Animator Bill Melendez managed no small feat. He brought Charles Schulz’s angsty, minutely expressive line drawings, whose names included Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Shermy, Sally, and Charlie Brown, to vivid life—without sacrificing their choppy, charming existentialism. While all around him, the Peanuts were steadfastly becoming a brand (pencils, lunch boxes, calendars, and soon a Sno-Cone maker), Melendez in 1965, with the masterpiece A Charlie Brown Christmas, burrowed to the essence of what made Schulz’s comic strip great: that mix of faith and pragmatism, reflective of a unmistakably American spirit that nevertheless cast grave doubts on itself.
Schulz usually gets all the credit here (and certainly Christmas and its brilliant follow-up, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown are full of delicately wrought laugh lines), but just think about the direction of Christmas‘s penultimate scene. Few things in this world give me chills more consistently than Linus’s dramatic, fateful walk to center stage after Charlie Brown’s face-raised imploring “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?”, shown in extreme long shot, the tiny boy’s body dwarfed by some greater being. As Linus begins to recite from the New Testament (reaching its pinnacle with “Fear not! For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all my people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord”), Melendez responds with lovely dissolves and a soundtrack suddenly free of Vince Guaraldi’s gentle jazz. It’s one of the most beautifully directed religious scenes ever put on film (similar in its power and directness to Scorsese’s final moments of The Last Temptation of Christ, which also has the ability to move nonbelievers to tears). As with Linus’s final imploring to the absent Great Pumpkin, Melendez uses the simplicity of zooms and an elegantly sparse, Schulz-derived framing to deepen and expand upon the strip’s naturally constrictive punchline-centered format. The Mexican-born Melendez, who died this week at ninety-one, helped create some of the most watched short films in American history; their description of joy through melancholy has had a profound effect on me for many years, and I thank him , eternally, for that.