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Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown!

Welcome to Camp YesterYear, campers!  What better way to kick off our summer than an old cartoon about heading off to summer camp?!  

When I was young, my Mom frequently rented us "tapes" from either the local video store, Dollar Video, or she'd take us to the library, where we could check out a movie for free.  Our library kept the available videos in thick black binders on top of the Dewey Decimal System card catalog filing cabinet.  

Speaking of, do you remember being forced to learn the Dewey Decimal System in school?  I do, even to the point of memorizing what genre was associated with what numbers.  Thankfully, the internet came along.

Back to those binders, though.  They were full of clear plastic sleeves with photocopies of the VHS box art, and I loved sifting through the binders to find my prize for the weekend.  There was a system of round-colored stickers, too, but I don't remember if that was to say the movie was available or if it indicated if it was appropriate for certain ages.  I just remember how much fun I had with those big binders full of movies and round stickers.  Boy, the simple things!  

In any event, back in those days, we didn't have so many options for content, so if we brought a tape home from the library or video store, we'd watch it several times... or not at all, depending on its quality.  That was the risk of selecting an unknown movie, and we didn't have Google or Rotten Tomatoes to help us figure it out.

My brother and I loved the old Snoopy movies as kids and rented them fairly often.  When viewed in the late 80s, they seemed old to me, so it's no wonder when I tried to show my daughter some the other day that she was really disinterested, despite how much she likes Snoopy and Woodstock.  Maybe in a year or two!

Snoopy first appeared on October 4, 1950, in the third Peanuts comic strip created by Charles Schulz.  One of four original characters, Snoopy shared the pages with Charlie Brown, Peppermint Patty, and Shermy.  The name "Snoopy" didn't appear until a month later, in the November 10th strip.  He first appeared upright on his hind legs six years later, in January 1956.  

The iconic image of him sleeping on the top of his doghouse was first shown on December 12, 1958, and his first time "flying" his dog house as the World War I Flying Ace was in October 1965.  The loveable pup last appeared in the final Peanuts strip on February 13, 2000, shown typing out Schulz's farewell message to his readers.

During the 1960s, 70s, and even into the 80s, Charles Schulz teamed up with CBS to create several television specials, many of which we are all familiar with.  Classics like "Charlie Brown's Christmas" and "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" are often fondly remembered, especially each holiday season.  There were several less popular but, in my opinion, equally entertaining half-hour specials from that period, such as "It's a Mystery, Charlie Brown" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."  

In all, there were 31 half-hour animated specials featuring the gang from Peanuts, most of which are still available on Apple Plus today.  There were a number of cartoons created sporadically after 1990, but I would be hard-pressed to call them "original Peanuts specials."  Charles Schulz had little, if anything, to do with most of them.

In addition to these short specials, four feature films were created and released from 1969 through 1980.  In 2015, a CGI animated film was released in theaters, simply titled "Peanuts."

The first film to hit theaters, "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," was a success, earning $12 million in box office sales.  The next, "Snoopy Come Home," unfortunately was a box office flop, earning only $245,000 on a budget of $ 1 million.  

The third feature film was released in 1977, titled "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown!"  Released by United Feature Syndicate for Paramount Pictures and directed by Bill Melendez and Phil Roman, this third film was intended to be scored by legendary Peanuts composer Vince Guaraldi, who passed away before production started.  It was also the last film to use the same voice cast from the 1975 and 76 TV specials "You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown, Happy Anniversary, Charlie Brown, and It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown." 

Unlike the previous two Peanuts theatrical films, Charles Schulz wrote an original plot without relying on rehashing specific storylines from his older comic strips.  The idea for the film came to him during a family vacation, during which he tried rafting with his wife on the Rouge River.  


Summertime is clearly here as the Peanuts gang heads off in a bus to spend their summer at Camp Remote, a summer camp somewhere in the mountains.  As his luck would always have it, Charlie Brown misses the bus and endures a white-knuckle ride on the back of Snoopy's motorcycle.  After completing registration, Charlie Brown tells Peppermint Patty that he wishes to use the time at camp to change his bad luck and learn some skills and qualities to feel more in control of his life.  


As the kids get used to the regimentation of camp life, they run into a trio of bullies who proclaim themselves as the ones running camp and the annual winners of the river raft race.  Along with their bobcat Brutus (a bobcat!?), they intimidate the entire Peanuts clan, including the usually cool cucumbers Snoopy and Woodstock.   

As the kids settle into their cabins, Charlie Brown gets his wish to learn new skills and is assigned to be the (reluctant) leader of the boys, while Peppermint Patty elects herself as the eager leader of the girl's squad.  She declares they will decide everything "democratically," and every single decision, even the minor ones, is voted on by "secret ballots."   The river race finally arrives after a few days of participating in the usual camp activities, like tug of war or potato-sack races (which the bullies win by cheating).  

Charlie Brown, Linus, Schroeder, and Franklin represent the boys' cabin, while Patty, Sally, Lucy, and Marcie race for the girls' cabin.  The bullies have their own raft, complete with an unfair advantage of the outboard motor, sonar, and direction finder.  Snoopy and Woodstock's raft is an innertube with a giant sail.  


On the river, the bullies use their tools to get ahead, but while busy boasting of their "success," they become distracted and crash into the dock, costing them significant time.  


While on the river, the group sees many unique sights, ranging from mountains and forests to old logging communities.  However, they also run into several other obstacles, such as getting lost, storms, and sabotage from the team of bullies.

When they are stopped for the night, a random winter snowstorm appears, covering everything in a thick blanket of snow.  I know they are "in the mountains," but a snowstorm during a summer camp movie?  The snow is a minor setback, and the teams are back sailing down the river in the morning.

Later, a storm arrives, and the waters become turbulent.  Snoopy and Woodstock are separated when they are tossed into the water and washed away by the storm.  Snoopy abandons the race to search for Woodstock as the Boys' and Girls' teams dry out on the shore.  The bullies' raft has been washed ashore, too, but it is badly damaged and needs repair. 


During his search, Snoopy finds an abandoned cabin for the night, while Woodstock is forced to sleep in the elements.  The girls are frightened by animal noises while they sit by a campfire for the night, and in the morning, both teams resume their search for Snoopy and take a break at the abandoned cabin.  Meanwhile, Woodstock and Snoopy are reunited by the river and make their way to the cabin.  After quite the journey over cliffs and through the forest, Snoopy finds the cabin again, and the Peanuts gang all celebrate together. 

After an evening of singing and dancing, Peppermint Patty and the girl's team force the boys (including Snoopy and Woodstock) to sleep outside.  Brutus the bobcat lies in wait to attack, but Linus' blanket, used as a whip, protects Woodstock and the rest of the team.  

It's again snowing in the morning as everyone sits outside for breakfast.  They eat a bowl of "Corn POW" cereal, to be exact.  


Just then, the bullies slowly sail by, reminding them they are in a race.  The bullies temporarily pull ashore to sabotage the other rafts, and Charlie is blamed when one of the rafts begins floating away.  Patty and the girls make it into the raft, but instead of helping the boys, they take the time to hold a secret ballot to decide whether or not to merge teams and invite the boys into their raft.  Unanimously, the girls vote to include them.  Patty immediately names Charlie as the new leader of the larger group.  

Meanwhile, Snoopy and Woodstock launch from shore in their inner tube and put up their giant sail, quickly passing the newly merged team.  

Up ahead, the bullies change some signs and send both teams on a rapid river journey through an old logging community.  Although Charlie Brown is blamed for falling for such sabotage, he handles the new difficulties well and grows increasingly comfortable in his leadership role.  

With the finish line in sight, Peppermint Patty and the girls celebrate prematurely and accidentally knock the boy overboard.  Trying to help the boys back into the raft, they all fall into the water just as the team of bullies passes again.  Unfortunately for them, their raft had been damaged so many times during the race it finally gave out and sank just feet from the finish line.  

Snoopy and Woodstock are the only contenders left until that nasty thing Brutus slashes Snoopy's innertube.  Quickly building a raft out of twigs, using a leaf for sail, Woodstock continues to the finish line.  Brutus gets set to pounce on the little wooden raft, but Snoopy has finally had enough and clocks the bobcat, allowing Woodstock to finish the race.  


After the trophy ceremony, the bullies approach Charlie Brown and vow vengeance in next summer's race.  Their threats stop immediately when Snoopy appears and begins strangling Brutus for once again threatening his friends.  Brutus and the bullies all flee, screeching in fright.  


Boarding the bus back home, Charlie Brown announces that he feels more in control, given his learning experiences over the past few days.  While he's pontificating about his newfound confidence, the bus leaves without him.  Snoopy and Woodstock offer a ride on their motorcycle, and the three take off on another wild ride to end the movie.  


The New York Times gave the film 3 out of 5 stars.  Critic Leonard Maltin gave the movie 2.5 out of 4 stars (his lowest for the original four movies, calling it "mildly entertaining."  Fellow critic Janet Maslin didn't particularly like the film either, writing, "The film runs an hour and a quarter and has a rambling plot about a regatta... The net effect is that of having read the comic strip for an unusually long spell, which can amount to either a delightful experience or a pleasant but slightly wearing one, depending upon the intensity of one's fascination with the basic 'Peanuts' mystique."

This film still holds a special place in the hearts of many who grew up with Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and friends.  While it may not have been the classic that, say, the Christmas special turned out to be, it captures the essence of Charles Schulz's characters and the timeless humor and warmth of his comics.  

Race for Your Life Charlie Brown uses the summer camp setting and iconic Peanuts themes of friendship, endless possibilities, and humor to evoke a powerful sense of nostalgia for today's viewers of the carefree summer days of our youth.  The rustic camp cabins, the communal dining hall, and various outdoor activities are reminiscent of summer camps and summertime in general.

The animation beautifully captures the summery atmosphere, with rocky mountain peaks, vibrant green forests, and warm golden sunlight that remind me of several of my own summer memories.  Summertime was always a time for adventure, growth, and unforgettable memories, and I think this movie can still transport today's audiences to a world of summertime fun and excitement.  

Ultimately, I'd recommend going back and watching "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown," just to recapture a sense of a simpler time when summer meant freedom and fun. 

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