Apple TV+ is now the home of all-things-“Peanuts” — so it’s the logical place home for a new documentary about Charles Schulz, who created the iconic comic-strip franchise.
“Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” premieres Friday (June 25) on the streamer and clocks in at under an hour, short by today’s Ken Burns-style standards but long enough to cover all the bases in recounting both Schulz’s life and the “Peanuts” phenomenon — which conquered that print, TV, movies and, now, the digital arena.
Narrated by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” opens with new animated footage of Charlie Brown and his pals in school, tasked by their familiar tromboney-sounding teacher to write an essay on where they came from. That opens the door for writer/director Michael Bonfiglio to recount Schulz’s (and, by extension, Charlie Brown’s) story, starting with Schulz’s childhood as a painfully shy boy in Minnesota nicknamed “Sparky” — after a comic-strip character called “Sparkplug.” It was in the cards.
Sparky, who dreams of starting his own comic strip, isn’t the happiest kid or the best student (“I failed everything it was possible to fail,” he says). He’s eventually drafted into the Army in 1942, sent overseas (he’d never spent a night away) and returns home determined to fulfill his lifelong ambition. After some fits and starts, “Peanuts” launches in 1950 and the rest is history.
Bonfiglio does a nice job recounting that history through the use of archival interviews with Schulz, and new interviews with his wife, Jean — which are interspersed with excerpts of the many “Peanuts” TV specials that began airing in the mid-’60s, in color, as it continued to evolve with the changing times.
(Schulz introduced his first black “Peanuts” character, Franklin, in 1968, after it was suggested by a woman named Harriet Glickman. “I held off on Franklin for a long time because I simply felt I wasn’t capable of doing him properly and I didn’t want to appear patronizing,” he says.)
Also included are interviews with celebrities who share their memories of “Peanuts” including Al Roker, Paul Feig, Drew Barrymore, Kevin Smith and Billie Jean King — a good Schulz friend who partially inspired his creation of spunky, athletic Peppermint Patty in the late ’60s.
We also learn many interesting factoids about Schulz’s life and how he incorporated parts of this into “Peanuts”: Snoopy was based on a dog he had as a teenager (there’s a photo showing Schulz, the dog and his parents); and Snoopy’s “Joe Cool” and “Flying Ace” personas (battling the Red Baron, etc.) were inspired by Schulz’s five children (his son, Craig, is an executive producer). Sally’s habit of calling Linus her “Sweet Babboo” came from a pet name Jean Schulz used for her husband — and there really was a “Little Red-Haired Girl” — her name was Donna and she was Schulz’s big boyhood crush (he was distraught when she married someone else).
Schulz, who never took a vacation or missed a deadline, continued to do all the work on “Peanuts” himself, even after having heart surgery in 1981, when his post-surgical shaky writing and drawing was simply incorporated into the comic strip without missing a beat. He retired in 2000 and died that February at the age of 77, leaving behind a pop-culture legacy that continues to resonate around the world 70 years after its birth.