It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is a quintessential cartoon classic of the Halloween times, but I never watched it until just the other day. This is probably due to that usual mix of Peanuts cartoons not being that big here in Ireland (as far as I can tell anyway) and my usual ignorance with popular things of any sort. However, that ignorance means that aspects of the short which might be taken for granted by years of rewatches are new and exciting to me.
Case in point, the night skies in the background art by Dean Spille (and perhaps Ed Levitt). I haven’t watched all that much of the Peanuts cartoons – the A Boy Named Charlie Brown movie and snippets of A Charlie Brown Christmas – though I was amazed by the backgrounds in the more abstractly emotional sequences of the former. However, that was more due to how they work together with the music, the cinematography, the animation and so on to express the intended moods of those scenes.
In this case, I was struck by the backgrounds as their own thing, particularly in their depiction of the skies. Big bold colours covered with clouds that vary between splotches suggesting impressions of catching light and thick patches painted in truly unique colours. It really captures how the sky looks, using that combination of angled sunlight and clouds to create uniquely gorgeous skyscapes.
I’ve always been fascinated by this aspect in any visual medium that has to create its world from the ground up: cartoons, video games, paintings, etc. And I’ve always been fascinated with the many results that, no matter their approach – whether to be as literal or abstract as possible or somewhere in between, still manage to capture some aspect of the sky. The mix of colours, the ever-changing shapes of clouds, the casting of light and shadow: it always seems to fit.
And when it comes to It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, its night sky backgrounds may be the most striking of them all. On some boring utilitarian level, they have to be since most of the special takes place at Halloween night. But I’m gobsmacked by the use of blacks and greys to suggest deeply thick clouds, the scatterings of blue and sometimes even purple that hint at a vibrant night sky peeking out, the white glows surrounding the pale full moon, and the handful of stars bright enough to make themselves seen from countless lightyears away.
I don’t do it often enough, but I love stargazing. Whether it’s clear or cloudy, I love looking at the night sky and seeing what it’ll look like tonight. Some nights, it’ll be pitch black but you can see faint breaks in the clouds. Other nights, it’ll be bright enough that you can see the blueness of the sky in the distance, and be able to make out the shape of the clouds. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to see the stars and, as your eyes get used to the night, be able to see more and more stars until the sky is covered with them.
It’s deeply calming, to observe how beautiful the sky can be and to recognize that all of infinity exists above you. When it’s so easy to get pulled back down to earth by nonsense that for the most part doesn’t matter one iota, I find it soothes me to watch the stars. Seeing the night skies here gives me that same feeling in a very specific way, and it takes a special that’s otherwise fairly good with some cracking great Snoopy bits and turns it into something really, well, special.
As silly as it is to say, I think Linus had the right idea to hang out in a random pumpkin patch instead of going trick-or-treating. Yeah, it was to wait for a pumpkin deity that (probably) doesn’t exist, but you don’t always get the chance to see such lovely skies.
An obituary to Ed Levitt, the layout artist and a (possible) background artist on It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, along with the initial Peanuts animations from the mid 60s to early 70s – https://www.cartoonbrew.com/disney/rip-edward-levitt-96-disney-background-painter-and-cartoon-modern-designer-80814.html
Special thanks to Cure from the World Animation Discord for linking me to the copy I used for screenshots, and to Nobaddy & oliviartist with whom I watched the special with for the first time.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.