It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is and always will be a distant second place in my book behind A Charlie Brown Christmas. This is something of an upset, though: I typically prefer the aesthetics and tone of autumnal decay and spooky season over the seasonal depression and icy bite of midwinter.
Drawing comparisons between Great Pumpkin and Charlie Brown Christmas is not simply a matter of comparing two consecutive seasonal Peanuts specials, in part because they are not actually consecutive: Charlie Brown All-Stars, the summer tribute featuring a baseball-focused plot, debuted between the two. But Great Pumpkin serves, thematically, as a mirror image to Charlie Brown Christmas: this story is about the silliness and shortsightedness of blind faith that cuts against secular celebration, whereas the Christmas special exalted that kind of faith. Great Pumpkin is almost a bit of self-rebuke; Linus’s hushed reverence for a supernatural being is deconstructed as, ultimately, a delusion. His fundamentalism causes him to miss the joys around him. (Though I think it’s worth noting that this story goes out of its way to compare the Great Pumpkin to Santa Claus rather than any religious figure; in that way, it actually matches Charlie Brown Christmas, which rejected the thrill of gift-giving and consumerism.)
The greatest strength of It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown is its moody animation, most especially the almost heart-rending outdoor settings. Nothing moves my soul quite like the inky black skies of Halloween night in this special: It looks the way autumn evenings feel, chilly and infinite. The oranges and browns and reds and yellows of falling leaves fill the frame and soothe my sunburnt psyche.
Everything that makes Peanuts special in the first place is there, too: The simple but expressive animation; the sketch-like visual texture and tone; the postmodern joy of kids processing their world with alternating childhood and misunderstood adulthood lenses (there are more jokes about being sued than you probably remember); the voice actors who are real kids and who therefore actually sound like real kids.
The jazz! This Vince Guaraldi score runs neck-and-neck in with the one in the Christmas special in its ability to elevate and contextualize everything around it. It’s moody the same way a fall breeze is; occasionally gentle, every now and then, prickly; though always cozy enough if you’re wearing a sweater and sipping a coffee.
The downside of Great Pumpkin for me is that the Snoopy material really slows the special down to a halt for a few minutes at a time. Unlike any of the threads in the relatively Snoopy-lite Charlie Brown Christmas, it feels like a B-plot for the sake of a B-plot. The animation of the Snoopy segment itself is pretty fun, but if I go more than a minute and a half without hearing Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown trying to make sense of the world, I start to get itchy.
I also keep coming back to the way Great Pumpkin ends with a wink. It fits the mischievous Halloween spirit, but the transcendence of the solemn-then-rapturous conclusion to Charlie Brown Christmas just feels more meaningful and memorable.
Nonetheless, there are few films of any sort that better put me in the mood for a season that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown does in fall. Now that I have kids, it has become required viewing that everyone in the family looks forward to. Perhaps in another half century its charms will grow old. But I doubt it.