You’d have to be a real blockhead to resist just about anything related to Charlie Brown and the whole “Peanuts” gang, and the new Apple TV+ special “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” is a suitably warm and breezy love letter.
Part existential exercise, part traditional documentary, the 54-minute special combines new animated scenes with a brief but solid history of Charles M. Schulz and interviews with generations of fans from Al Roker to Drew Barrymore to Kevin Smith to teenage actors such as Miya Cech and Keith L. Williams.
With Lupita Nyong’o providing sparkling narration, “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” begins with the title character agonizing over a school assignment. He has one week to write a 500-word essay defining himself. (The animated scenes are in the style of the 1960s TV specials, and voice actors such as Tyler Nathan as Charlie Brown and Isabella Leo as Lucy sound very much like the original “Peanuts” gang.)
“I have no idea who I am!” Charlie Brown laments. “How am I going to come up with 500 words? Good grief, I couldn’t be stuck with a worse subject: me.”
“You worry too much, Charlie Brown,” says Linus, ever the voice of reason and calm.
We toggle back and forth between animated scenes of Charlie Brown trying to figure out who he is, with the help of Linus and Sally and Lucy et al., (well, Lucy does her Lucy thing and reminds Charlie Brown of his history of failures), and a straightforward timeline of the life and times of Charles M. Schulz, a shy kid who later drew on his childhood experiences to create the Peanuts comic strip.
There’s archival footage of interviews with Schulz, scenes of him at work and clips from some of the great TV specials that helped catapult “Peanuts” into a global phenomenon.
Schulz’s widow Jean shares memories of her husband, who, by all accounts, was just as nice and caring as you’d hope he would be.
And cartoonists Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”) and Dan Perkins (“This Modern World”) as well as Ira Glass join a parade of superfans expressing their admiration for the stories of Charlie Brown and his endearing group of pals (including, of course, Snoopy).
Though the “Peanuts” children never aged, and we never saw the adult figures in their life, the strip evolved with the times. In 1968, a teacher wrote to Schulz and urged him to create a Black character. Shortly thereafter Schulz introduced Franklin, the first Black kid in the group.
Roker talks about seeing someone who “looked just like” me in the comics: “It was amazing how much Franklin meant to me.”
When an editor in the South objected to a strip showing Franklin in school with the white characters, Schulz didn’t dignify the letter with a response.
Inspired by his friendship with Billie Jean King, Schulz created Peppermint Patty, a free-spirited jock, and her sidekick Marcie. (It’s pretty cool that, even 50 years ago, “Peanuts” always had the girls out on the baseball field with the boys.)
With a running time of less than an hour, “Who Are You, Charlie Brown” only skims the surface of the social and political impact the Peanuts gang had on the culture.
And Charlie Brown’s animated quest to define himself is tied up pretty quickly as well.
Still, this is a lovely tribute that will appeal to longtime fans and those who are just discovering the amazing Peanuts universe.