Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977, Phil Roman and Bill Melendez)

There’s only one adult referenced in Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown. When the bus leaves Charlie Brown (voiced by Duncan Watson) stranded, they’ve established the driver’s silhouette. Not having any adults makes a lot of sense since, somehow, the Peanuts parents all decided to send their kids to a camp on the other side of a distant desert with no adult supervision. The camp’s name? Camp Remote.

The desert bit gives Sally (Gail Davis) a scene to threaten some local kid, which doesn’t go as expected, but since the movie’s setting it up for Sally to back down… it’s a bit of a surprise. I think the local kid is from the comic strip somewhere. She and her little brother (the anti-Browns, in a way) seem familiar, and they’re only in the one gag.

Sally prominently figures in the first act of Race for Your Life, right up until Peppermint Patty (Stuart Brotman) starts talking about running things as a democracy. The boys and girls have been split into their different tents, with Patty running for tent leader. She confuses the other girls with her version of fair voting (by secret ballot), which becomes a recurring gag, and from then on, Sally’s just got the occasional lovelorn wail for Linus.

Both the boys and girls have a similar problem in the first act—the camp bullies. There are three of them with their mean cat, and none of them have names. Two of them have the letter “R” on their shirt; it never means anything. What’s so peculiar about them is Race never tries to humanize them, never tries to redeem or even provide context for them. They’re just assholes.

Okay, now, I’m reading something into the “R.”

Anyway.

The second act of Race is all about the best tent competition. The kids do various activities, with the bullies winning by cheating. Since there are no adults and presumably the teen counselors supervising the events are paying attention to the other two dozen campers we rarely see (at least two Peanuts supporting cast members, Violet and Frieda, end up amongst them). The most important race is the raft race.

It’s more a wilderness survival race, with rafting involved. The kids have to camp at night, feed themselves, and get back on the river. It seems to be a three-day event. If it weren’t a cartoon with a dog and his best friend, a bird, riding around America on an Easy Rider chopper… it’d seem dangerous.

Though there is danger. For a fairly long section of act two, Snoopy thinks Woodstock’s dead, the kids think Snoopy’s dead, and everyone’s lost in the woods trying to find one another. So it goes on for a while, with Snoopy mourning his presumably lost friend. Oh, and then the evil cat hunting Woodstock as he tries to survive on his own.

It’s impressive how Charles M. Schulz’s script—the pacing and plotting—and then Melendez and Roman’s direction make it so intense. There’s objectively no danger to the characters, but the movie makes believe so strongly, the emotions come through. It’s a fascinating use of narrative empathy and sympathy.

The raft race takes up most of the movie. The bullies have a speedboat with a wonky motor, so the Peanuts kids can get ahead often enough for tension. Snoopy and Woodstock add a sail to their inner tube, which leads to some pastoral scenes and disasters, though maybe if Snoopy didn’t sleep while at the wheel….

The boys and girls each have a raft, with Charlie Brown’s arc for the movie involving him becoming more of a leader. Peppermint Patty’s would possibly be listening to others while leading. No one else gets a character arc. Linus (Liam Martin) gets to defend the kids from the bullies thanks to his blanket snapping, and there are some other recurring personality gags, but not arcs. The movie’s too busy and the race too severe to slow down for them.

The original songs are strange but not bad; imagine a disco Cat Stevens, and then also more pop-folk. Ed Bogas’s score is good. The animation’s beautiful, with excellent editing from Roger Donley and Chuck McCann. Race has a somewhat peculiar vibe; while there’s a lot of action, including harrowing POV shots, there’s also the tranquil nature stuff, especially for Snoopy and Woodstock. It’s a fine mix. The end credits are a hallucinogenic Charlie Brown sequence, which provides the final synthesis. It’s weird and a perfect finish for the film.

Acting-wise… Watson’s okay. He’s got some weaker moments, but the movie never leans on him too long or adjusts for it after doing so. Brotman’s good, Davis is good, Martin’s good. I was expecting a lot more from Lucy (Melanie Kohn), but she gets less than Marcie (Jimmy Ahrens), who doesn’t get much.

The filmmakers know how to get the best out of the performances. Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown’s good.

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