9/7/10

Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!!) (1980)


France is a place where the money falls apart in your hands but you can't tear the toilet paper.
Billy Wilder

I.

LOVE.

PEANUTS.

If there is anything I will admit to being a die-hard fan of, other than Monty Python, it is Peanuts. The books were among the first things I ever read as a kid, and I still love them even today as a cynical adult. On the surface it’s a comic strip about a bunch of kids living in the neighborhood, playing baseball and flying kites near suspicious-looking trees, but there’s also religious discussion, social commentary, psychological overtones…it was intelligent, it didn’t talk down to anybody, and it had a charm and sophistication all its own. I still have the comic strip collections I got when I was a kid. I can pick up a strip again after years of not reading it and it still feels as though I’m reading it for the first time. I grew up watching the specials and movies many times over. I make it a habit to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas every year without fail. I outright denounce the blatantly homophobic rumor that Peppermint Patty and Marcie, two of my favorite characters, are lesbians. I am that devoted.

Charles Schulz’s beloved strip, originally named “Li’l Folks” in its very early stages, debuted on October 2, 1950 and grew into a worldwide sensation. The original cast consisted of lovable loser Charlie Brown, his eccentric dog Snoopy, and two other kids named Patty and Shermy, but over the years it has expanded to the roster we know today – Schroeder, Lucy, Linus, Pigpen, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Woodstock, Marcie, Franklin and Rerun, spliced with a few lesser known characters inbetween. Ten years after the strip came to an end, and ten years after Schulz’s death, many newspapers still carry reruns in the funny pages.

With the comic’s popularity skyrocketing, it seemed logical to bring these characters to the animated form—so they did, starting first with some commercials for Ford automobiles and then taking a major step forward with the well-known holiday staple A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, which would be the first of many TV specials made over the next four decades, many of which still get airtime on television today.

With one successful TV special after another, and with the comic’s popularity skyrocketing, it seemed logical to bring these characters to the big screen—so they did, with 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which was well-received by critics and moviegoers and even picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. Additional films were to follow—the more melancholy Snoopy, Come Home in 1972 and the more sadistic Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown in 1977.

In this installment we will discuss the fourth, rarest, and as of this writing, last Peanuts feature film ever made—1980’s Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!).


So the movie opens… in France. Now there’s an interesting change of locale.

During the opening credits we see a young girl in the attic of a chateau digging up an old satchel with S. BROWN stenciled on it and then walking over to a desk writing a letter addressed to a “Mon Cher Charles.”

Transit to Charlie Brown’s school, where Linus is introducing two new foreign exchange students from France, and goes on to announce that as part of the program, he and Chuck will be taking a trip out to France. No sooner does Charlie get home (and receives the aforementioned letter in the mail, which he can’t understand) than Peppermint Patty calls him up and tells him that she and Marcie are going to France as exchange students as well. She seems surprised when Charlie tells her about his upcoming trip…wasn’t she in the classroom when Linus announced it?


As everybody is packed and ready to go, the other kids in the Peanuts cast (whom we’ll never see again for the rest of the movie) see them off. Air travel becomes more of an ordeal than it usually is with Snoopy tagging along, as he crashes a shuttle into an up escalator, and after the plane lands, gets stuck on the baggage claim carousel. He also gets a first-class seat while everybody else doesn’t. Don’t ask why he’s not in a dog kennel with the baggage or why they didn’t refuse to let him on the plane at all. He is Snoopy; question it not.

Midflight, Marcie is revealed to understand French, and translates Charlie Brown’s letter. It’s a greeting and an invitation to a “Château de Mal Voison”—“House of the Bad Neighbor” in the native tongue. Sounds inviting.

Oh yeah, and Woodstock stows away on the plane.

This is just before Linus realized he packed his blanket with the rest of his luggage.

The plane lands at Heathrow Airport as the gang take a pit stop in England. A perfect excuse for Snoopy to screw around the courts at Wimbledon while everyone else stops off for lu—


AHHHHH!!! AN ADULT!! AN ADULT IN A PEANUTS CARTOON!!!

It is surprising to see adults play more of a role in ANYTHING Peanuts-related. You never saw any parents, teachers or authority figures in ANY of the strips during its 50-year run, even though they were referred to quite often. Not even in the TV specials, and with the exception of She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, which debuted on TV three months before this movie came out, you never heard them speak either, outside of their famous muted trombone sound effect.

After a train ride through Blighty (complete with a song) and a hovercraft trip from Dover, we finally reach our destination. Snoopy volunteers to be the driver of their rental car (again, question it not), and shortly after some impatient driver rear-ends it, and road rage ensues. Marcie’s French turns out to be quite useful here—she can even cuss out other drivers.

Patty and Marcie’s stop is at the house of a young French boy named Pierre, who is concerned that the boys are staying at the Mal Voison place—the Baron who lives there doesn’t take kindly to visitors, or anybody. Perhaps the boy is right in being so—no one is there to greet them when they arrive, the front doors are locked, and they’re forced to stay the night at a stable in the courtyard in the middle of a rain storm. And Snoopy proves himself a poor choice as guard dog when he sneaks away to a tavern in the nearby village for a few root beers, fully dressed in WWI flying ace attire, while the boys are sleeping, and even then fails to notice a man (the owner of the château, surprisingly silhouetted in every one of his scenes despite the fact that they'd gotten away with adults on camera TWICE in this film) talking ominously about his new “houseguests” in a later visit.

The next morning Charlie Brown and Linus find blankets, pillows and an eloquently-laid breakfast table laid before them.

At their new school, our foreigners are introduced to the class, and Patty and Charlie are assigned to share a desk in a scene which is the only piece in the film borrowed from the original comic strip. In the strip’s version, Charlie Brown’s school collapses and he’s forced to transfer temporarily to Patty’s school, but the punchlines are about the same here. The only difference is that their teacher has a voice to set them up now.

Also, throughout the movie, Patty constantly tries to prep herself up in front of Pierre, oblivious to the fact that he and Marcie are constantly seen holding hands.

LOOK! THEY'RE HOLDING HANDS! SEE?! NOT A LESBIAN!! …not that there’s anything wrong with it.

Forced to stay another night at the Château (at least there’s dinner this time…strangely) and with Snoopy gallivanting off to the tavern again, Chuck and Linus must keep guard over themselves while Pierre gives a plot point about an American soldier stationed at the Chateau in WWII who knew the grandmother of the girl from the opening scene (her name is Violette, by the way). After Charlie falls asleep on duty, it’s finally up to Linus to get some answers.

Breaking into the house while the Baron is gone and making his way to the attic, he finds Violette who finally spills the beans: the soldier in question was in fact Chuck’s grandfather, and he and Violette’s grandmother had a relationship which slowly petered out after he returned to America.

Funny, that—wasn’t Charles Schulz himself stationed in France during WWII? At a place called Malvoisione? (Thanks, IMDb.)

When the Baron comes back unexpectedly, Violette panics and accidentally knocks over a lit candle, which starts a fire. Instead of trying to smother the flames with his blanket, Linus shouts out the window for help, the baron runs around screaming in French, and Chuck alarms everyone else within screaming distance. And hey, it’s a serious scene and all, but who can resist laughing at Snoopy’s attempts to operate a wheeled fire hose?

Whoa. That’s…dark. I mean, I know in the last movie they put all the kids in a rubber raft and sent them over a waterfall, but DANG.

Anyway, Linus and Violette are rescued, the fire brigade finally shows up, and the Baron is so grateful that he decides to open his house up to strangers again. In the final scene, everyone says goodbye while Patty is still clueless that her host has had no interest in her the whole time Snoopy and company drive off into the distance—but not without one last fender bender with Marcie cussing in French.

The end. (Well, not exactly. 1983 saw the premiere of the TV special What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown, which picks up where the movie leaves off as the kids’ car finally dies and they have to spend the night at Omaha Beach in Normandy. It isn’t really a continuation of the Château plot, it's actually a tribute to the soldiers of WWI and WWII. It won them another Peabody award.)

Sorry, Patty…though to be honest, you had better luck with the funny-looking kid with the big nose.

Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown is not a perfect movie. The animation is about the same standard as the specials which came out around this time, the story is very thin and several plot elements are repeated constantly throughout as if we forgot them five minutes ago. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. In fact, I think that this one has to be my favorite of the four. I think much of it has to do with the fact that it’s a film that is rarely seen on television, and fruitless search after fruitless search at the video store only whetted my appetite even more as a kid, but problems aside, it's a fun picture with plenty of the character humor we come to expect from the franchise. Of all the Peanuts films, I’d have to say that Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown has to be the most ambitious, from the abrupt change of location to its strangely serious storyline to its outright breaking the comic strip’s rules by showing adults on camera.

I would get down on my hands and knees and PRAY that if they ever do make another Peanuts movie, it will not be a CG/live-action project. Two Garfield movies and a Marmaduke flick which died a quick death at the box office should be an indicator that these cartoon and comic strip movies are creative and critical disasters. Heaven forbid they turn Snoopy into a photo-realistic beagle (one that would probably talk rather than use thought balloons, if Garfield movie logic were applied) and cast child actors as Charlie Brown and everybody else.

Hasn't the poor kid suffered enough already?

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