Who Are You, Charlie Brown?
(USA, 54 min.)
Dir. Michael Bonfiglio
Is any comic strip character as beloved by so many generations as Charlie Brown is? Perhaps bested only by his puppy pal Snoopy, Charlie Brown continues to endear himself to readers over 20 years after Peanuts retired. Who Are You, Charlie Brown? celebrates the success and longevity of this popular cartoon created by the late Charles M. Schulz. The doc poses the titular question to Schulz’s famed character and Charlie Brown spends the next hour pondering the nature of his existence and asks his fellow Peanuts friends just who exactly they think he is. In true Charlie Brown fashion, the doc is a modest and humble portrait that one can’t help but love.
As Charlie Brown shares his identity crisis with Peanuts regulars like Linus, Lucy, Peppermint Patty, Snoopy and company in animated sequences, the doc illustrates all the facets that make both the character and the comic strip so timeless and cherished. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) narrates Schulz’s biography in voiceover and contextualises the animated sequences that brighten the screen. She tells about Schulz’s childhood when his family and friends dubbed him “Sparky” and recounts the days when Sparky would visit his father’s barbershop. The experience left dejected a boy who already had a diminished sense of self-worth, as Brown’s father would make him vacate his seat mid-haircut if a preferred patron entered the shop.
One sees Schulz in Charlie Brown immediately and the doc adds a sweeter side to a character who was already too imperfect to resist. As the doc flips through the Peanuts archive, it shows how Schulz created his alter ego to express his sense of alienation, but also to let other kids know that they weren’t alone. Being a Charlie Brown has its perks, as the doc conveys how Schulz’s humour relates to readers of many generations by observing nuances of everyday life, like our insecurities, shortcomings, and imperfections. Images from the archive and the contemporary animation salute Charlie Brown for being the accident-prone klutz that he is.
Who Are You, Charlie Brown? further demonstrates the longevity of Schulz’s creation with a chorus of interviews. Celebrities young and old including Drew Barrymore, Al Roker, Kevin Smith, Billie Jean King, Paul Feig, and young actors Noah Schnapp, Miya Cech, and Keith L. Williams reflect on their favourite Peanuts moments and note aspects of the cartoon that connected with them. Roker, for example, gives Schulz credit for introducing Charlie Brown’s friend Franklin in 1968, which was groundbreaking for adding a Black character to a popular cartoon in the height of the civil rights movement. Roker stresses the value of seeing himself reflected in Peanuts, and Franklin’s creation is arguably one example of Schulz’s ability to keep Peanuts in tune with the times and put his platform to good use. Similarly, the doc cites King as inspiration for Peppermint Patty and credits Schulz’s feminism, for Peanuts consistently made the girls as strong as the boys, if not stronger, as noted by Lucy’s ability to one-up Charlie Brown at each turn. The doc also features touching perspectives from Schulz’s widow Jean and several of his colleagues who illuminate personal aspects of his life and work.
Although Who Are You, Charlie Brown? could have covered more terrain or extended the celebrations beyond the frames of Peanuts, the doc doesn’t overstay its welcome. As a conversation about a beloved comic strip, iconic Christmas special, and unparalleled misfit, Who Are You, Charlie Brown? affectionately answers its own question. Charlie Brown is part of all our childhoods and a friend who will endure for generations.
Who Are You, Charlie Brown? debuts on AppleTV+ on June 25.