. They let us know that even when things seem bad, we’ll eventually get through it. Most importantly, they tell us that when things are at their absolute worst, they aren’t usually as bad as they seem.
If there’s a failing in “Happy New Year, Charlie Brown,” it’s that it came out in 1986, twenty-one years after “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and twenty years after “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.” There were actually a full twenty-six “Peanuts” shorts that came out between it and its better-known predecessors, and only a handful of them (most notably “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving”) evoke the same sort of nostalgia as those 1960’s specials. That’s a lot of potential brand fatigue, and while this short stood out from a lot of the surrounding crowd, it still finds itself a bit lost from not being made in the “golden age” of “Peanuts” animations.
There are times during the special that this fatigue shows, especially in regard to trying to balance the classic “Peanuts” feel with the more modern sensibilities of the viewing audience (this can be seen in Charlie Brown searching for both “filmstrips” and comic books). Despite these momentary rough patches, though, the special packs a lot of charm and humility into a 30-minute animated short. If you’ve somehow managed not to have already seen “Happy New Year, Charlie Brown,” you really should find the time, even if it’s not the best of the “Peanuts” specials.