The low visibility of "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown," which crept into a few suburban outposts over the weekend, is immediately explained by the quality of the footage.
The complete title of this maddeningly inert animated feature -- the fourth incorporating characters from the "Peanuts" comic strip -- is "Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don't Come Back!)." That parenthetical element really asks for trouble. A boomerang put down, attributed to Lucy, it ends up expressing one's sentiments about the movie.
Why do producer Lee Mendelson, director Bill Melendez and, most of all, writer Charles Schulz insist on slogging away at feature projects which look unfit for theatrical presentation? The material in Both "Race for Your life, Charlie Brown!," released in 1977, and now "Bon Voyage" might be sufficient to kill a half-hour on television. It won't sustain even short features, particularly in the minimal form of animation practiced at the Melendez shop.
Melendez began animating excerpts from "Peanuts" in the early '60s. The style has remained flat and skimpy over the course of 18 TV specials and four features. The flatness and skimpiness harmonize with Schulz's own illustrative style, of course, and they also harmonize with the generally impoversished style of animated filmmaking for television. Unfortunately, the large screen cries out for something richer; both size and the Disney tradition demand full animation. Melendez made fleeting attempts at an enriched style in the first two features, "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" and "Snoopy, Come Home," but he no longer bothers.
The "Peanuts" movies appear to be suffering from diminished budgets and diminishing professional pride. The great mystery of "Bon Voyage" is why the end credits feature sketches of the production staff favoring us with inance smiles. What has this beamish company got to be so happy about? Do they really believe that a stiff like "Bon Voyage" is destined to add to the sum of juvenille happiness or the animator's art?
"Bon Voyage" makes the "Peanuts" gang look stale by imposing a change of scene. Chaperoned by Snoopy and Woodstock, four of the kids -- Charlie, Linus, Peppermint Patty and Marcie -- fly to France for an abbreviated tour as foreign exchange students. The trip seems remarkable for its absence of incident and humor, but perhaps this apparent liability was Schulz's idean ov zee leetle joke? Non? Helas!
During a stopover in London, Snoopy plays three points with a phantom opponent at Wimbeldon. That about does London. In France his driving causes two identically staged rear-end pile-ups, and he weeps over World War II songs while swilling root beer at a country tavern. (Schulz, a GI stationed in France in 1944, took a sentimental journey to the old battlegrounds a few years ago.)
Patty and Marcie stay with a farm lad named Pierre, who speaks his native language like a juvenile Inspector Clouseau. Patty keeps insisting she and Pierre are an item, although he keeps holding hands with Marcie. Charlie and Linus camp out at a blandly spooky chateau. There's a passing glance at life in the classroom, a gratuitous climatic fire, a fond farewell to New French Friends and not the faintest trace of imaginative vitality or comic inspiration.
The European setting is fortunate in one respect. Without the occasional background drawing of a Victoria Station or White Cliffs of Dover, simplified and banal as they are, the movie might have nothing to divert the eye. The sense of movement is even more inhibited than the scenic background. eIt's astonishing when an animated vehicle actually keeps moving across the screen for a sustained period, like five or six seconds.
It might be more appropriate to describe Melendez's work as inanimation. In the same spirit, this movie would be better represented by a title like "Rest in Peace, Charlie Brown."