Friday, April 21, 2017

Lee Mendelson Films

Lee Mendelson? Who's Lee Mendelson? Mendelson is one of the reasons that you have all those great Peanuts specials! Mendelson served as executive producer on many of the Peanuts specials and his animation studio created the lot of them. Mendelson started out making documentaries, culminating in his making one based around baseball player Willy Mays. Shortly after he came across a Peanuts comic strip focusing on Charlie Brown and his baseball team. Mendelson decided that he had done a documentary on the best baseball player of all time, so now he was going to make one on the worst. He approached Charles Schulz about making a documentary about Schulz and his Peanut characters, something that Schulz readily agreed to, having seen Mendelson's work. The result was 1965's Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz, which kicked off a 30 year collaboration between the two. While Mendelson was shopping the documentary around, Coca-Cola approached him about producing a Christmas Special, to which he agreed readily. He immediately contacted Schulz about using the Peanuts characters in this special, and they pick up Bill Melendez as director. Melendez had worked with Schulz on some commercials before this and was used to working with the Peanuts characters. Composer Vince Guaraldi rounded out the group and the result was the instant classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

By 1969, Lee Mendelson Films had a few TV specials under their belt and decided the time was right to make a movie based around the Peanuts characters. The plot followed a strip storyline from 1966 and involved Charlie Brown going to a Spelling Bee and being a failure in general. What's new? A Boy Named Charlie Brown was a hit, grossing $12 million and getting rave reviews. Many heralded it as a nice alternative to Disney, as Disney was starting to lose momentum after Walt Disney passed away. This was followed up by the stand-alone sequel, Snoopy, Come Home in 1972. Sadly, this movie would not fare anywhere near as well as its predecessor, not even grossing $1 million. Like its predecessor it was a critical darling, and its one I remember fondly as a child. While I remember liking Snoopy, Come Home, Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown was by far my favorite. This was the one where the Peanuts gang is at camp and has a boat race with some bullies. It fared better than Snoopy, Come Home, but reviews were so-so at the time. I must have watched this one a million times as a kid and I still love who ends up winning the race. Mendelson only made one more Peanuts movie, named Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and don't come back!). Released in 1980, it follows Charlie Brown and the gang as they are foreign exchange students in Europe. I remember this one too, but only little bits and pieces. This movie did as well as Race for Your Life, both critically and financially.

The Peanuts movies did well in a time where Disney wasn't doing as well, though Rescuers still grossed $71 million by comparison, so Disney is still going to reign supreme. Lee Mendelson Pictures was still making that sweet TV money so they seemed to stop focusing on releasing movies to theaters and instead just stuck with made for TV. This will not be the last time you see Peanuts in this series however, but it won't be from Lee Mendelson Films.

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