It can’t be emphasized enough that Charles Schulz is a genius.
When you’ve already made arguably the most universally beloved holiday special of all time (A Charlie Brown Christmas, if you had to ask), and the network comes to you and says, “Let’s go for two,” what do you do? Well, if you’re the Peanuts creator, you take a character like Rerun Van Pelt—someone who’s pretty redundant and in a contemporary television show would be considered a “jump the shark” character along the lines of Cousin Oliver in The Brady Bunch—and build an entire Christmas special around him.
And it’s actually pretty good.
I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown, deals with just about exactly what you’d think from the title—after seeing the awesomeness of Snoopy, Rerun decides that he wants a dog for Christmas. How this is Charlie Brown’s problem escapes me a bit, except that I guess he’s the proxy adult since all the parents in these specials can only talk in vague, inaudible babbling. At any rate, I think there was a rule at some point that all the Peanuts specials had to have Chuck’s name in the title. Lucky for all involved, Snoopy has some family coming in for the holidays and the result is a match made in Heaven—even if nobody sees it right away.
There’s actually a lot of special features on Warner Brothers’ new, collector’s edition reissue of I Want a Dog for Christmas, Charlie Brown, and one of them is a documentary on the creation of Rerun (There’s also, as one reader noted below, a never-before-released Charlie Brown New Years’s special). It’s interesting, seeing the character (about whom I had completely forgotten) talked about in semi-reverential tones, as though his introduction was something of a turning point for the strip and the animated specials that aired pretty constantly through the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Certainly when you watch this movie, and especially with the special features, it’s hard to continue thinking of Rerun as a Cousin Oliver, although I maintain that he did little to really add to the cast and his story could just as easily have been told with Linus or Pigpen.
A couple of characters who have gone the other way–breakout characters once, but now just kind of barely tolerable in their own special–are the Heat Miser and the Snow Miser, the leads in A Miser Brothers’ Christmas, a years-later sequel to the classic claymation Christmas special Year Without a Santa Claus. When an enthusiastic young elf tries to soup up Santa’s sleigh, the result leaves him laid up with back pain and unable to perform his duties on Christmas. Enter the Miser Brothers, who have spent their whole lives fighting and now must cooperate so that they can bring Christmas to the good children of the world. Along the way, they learn why it is that Santa had always overlooked them when they were young, and the reason is sufficient not only to make them behave this year, but to put behind them the hatred they have for Santa Claus that was such a major part of their personalities when they first appeared years ago.
Unfortunately, The Miser Brothers are given very little original material; everything they do is either borrowed from the original special, or exactly like a half-dozen other stories you’ve heard over the years. The end result is a story with very little heart or soul, that relies on face recognition and affection for the characters to sell…but these characters are so old, few children in the target age range will ever have seen them before.