It is 50 years to the day that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown debuted on CBS, hitting television screen on October 27, 1966. In the five decades since its debut, Great Pumpkin has remained one of the iconic Charlie Brown stories, and as the third Peanuts animated special ever made, it has remained highly influential on the public perception of Charles Schulz’s comic strip, second only to the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. And with good reason, this is perfect Peanuts storytelling that encapsulates everything special about this one-of-a-kind series.
Like all the great Peanuts specials, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is simple in its narrative style, restrained in its comedic tone, and primarily concerned with the inner lives of its beautiful characters. Set in the days leading up to Halloween and Halloween night itself, the special focuses equally on Linus Van Pelt and Charlie Brown, who each have their struggles surrounding the holiday. For Linus, it’s his often mocked belief in The Great Pumpkin, who he believes visits good boys and girls every Halloween in pumpkin patches to reward their faith. For Charlie, it’s his self-esteem and anxieties surrounding being finally invited to a party on Halloween night. It’s all informed by the classic Peanuts approach of having a sweet message supplied by child voice actors, which can never be completely successfully replicated outside of the franchise.
While Great Pumpkin may not pack the emotional resonance of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’s informed by a subversive commentary on faith. It’s interesting to see how Linus, the stalwart symbol of wisdom and knowledge in Peanuts, is troubled by something as silly as The Great Pumpkin, which can only be assumed is an orange and round version of the Easter Bunny. While Linus is often the most stable member of the Peanuts gang, his belief in The Great Pumpkin is shown as folly here. But while the other kids mock him, the story itself is never mocking. In fact, Linus’ resolute faith in the Great Pumpkin feels equally admirable and silly.
Being the only kid who believes in the Great Pumpkin, Linus must defend his beliefs every year around Halloween, leading to some reflection on the troubles caused by arguing over faith. After disagreeing with Linus over the validity of Santa Claus over The Great Pumpkin, Charlie states that “We’re obviously separated by denominational differences.” But outside of the interaction, Charlie is quite supportive of Linus, often listening to his Pumpkin-related plight. But Lucy and the rest have a far harsher view of the matter, leading Linus to remark, “There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.” It’s one of the great Peanuts lines and it encapsulates the core of the story here.
But it’s only when Sally joins Linus in the pumpkin patch to wait for The Great Pumpkin at night that he makes a true misstep. Sally’s only there to spend time with her Sweet Babboo, but her patience soon wears thin and turns into anger when she realizes that she threw her Halloween night away for the sake of Linus’ clearly misguided beliefs. The sight of Snoopy in the pumpkin patch leads to Linus fainting at the sight of what he believes to be the Great Pumpkin, Sally yelling at him in front of everyone, and him spending the rest of the night shivering in the cold.
While Charlie’s story may be quite simple, a classic tale of Charlie’s bad luck getting the best of him throughout the night, it’s full of hallmark moments for the character. Having Charlie adorned in a hole-riddled ghost costume is endearing and it’s not surprising that the downtrodden character receives a rock at every house he stops at for trick-or-treating. Charlie is so down on his luck that people don’t even have to know that it is him to treat him poorly.
And while there’s no great moment of redemption here like what is found in A Charlie Brown Christmas or 2015’s The Peanuts Movie, there’s a current of sympathy here that is the hallmark of Peanuts. We’re Charlie Brown. His losses are our losses. His victories are our victories. The identification with the character means that the hard losses can be funny and the successes can be inspiring. According to retrospectives, Charlie’s bad trick-or-treat luck, punctuated by the repeated refrain of “I got a rock,” inspired so much sympathy that viewers nationwide sent in boxes of candy to the studio for Charlie Brown. The fact that a down on his luck animated kid can elicit gifts from countless viewers proves that Good Ol’ Charlie Brown is one of the defining characters of modern entertainment. One who reflects back our own everyday losses and successes in ways that few other characters can.
And of course, there’s Snoopy imagining himself to be The World War I flying ace, locked in a deadly aerial battle with The Red Baron and eventually sneaking his way back to safety after being shot down behind enemy lines. The largely wordless imaginary scenario, wherein Snoopy pretends that his dog house is a plane, is the result of charming creativity. Never showing the world around him, but instead using tilting cameras and shifting colors to illustrate the tumultuous battle, director Bill Melendez’s interpretation of the battle makes it clear that it is pure imagination, but still lots of fun.
No discussion of a Peanuts special can be complete without focusing on the jazz soundtrack by the great Vince Guaraldi. And what a gorgeous score it is, with “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” being the low key, moody, whispering centerpiece of the entire special. Its moody flute gives an appropriate sense of haunting, Halloween spookiness, with the theme most often playing over scenes of nighttime trick-or-treating to accentuate the holiday spirit without ever feeling threatening or actually scary. There’s less bravado in the jazz score here (although the iconic “Linus and Lucy” returns to kick off the special, but the fingerprints of Guaraldi can be seen everywhere. Guaraldi’s music blends perfectly with the subdued and slow pacing of the story and the often quiet delivery of the child voice actors featured throughout. Guaraldi’s music establishes the tone and fills each scene with unmistakable warmth. It’s impossible to separate Peanuts from the late jazz musician’s gorgeous work.
Speaking of gorgeous, the art here is sublime. Specifically, the numerous nighttime scenes are wonderful to watch, with the moody watercolor nighttime sky swirling with blacks, greys, and purples, which are dotted with stars and lamps. The night is moody without being dark, reflecting a perfect vision of childhood happiness steeped in Americana. These are idealized, happy childhood Halloween escapades, where the neighborhoods are inviting and two kids hanging out in a pumpkin patch all night doesn’t seem like a big deal at all.
And the Schultz-authentic, sketchy nature of the animation stays lovably simple from start to finish without dipping in quality. It may not be wow-inducing, but the way that every character’s emotions and reaction play out helps create an authentic, human approach to Peanuts. That simplicity has helped keep the special timeless; with Great Pumpkin having a big enough budget to avoid the shortcomings of contemporary Hanna-Barbera cartoons while still needing to have a small, intimate focus, just like the comic strips.
While the tone of Peanuts may be the hallmark of a bygone era, its lovely relatability has helped to keep It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and many other cartoon Peanuts specials loved by countless fans decades later for more than just nostalgic reasons.
As Great Pumpkin comes to a close, the often judgmental Lucy comes to the rescue of her brother Linus, bringing him in from the cold of the pumpkin patch and putting him to bed. It’s a sweet, small moment of love that says a great deal about the humanist focus of Peanuts as a whole. Of course, Linus’ faith remains unshakeable the next day, reacting to Charlie’s remarks about waiting in the pumpkin patch as being “stupid” with a vehement proclamation that the Great Pumpkin will come next year and reward his faith. And so the cycle continues, keeping It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown an irreplaceable Halloween classic for 50 years and beyond.