When I hear the opening music notes of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, I know the holiday season is here.
While a long list of television specials starring Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters have been produced over the years, none have become as perennial as the Halloween-Thanksgiving-Christmas trifecta. As such, I generally associate Charlie Brown and the gang with the latter part of the calendar. This means each year when it’s time to view Great Pumpkin and its opening scene heralds in the classic “Linus and Lucy” melody, I do a little happy dance in my head because, at long last, the most wonderful time of the year has arrived.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is the standard against all other Halloween programs are held to, certainly being one of the oldest and arguably the most beloved of any of them. It’s curious, though, that most of the synonyms that we usually associate with a film when we call it “standard” would not apply to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. “Standard” implies “classic,” and “classic” implies a higher level of filmmaking. Great Pumpkin is surely tethered by wonderful personalities in the Peanuts characters, but then again, the large majority of Peanuts projects the general public has never seen because they weren’t sticky to pop culture, unlike Great Pumpkin which has now held up for 50 years. So if strong characters aren’t the driving factor, then what is? The story is ok, but nothing to write home about. The animation doesn’t reach any new cinematic heights, and if anything is actually stiff and sometimes jerky. No, I think the true merit of Great Pumpkin is found in how truly simple it wraps all of those qualities—characters, story, and animation—into a stripped back viewpoint of a typical American child’s Halloween night. It is with this scorecard that Great Pumpkin succeeds with flying colors and has endured to be the definition of a holiday for so many people. I mean, for crying out loud, in our countdown of Halloween films, this is the one being published on Halloween Day. It’s come to embody Halloween itself.
While Charlie Brown may carry the title’s namesake, Linus is the true protagonist here, and the source of the heart of the story. It’s in his pure belief of the Great Pumpkin’s existence that drives the narrative forward. Again, it’s not a very complex narrative, and there are only a few, very simple beats to it, but Linus is the thread around which the other characters function. Their situations exemplify a diverse palette of Halloween possibilities, any combination of which might have been the essence of the viewer’s childhood Halloween memories. Everyone in the audience can pinpoint which element was part of their own experience, whether trick-or-treating or throwing a spooky party or playing imaginative pretend in a costume like Snoopy does as the World War I Flying Ace. All of these activities centralize around Linus’s wait for the Great Pumpkin, and while perhaps none of us have stayed up all night sitting in a pumpkin patch, the wonderment of Linus’s belief is the bottom line of the suspense of disbelief all the other characters have in their own respective Halloween activities, and that we had in ours as children. Linus’s just seems a little more, shall we say, out there.
Great Pumpkin first aired on CBS on October 27, 1966. It was the third Peanuts special, following December 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas and June 1966’s Charlie Brown’s All-Stars. It would be seven years later in 1973 that A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving would complete Charlie Brown’s fall holiday roster, though a string of other, lesser-aired specials debuted within that time gap.
As with other Peanuts outings, for whatever reason Great Pumpkin showcases Charlie Brown’s classmates straight-up crucifying him with their words. As Charlie Brown celebrates for being invited to the Halloween party, a girl remarks (to his face!), “Charlie Brown, if you got an invitation, it was a mistake,” with not a hint of irony or humor in her voice whatsoever. It’s not quite as bad as on Christmas, when the children literally declare to him, “Boy, are you stupid, Charlie Brown,” but it’s no wonder the child has self-esteem issues.
Halloween just isn’t complete without It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and that’s quite a bold statement that can’t be said for many other productions or holidays. Who knows if Charles Schulz and his team knew in 1966 they were creating something that would be cherished by generations after them. The spirit of what they captured, though, in its simplest form, is a needed breath of fresh air in a busy, cluttered, fast-pace twenty-first century. It’s that simplicity that makes so many so glad to see the program rise out of the pumpkin patch year after year.
If you’re a Charlie Brown fan, make sure to check out The Rotoscopers’ Animation Addicts Episode 53, where we dived into the Peanuts holiday specials, including Great Pumpkin.