A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is one piece of the holiday trifecta: A Charlie Brown Christmas; It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown; and this. It is very clearly the weakest of these three most famous Peanuts specials, but being the least of three greats is still an accomplishment.
Like all of the noteworthy Bill Melendez and Charles Schulz animated specials, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving tells a story from a child’s perspective and imbues it with very adult themes. In this case, it’s the discomfort of uniting with friends and family on special occasions, but the ultimate value of that connection. Charlie Brown is coerced into inviting a slew of party-goers — specifically Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcy, and Franklin — to a Thanksgiving dinner that he’s not all that enthused about hosting.
There’s also plenty of Snoopy shenanigans, this time with Woodstock in tow, unlike the Christmas or Halloween specials. The special alternates between the cartoon misadventures of Snoopy preparing a ludicrously bland Thanksgiving meal (toast and pretzels) with Charlie Brown facing his interpersonal struggle of trying to make the dinner he’s hosting a success.
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is often lumped with the Christmas and Halloween specials, but it really comes from a different period of the franchise: It came out eight years after the Christmas special and seven years after Great Pumpkin. There are some notable implications of this. First, we have the expanded cast — Peppermint Patty, Marcy, and Martin did not appear in the first two holiday specials, but were introduced during intermediate, non-holiday Peanuts specials. (Side note — it’s jarring and unmistakable that the tom-boyish Patty is very clearly voiced by a man.)
Second, a sense of following a well-trod formula has clearly sunk in here in a way that just wasn’t there for Christmas and Great Pumpkin, the first and third Peanuts specials. The tone is just not as adventurous and wistful as the best Peanuts moments, and there’s a lethargy to the pace. Vince Guaraldi’s work is not nearly as bracing his compositions in the Christmas special or Great Pumpkin, with more repetition than either of those scores and no all-timer pieces like “Great Pumpkin Waltz” or “Christmastime is Here.” Similarly, the voice actors have aged up or been recast, so that special magic of hearing young kids utter Schulz’ marvelous words is lost.
On the plus side, I really enjoy Snoopy’s sketches here. They integrate with the story much better than in Great Pumpkin, which has always been my biggest complaint of that outing. Here they are paced well, funny, and well-animated, if nowhere near as experimental and form-pushing as the Red Baron segments. I also like plenty of the gags on the fringes. In particular, this is the best ever execution of the football gag: Lucy gives tremendous build-up, and Charlie Brown’s stumble is hilariously exaggerated.
It’s always nice to watch a thematic Peanuts special to ring in a holiday, even one that’s not in the top tier. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is good, not quite great, but definitely a delight.