A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

“Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

So says Linus at the penultimate moment of 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. The film follows a December day in the life of Charles Schulz’s endearing Peanuts characters. Typically, Charlie Brown gets rejected at every turn, a girl haughtily telling him that she didn’t send him a Christmas card, his friend Lucy so dazzled by money that she doesn’t listen to his problems, and finally, a group of kids laughing at his “stupid” Christmas tree. Charlie Brown’s frustration boils over as he yells to anyone who will listen: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about.”

Linus answers his friend’s call in the simplest of ways: He quotes from the original Christmas story—the Bible. Luke 2:8–14, to be exact. Such a narrative move is fraught with complications, leaving the movie in danger of committing one of the cardinal sins of filmmaking: it risks subjecting the audience to a sermon, rather than allowing the film to work in subtler and more lasting fashion. However, due to certain formal choices by the director and animators, this potentially preachy piece of film ends up delivering a powerful moment of inspiration.

Director Bill Melendez uses seven shots in this sequence, covering little more than ninety seconds altogether. After Linus walks away from Charlie Brown (shot 1), we see the widest shot in the entire film, from the back of the auditorium, with Linus alone at the center of the stage (shot 2). There is little if any movement in the shot, its wideness allowing the viewer to perceive only the largest movements. The simplicity of this view corresponds with the simplicity of Linus turning to the Bible to help his friend understand Christmas. No psychologizing or gags to make him feel better—just a simple story that has proved meaningful to millions of people throughout history.

During a long zoom in, the animation cuts forward to a close-up of Linus (shot 3). His expressiveness becomes apparent during this shot. As Linus speaks the words of the angels to the shepherds, “Fear not,” he, not insignificantly, drops his blanket. Caught up in the moment, Linus also keeps his thumbs from his mouth. He is fully alive and engaged here. Melendez pulls the camera back, revealing the blanket lying next to the boy’s feet and giving us a complete view of this unique and lovable child.

The next cut shows Linus from the left, with his friend Charlie Brown, alone in the background (shot 4). This moment reminds us of the narrative purpose behind Linus’ quotation. Linus is helping his frustrated friend grapple with the loneliness that comes from being ill-used, put down, and ostracized. Is there a better example of enduring such treatment than Jesus Himself? And did not Jesus come to put an end to all of the kinds of problems Charlie Brown was experiencing?

Melendez returns to the wide angle as Linus concludes the passage (shot 5). With Charlie Brown, Linus, and all their friends visible on stage, Linus speaks the final words of the passage: “And on earth, peace and goodwill toward men.” In these sentiments we find just what has been lacking in the children’s treatment of Charlie Brown—and in their celebration of Christmas in general. With Charlie at one end of the stage and the rest of the children at the other, the visual element here underscores, or to say it more strongly, sets the tone for the words that Linus speaks.

The final two shots are of Linus on stage—the first of him silently picking up his blanket and leaving the spotlight, the second of him walking up to Charlie Brown (shots 6 and 7). The quiet ending as Linus leaves the spotlight allows for a moment of reflection. The works a bit like a visual breath, giving the audience a moment to take in what they have just seen and heard. Linus returns to his friend and says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” A renewed Charlie heads out with his tree, a fresh spirit of vigor and liveliness within him.

This sequence wouldn’t be nearly as special as it is without the attention to detail given by Melendez and company. I for one am glad they did, as this unassuming film stands as one more reminder to me of what Christmas is all about.

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