Who Are You, Charlie Brown? pulls the football on Peanuts doc [Apple TV+ review]


Who Are You, Charlie Brown?
An early drawing shows Charlie Brown on the mound.
Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+ has another hagiographic documentary for you, and this one proves just as insubstantial as its last aimless doc. It’s called Who Are You, Charlie Brown?, and it premieres today on Apple’s streaming service.

Unfortunately, if you were hoping for a deep dive into the craft and artistic impulses behind Charles M. Schulz and his world-renowned Peanuts characters, maybe read a book instead.

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? review

Before Charlie Brown and the whole Peanuts gang became internationally recognized icons, there was just Charles Monroe “Sparky” Schulz, a kid with bad grades who had a crush on the red-headed girl who lived down the street.

Sparky started drawing after his experience in World War II took him away from his ailing mother as she perished. He wanted to relive some of the memories he wasn’t fully “present” for to unpack the things that happened to him during his childhood. Schulz also wanted to maybe encourage kids everywhere to feel better about their own average childhood experiences. And he wanted to help them see everything around them as being potentially noteworthy  — and to not worry so much.

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? doesn’t really get into much of that. It mixes a little biography, a little analysis from people who’ve studied Schulz, and a lot of testimony from the extremely specious likes of Kevin Smith, Paul Feig and Drew Barrymore.

These are Peanuts experts?

Now, I love Barrymore. But what exactly did director (who directed some Oprah’s Master Class episodes and shot some of the David Letterman Netflix show, and who seems in general to have the cushiest job in Hollywood) think Barrymore had to offer in discussing the legacy of the Peanuts gang that … oh … I don’t know, literally anyone couldn’t have also provided?

Was Cameron Diaz busy? How about Selma Blair? Literally, what difference does it make if the only expertise needed is, “I watched a Charlie Brown cartoon special”? The doc includes interviews with child actors, which I guess is meant to highlight that the cartoons work even for this next generation of kids. But mostly it feels like the director just grabbed whomever his agent had in their Rolodex.

Al Roker’s presence, on the other hand, makes sense. He was a young Black man at the time Schulz introduced Franklin into his Peanuts strip. Schulz faced threats that newspapers would refuse to carry his strip if he showed the Black child at a school desk next to Charlie Brown.

Uncowed, the Peanuts creator did just that — and no one dropped his strip. Schulz added Franklin after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and it was a quietly revolutionary moment. If you think that’s interesting — me too. But that’s as deep as this documentary goes in discussing the actual political ramifications of anything in a given Peanuts cartoon.

I got a rock

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? review:
Apple TV+ and a host of famous guests ask, “Who are you, Charlie Brown?” Kinda.
Photo: Apple TV+

I was having Dads flashbacks all through this 54-minute puff piece. What exactly is the director of Who Are You, Charlie Brown? trying to say here that isn’t already announced by the mere existence of this documentary?

Peanuts was a big deal. It made waves, and it changed things … kinda. Yes, that’s why you make a documentary. Having famous talking heads say, “Yes, I loved this,” is not the same thing as analysis or cultural-impact study. (Plus, if you got Kevin Smith, who turned you down knowing this was an absolute nonentity of a film you were making?)

In Who Are You, Charlie Brown?, you learn a couple of things about Schulz, some famous faces say, “I watched this,” and that’s it. The only people I was at all interested in hearing from were cartoonists Robb Armstrong and Tom Tomorrow. I think combined they got three minutes of screen time.

I know why Apple TV+ did this. The streaming service bought the license to Charlie Brown and his friends and have already produced two Snoopy shows. So of course it make sense to crank out a cheapo doc saying how important their content is. Fox had Morgan Spurlock do this when The Simpsons turned 20, and that was bad, too.

There’s just nothing here. Sorry, Charlie, you deserved better. This and the Metlife blimp are going to go down in history as equally inadequate tributes to your greatness.

Who Are You, Charlie Brown? on Apple TV+

Peanuts documentary Who Are You, Charlie Brown? premieres June 25 on Apple TV+.

Rated: TV-G

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.


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