Who Are You, Charlie Brown?

21 Jun

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There’s no question that Peanuts has left an enduring mark on pop culture and impacted the lives of millions of people around the world. As we see in ‘Who Are You, Charlie Brown?’, Snoopy and Charlie himself in particular, have become household names. Even 21 years after the final comic strip was published, Peanuts lives on through new animated series, merchandise, branded hotels and museums across the globe as well as the holiday specials, which have become something of an institution. This all-new documentary sets out to pay tribute to the characters that fans know and love whilst also delving deeper into its creator and the man behind almost 18,000 published comic strips, Charles M. Schulz.

Written by Michael Bonfiglio and Marcella Steingart and directed by Bonfiglio, the documentary tells the story of Schulz’s life and the history of Peanuts and does so in a very unique way. Woven together with the more traditional documentary-style film featuring talking heads, footage of Peanuts and plenty of behind the scenes footage is an all-new, original Peanuts cartoon that focuses on Charlie Brown being given a school assignment. The assignment leaves Charlie stressing and worrying as he goes about his day attempting to write an essay and answer the question - “Who am I?”.

The comic strip-style transitions are beautiful.

The combination of the new animation along with the documentary portion and how these two elements link together is brilliantly done. The new cartoon isn’t simply a quick wraparound that’s just thrown in for cheap fan service. The story is very well executed and compliments what’s covered in the documentary nicely, but it would also stand on its own as a cartoon as well, which is testament to how much care that has clearly gone into the making of it.

The animation is beautiful too, as you’d expect from the more recent Snoopy Show releases from Apple as well as the iconic holiday specials that have been lovingly remastered for TV+. While the 2015 Peanuts movie opted for a 3D animation approach, Apple has stuck with a visual style more reminiscent of the original cartoons but one that is more suited for viewing on 4K televisions. There was some uproar from a small section of the Peanuts fan community when Apple acquired the rights, but the ways in which they’ve breathed new life into the specials and put out new content that’s faithful to what fans know and love is only a good thing.

Charlie Brown ponders the question ‘Who Am I?’

All of your favourite Peanuts characters are here in the new cartoon and there are some fantastic throwbacks to the much-loved specials of the past. There’s some really great fan service and a scene involving Charlie Brown and Linus and one with Lucy that had me grinning from ear-to-ear.

The animated portions of the film switch back to the main documentary via a comic strip-style transition which is absolutely gorgeous to look at and adds even more context to the topics being discussed. I loved that as Charlie ponders the question of ‘Who Am I?’, we are pulled back to the documentary to learn about who exactly Charles Schulz was and how this drives home just how much of himself is seen in Charlie Brown’s character. As the film transitions from cartoon to documentary, we learn much more about the life of Schulz, including the ways in which his kids helped create elements of Snoopy’s character, his time spent at war and very touching segment on Donna Wold, who inspired the Little Red-Haired Girl. It‘s absolutely fascinating, to say the least.

We are joined by celebrity fans of Peanuts as well as people who worked on the characters and knew Schulz personally, all of whom share stories about his life and talk about why they love the comic and its characters. Among them are Kevin Smith, Al Roker, Drew Barrymore, Paul Feig and Schulz’s widow, Jean. Everything feels very genuine and it’s clear that the comic has greatly influenced everyone present.

The documentary also features some much younger actors such as Noah Schnapp and Miya Cech who talk about their love of Peanuts and how it has impacted them. It’s a nice touch which highlights just how timeless Schulz’s creation is and how it transcends generations, which is carried over into the excellent narration by Lupita Nyong’o, who does a great job conveying who Schulz was with such accessibility and heart, that it will delight fans but also prove informative and entertaining for anyone new to this world.

Kevin Smith in ‘Who Am I, Charlie Brown?’

As well as hearing from celebrity fans and people who knew him, ’Who Are You, Charlie Brown?’ also treats us to plenty of archive footage and audio clips of Schulz himself. Seeing the original Peanuts comic strip on-screen and hearing Schulz talk about it in some detail is a delight as is seeing him work at his desk and seeing first-hand how his style changed over the years. There’s one very emotional clip in particular, from an interview where he discusses the last ever Peanuts comic near the end of his life as he battled with cancer that brought a tear to my eye.

At a very lean run time of 55 minutes, it’s definitely not the longest documentary. In fact, the film’s length is its only real drawback. There are several topics that are touched on such as the amazing campus that Schulz created and spent most of his working day at as well as the introduction of Franklin, the first black Peanuts character, to the comics. The latter in particular is a topic that deserves more time and attention but it’s covered here within a matter of minutes. The Schulz campus is covered just a few seconds. On more than one occasion, I found myself wanting the documentary to slow down just a little bit. An extra 15 minutes or so would have been perfect here to allow for a bit more breathing room and a bit of a deeper dive into certain subjects.

Charles M. Schulz working on a Peanuts strip

‘Who Are You, Charlie Brown?’ is a very sweet, heart-warming love letter to Charles M. Schulz and everything Peanuts. The archive footage is excellent and some of the very moving stories told will evoke those same feelings of warmth and joy that Peanuts has for over 70 years. The new cartoon really shines too and offers plenty for the whole family to enjoy. The documentary will please longtime fans and is also very accessible to anyone not familiar with the comic or its creator. Perhaps that’s exactly what Apple was going for here, but a little more meat on its bones would have made this excellent documentary pretty much near perfect.

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? premieres Friday June 25th on Apple TV+.

James Lees
James has been a fan of Apple for as long as he can remember. He is a film & TV obsessive and has also written for several publications such as BBC Good Food Magazine. He lives in Glasgow, Scotland and can usually be found drinking copious amounts of coffee, watching Apple TV+ and talking about it with anyone who will listen.