Between 1980 and 1988, young me told anyone who asked (and some people who didn’t) that my favorite movie of all time, bar none, was Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!). I’d seen it exactly once.
This month, I watched my childhood favorite movie for the second time. (It’s currently available on CBS All Access, albeit unfortunately in the cropped-to-widescreen version released on DVD in 2015.) Like Heartbeeps, it’s a relatively obscure movie that made a deep impression on me, and deserves to be more widely seen.
Among Peanuts fans, it’s notable as the last theatrical appearance by Charlie Brown and friends during their creator’s lifetime. After A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969), Snoopy, Come Home (1972), and Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown (1977), Bon Voyage marked the end of Charles Schulz’s two-decade run atop the cultural zeitgeist.
The strip would run for two more decades and remain popular, but Schulz mellowed as a writer, churning out cookie jokes while cartoonists who grew up on his work pushed the funny pages into newly authentic family drama (Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse) and intellectual deep waters (Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes). Jim Davis’s Garfield, whose lacerating takedowns and lovable slovenliness made him a Bill Murray for the Saturday-morning set, became the first comic-strip commercial juggernaut to seriously rival Peanuts for pop-culture ubiquity.
There’s a distinctly loose feel to Bon Voyage, which has a scant plot even for its modest 76-minute running time. As you’d expect, the film is in large part a travelogue. Nearly half of the film’s length covers the stretch from the time Linus greets Charlie Brown with suitcases in hand (“Good morning, fellow exchange student!”) to the point the two friends are camped outside an eerie mansion where they’ve been invited by a mysterious letter.
The movie never explains exactly how Violette, a girl Charlie Brown’s age, found out about his selection for a student exchange program before he did and sent a letter that was in his mailbox when he got home from school. But never mind those minor details. As a four-year-old child, I was transfixed by the epic journey, which involved an airplane flight (something I wouldn’t experience until I was a tween), a double-decker London bus, a hovercraft across the English Channel, and a rented car driven by Snoopy.
What most impressed me was the fact that the kids are traveling alone. Charlie Brown, Linus, Peppermint Patty, and Marcie map their own course, order their own restaurant food (albeit after struggling with the British dialect of the waiter, one of several adults who speak intelligibly in a rare departure from the franchise’s trumpet-voice norm), and, in the boys’ case, fend for themselves when Violette’s ill-humored uncle refuses to admit them.
The movie’s full of moments of melancholy beauty reminiscent of the World War I fantasy sequence from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). No wonder: like that sequence, Bon Voyage was inspired by Schulz’s own wartime experiences.
During World War II, Schulz was billeted for several weeks at the Château Malvoisin; he retraced his steps in the ’70s, accompanied by Peanuts animation mastermind Bill Melendez. Not only would the estate inspire the movie’s “House of the Bad Neighbor” (Château du Mal Voisin), Charlie Brown and Linus curl up in a semi-sheltered corner of the courtyard just as Schulz and his fellow soldiers did in 1945.
In 1983, the special What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? picked up where Bon Voyage left off, on the unlikely premise that Sally was genuinely curious about what her big brother learned while abroad. Charlie Brown takes a break from making a photo album to recount the kids’ trip home, which we learn involved a detour to Omaha Beach and Flanders Fields.
“You just got done talking about World War II, and now it’s World War I?” says an exasperated Patty, doubtless voicing the sentiments of many of the show’s young viewers; it was only shown once more. (What Have We Learned is now a little tricky to find online — it’s part of a digital three-fer with You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown.)
Still, Schulz was proud of having proved “that the characters of Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy and the others were close enough to being real to handle delicately a subject that other animated characters would destroy.”
Schulz’s impulse to have the Peanuts characters teach history later led to the awkward 1988-89 miniseries This Is America, Charlie Brown, which you may have experienced if you let a home video release of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving keep playing; suddenly Charlie Brown et al are little Pilgrim kids, puking on the Mayflower as Linus spouts comforting bromides about the rapprochement between setters and indigenous peoples.
That’s best to avoid, but it’s well worth taking a couple of your quarantined hours to hop on the hovercraft with Charlie Brown. Bon Voyage and What Have We Learned are perhaps the most reflective entries in classic Peanuts animation, and these are characters who excel at quiet moments — as we all learn every year when Linus raises his hand during a rehearsal for the school Christmas pageant and says, “Lights, please.”