This week’s column was inspired by avid Film Threat reader Chris Sobienak of Toledo, Ohio. Shout out to you, Chris! And yes, folks, we do read our fan mail!
Chris brought to my attention a three-minute student film made in 1985 called “Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown.” This film displays the most amazing disregard for taste, beloved cartoon characters and copyright laws ever captured on film. It is also the funniest animated short I’ve ever seen.
“Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown” opens with Vince Guaraldi’s bouncy jazz composition “Linus and Lucy,” which is a staple of the old “Peanuts” television specials. Except this time around the Peanuts gang are not awaiting another holiday or baseball game or road trip. Instead, we find Linus, Lucy, Schroeder and Snoopy cowering at the throne of the Great Pumpkin, who is shown as an anthropomorphic being with a pumpkin head and a fondness for cigars. The Great Pumpkin places a bounty on Charlie Brown’s head and the kids are on free-for-all to see who can bump off the blockhead first.
One of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Peanuts orbit is the inherent cruelty directed at Charlie Brown. Let’s face it, the idea of a young boy constantly being harassed and insulted for his alleged stupidity, lack of personality, lack of athletic ability and overall clumsiness is not the most appropriate subject for humor. Had Charlie Brown been a real boy, he would probably have been in psychiatric care. Yet in the cartoon world, Charlie Brown has become a lovable loser who never triumphs over his snotty playmates and audiences can’t get enough of the abuse that is dumped on his poor round head.
In this cartoon, the casual mean-spiritedness of the Charles M. Schulz cartoons is taken to excessive extremes as Charlie Brown is the object of a potentially fatal contest. Lucy inserts a stick of dynamite into the football she holds for Charlie Brown and finally allows him to kick it, creating a huge explosion. Schroeder catches Charlie Brown’s attention by playing air piano. When Charlie Brown asks where Schroeder’s piano is, a full-sized piano drops from the sky onto his head. Linus engages Charlie Brown in a peculiar conversation (“So, what’s the prevailing attitude, Charlie Brown?”) and then promptly uses his blanket to strangle the unsuspecting boy. Snoopy takes a direct approach and mauls Charlie Brown, biting off an arm. Even the kite-eating tree gets into the act, dropping on Charlie Brown with a crushing thud.
Alas, these efforts fail to kill Charlie Brown and the beleaguered boy dons a toupee and raincoat to run out of town in disguise. But when he is spotted and the Peanuts crew goes in for the kill, the proverbial tables are turned. Charlie Brown suddenly sports a Travis Bickle-worthy mohawk, a Schwarzenegger accent and more gunpower than the U.S. military occupying Iraq. “See you in Hell!” drawls Charlie Brown as he opens fire on the Peanuts crew. Bullets fly everywhere as heads are either cracked open in the gunfire or are neatly severed from necks in a single burst. Lucy, Schroeder, Snoopy, Linus, Shermy, Violet and Sally are gunned down (though Peppermint Patty, Marcy, Franklin, Pigpen and Woodstock are absent from the carnage).
Suddenly, chaos erupts in Toontown as Charlie Brown’s fury inspires other animated figures to excess rage. Mickey Mouse has his head bashed in with a club. Popeye lands homicidal punches. Blondie kicks Dagwood in the balls, causing his skull to explode and a rush of blood to pour out of his neck. Even the Hanna-Barbera version of Godzilla makes an appearance. When the violence is over, Charlie Brown finally gets a long-elusive treasure with his beloved Red-Haired Girl – who turns out to be a cranky cuddlemate in bed!
For a film with such a brief running time, “Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown” packs a lot of energy and fury. The artwork brilliantly captures the limited animation look of the early Peanuts TV specials (it is a black-and-white cartoon), but the voices are inappropriately mature for the characters (and Lucy has a man’s voice!). For my initial viewing, I had to replay the cartoon several times because I kept laughing too hard at the visceral humor and lost several jokes and sight gags while convulsed in the film’s nasty spirit.
Who could be responsible for such madness? A young Jim Reardon, who was a student at Cal-Arts when he made this film. Reardon capped the cartoon with a claim that he did not intend to slander or demean the Peanuts strip, although the sincerity of this is immediately put into doubt when he refers to the Charlie Brown creator as “Charles M. ‘Dutch’ Schulz” and claims that Schulz should not sue him since he is a poor student while the famous cartoonist “has half of the money in the world.” This takes place while a recording of The Coasters singing “Charlie Brown” warbles over the closing credits.
It is not certain if the notoriously litigious Schulz ever found out about this cartoon; perhaps the threat of a lawsuit from the Schulz estate has kept the major collector-to-collector video groups from openly offering it. “Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown” could obviously never be presented in proper commercial release, but bootleg video circulation quietly kept the film alive. Supposedly it is a popular item among comic book convention audiences and fans of subversive underground animation. The quality of the video I saw was far from prime (it seemed to be have been at least a fourth generation dub), but the savage humor more than came through.
Reardon had no need to worry about losing a career to a Schulz lawsuit – he graduated from Cal-Arts and later helmed episodes of “The Simpsons” and the Disney feature “The Emperor’s New Groove.” It is highly unlikely that Reardon will ever be able to bring his astonishing student film into the mainstream, but perhaps it is best that “Bring Me the Head of Charlie Brown” stays in The Bootleg Files. For those who find it, the experience is far more exhilarating than any mainstream cartoon I can think of – this one is a real treat!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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