Monday, December 18, 2006

Bill Melendez and the Peanuts Animations

Bill (J. C.) Melendez, who first worked at Walt Disney Studios during the classic animated 40s era, then moved to Leon Schlesinger Cartoons (AKA Warner Brothers Cartoons) in 1942 at the time of the Disney strike, where he made a number of notable Looney Tunes cartoons. But his biggest success was his collaboration with comic-strip cartoonist Charles M. Schultz, and the making of the first animated Peanuts special on CBS-TV, the irreplaceable Christmas special A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). Ultimately, he would be involved as director of about forty Charlie Brown TV specials after 1965, and the producer of a 1983 Saturday morning cartoon show called The Charlie Brown and Snoopy Show. He also 'acted' by providing the voices of Snoopy and Woodstock. [Jazz musician Vince Guaraldi scored the 1965 special and continued to score all the Charlie Brown television specials till his death in 1976. His distinctive scores were used on all subsequent specials, movies and TV series.]
Melendez' feature-length film collaborations with Schultz included:
  • A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) - this was the first full-length animated film starring the Peanuts gang; it contained Vince Guaraldi's classic Oscar-nominated score (that featured lyrics by Rod McKuen)
  • Snoopy, Come Home (1972) - often considered the best feature-length Peanuts film, featured the first appearance of Woodstock (named after the famous rock-music festival in 1969)
  • Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977)
  • Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!) (1980) - its sequel was a 23-minute TV special tribute to US veteran soldiers of WWII titled What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (1983), a Peabody Award winner

A stage version of the Peanuts comic strip, You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, first appeared in 1967 in an off-Broadway Greenwich Village theatre, and remained for four years. The show was later revived on Broadway in 1999 for a short run, and won two Tony Awards. Melendez also directed the Emmy Award-winner for Outstanding Animated Program for PBS-TV's special The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe (1979) which was co-produced by the Children's Television Workshop (famed for two TV series, Sesame Street and The Electric Company). It was based upon the first story of C.S. Lewis' classic children's tales series, Chronicles of Narnia, and it was the first full-length animated movie made for television.

Advanced Animation Techniques in the 50s and 60s

In 1949, inspired by the work of Willis O'Brien in King Kong (1933), Ray Harryhausen animated the stop-motion gorilla in Mighty Joe Young (1949), although the work was mostly credited to O'Brien. This was Harryhausen's first feature film for which he created stop-motion animation. Ray Harryhausen's films, such as his best known work Jason and the Argonauts (1963) with its skeletal warriors set-piece, perfected stop-motion animation. By the time the 61 year-old Harryhausen had finished Clash of the Titans (1981), he had worked on more than a dozen sci-fi and fantasy films with stop-motion animation. George Pal, the father of screen science fiction fantasy films, artistically combined live acting cinematography, animation, puppets (e.g., Puppetoons produced for Paramount in the 30s), and other visual effects in films such as Tom Thumb (1958), the Cinerama-configured The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), and 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1963).

Animator-geniuses of recent years have used pixillation, the frame by frame animation of live subjects or objects and human beings by filming them incrementally in various fixed poses. Mary Poppins (1964) was a more recent, semi-animated kids musical with both live-action and animated characters.

The best-known work of the Halas & Batchelor animation studios was the adult-themed Animal Farm (1954), the first animated color feature film made in England. The allegorical tale, based on George Orwell's 1945 satirical political novel, told of animals at Manor Farm who were led by pigs Napoleon and Snowball to rebelliously overthrow oppressive Farmer Jones, take over the farm, and form a free, egalitarian socialist utopia. The new society was to be based upon seven principles: 1. Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy. 2. Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend. 3. No animal shall wear clothes. 4. No animal shall sleep in a bed. 5. No animal shall drink alcohol. 6. No animal shall kill any other animal. 7. All animals are equal. However, the animals would learn that some animals were more equal than others. [After the success of the 'talking-animal' hit Babe (1995), the film was later remade as the live-action TNT-TV production, Animal Farm (1999). It featured creations of Jim Henson's Creature Shop (where director John Stephenson was a veteran supervisor), animatronics and computer animation.]

A classic family animation with similar animal characters, although a-political, was Charlotte's Web (1973), adapted from E.B. White's beloved tale about an intelligent spider (Charlotte, voiced by Debbie Reynolds), a rat (Templeton, voiced by Paul Lynde), and a bashful, ill-fated barnyard pig (Wilbur, voiced by Henry Gibson). It was noted for Charlotte's sacrificial saving of Wilbur with web-spinning creations ("Some Pig"), Wilbur's caring for Charlotte's egg sac and spiderlings upon her death, and memorable songs including "Mother Earth and Father Time."

The magical puppetry of Jim Henson's Muppet characters have also charmed audiences, first with The Muppet Movie (1979), then followed by more adventures with Kermit, Miss Piggy, and other delightful characters.