I am of two minds about Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!), the fourth and final Peanuts feature film from Charles Schulz, Lee Mendelson, and Bill Melendez. It has much bigger aspirations than any of the earlier Peanuts films, sending Charlie Brown and his friends to the French countryside on a trip strongly inspired by Charles Schulz’s personal history during World War II. However, those bigger aspirations are often frustrated by the quirky structure of all the Peanuts movies and many of the TV shows, feeling more like a set of loosely-linked sketches than a single coherent long narrative. This means that Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown feels like it’s stalling for time a bit too often, and never quite manages to find a single consistent tone. While this may sound like criticism (and has been in many of my earlier reviews), I’m increasingly wondering how much I should hold that against the Peanuts animated productions.
The plot of Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown is nominally about Charlie Brown and Linus getting sent to France as exchange students along with Peppermint Patty and Marcie, with Snoopy and Woodstock in tow for amusement (and transportation, since it seems that Snoopy is the only one of the gang who can drive a stick-shift). There’s a mysterious letter of invitation that Charlie Brown receives before they leave from a resident of the Chateau Mal Voisin (the Castle of the Bad Neighbor), and a subplot involving the owner of the chateau, who is notoriously hostile to outsiders. However, most of this subplot is shoved into the back third of the movie and resolves itself in an unusually action-filled sequence for a Peanuts cartoon.
Before then, though, the movie is content to meander around London and France for a surprisingly long time. The kids get confused by British accents. Snoopy plays some tennis at Wimbledon. Charlie Brown has a misadventure with French bread. Peppermint Patty proves to be as bad at schoolwork in France as she is in America, and equally deluded about other people’s feelings. None of this will be much of a surprise to people familiar with the Peanuts comic strips or TV specials, and it’s all done with a good amount of charm and good humor. However, the length of time that Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown seems to forget what it’s supposed to be there for feels more like stalling for time than something like Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. There’s some wonderfully expressive animation in the Snoopy-at-Wimbledon sequence, but the entire scene is just empty calories: animated monkey business for its own sake. The digression is so long that it feels too much like padding, which just makes the rushed climactic sequence at the end a little more frustrating. Spending more time on the mystery and the truth of the chateau just seems like it would have been a better use of the time, no matter how amusing it is to see Snoopy lose his cool on the tennis court.
I drift back and forth over thinking that the loosely-coupled vignette structure of most Peanuts animated productions (at least before the recent Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown) is a strength or a weakness. With few exceptions, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown feels like the timing of four-panel comic strips was moved to the screen without modification. Then again, Charles Schulz wrote out long-form stories in four-panel installments six days a week, plus the longer strip on Sundays. I find it hard to fault him for continuing to think that way in animation, or for his creative partners to go along with that. In some ways, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown may be a perfect adaptation of the Peanuts strip to an animated format, capturing the same meandering tone that was often in the daily strips. Individually, the vignettes are all entertaining enough, so maybe griping that they don’t hold together too well as a cohesive whole is missing the point. This movie also seems highly personal to Schulz, since it retraces his steps as a G.I. during World War II (he was actually bivouacked at the real-life Chateau Mal Voisin), and with the success he had with the strip and Peanuts as a cultural phenomenon, is there much value in criticizing the movie for marching firmly to the beat of its own drummer?
Paramount has done well in remastering this movie for DVD, cleaning up the video to look bright and new without losing too much film grain. Sound is Mono, which was standard for the time and works fine for this movie. If I was disappointed that Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown came with no extras other than a trailer, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown more than compensates with a new 20-minute documentary that interviews many of the filmmakers (some in archival footage), along with the likes of Jeanne Schulz and assorted critics and historians (such as the formidably intelligent Charles Solomon). It ends up covering Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown as much as Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown, and is admirable recompense for the absent special features on the last disc. Unfortunately, home video rights issues mean that this disc can’t include the poignant follow-up TV special What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (which can be found on the recently-released Warner Bros. DVD Peanuts: Emmy Honored Collection). It is worth seeking out, if only to hear Linus’ recital of “In Flanders Fields” — a moment that rivals his recital of Luke 2:8-14 in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I admire the ambition of Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown, including its wonderful re-creation of London and the beautiful French countryside, and I find it highly amusing that a kids’ animated feature ended up teaching me several European insulting gestures. Oddly enough, I find the Peanuts animated adaptations remind me a lot of how Frank Miller’s comic books and graphic novels get adapted for the screen, where a slavish faithfulness to the source material make for superb adaptations but not very good movies. Still, I’m glad to revisit Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown, and my son was amused enough by Snoopy’s antics. That might just be enough.