The Phantom’s Saturday Matinee: Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown FINALLY makes DVD!

“Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown” FINALLY Makes Its Digital Debut 38 Years after Its Theatrical Release, and It’s Still Not Only the Best Peanuts Movie, but One of the Greatest G-Rated Films of All Time!

1977 made its mark of the psyche of a whole generations of kids. “Star Wars” changed the cinematic landscape forever and, along with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” forged the Movie Geek Generation.

It was a great year to be still be young enough to buy a children’s ticket at the theater. Ray Harryhausen released his third and final Arabian Knights adventure, “Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger,” and Peanuts TV and theatrical producer/director, Bill Melendez, released the big screen Peanuts summer camp adventure, “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown.” This was the same guy who gave us the TV classics “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” and dozens of others.

The TV specials, sponsored by Dolly Madison snack cakes, were big deals to us back then. They would pop up during prime time to get us excited about each upcoming holiday and often mark the start of each new school season. Occasionally the Peanuts would hit the big screen for extended, event type adventures and “Race for Your Life Charlie Brown” was the biggest and best of them all.

It was actually the third big screen Peanuts adventure, following “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” (1969) and “Snoopy, Come Home” (1972) and followed by “Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!) (1980), which would be the last Peanuts big screen event picture until “The Peanuts Movie” hits theaters in November 2015.

Charles Schulz often wrote about Charlie Brown and his friend’s misadventures at summer camp in the newspaper strips and there was actually a TV special called “It was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown” (1969) that was kind of the prototype for what would be extended into the feature length summer camp adventure released in 1977.

“Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown” was released on VHS in the early 80s and was actually the first title release on RCA’s SelectaVision VideoDisc. It was reissued on VHS in 1995 and then disappeared from home video availability for 20 years. FINALLY, on February 10, it was digitally restored and released on proper widescreen, anamorphic DVD. For some reason Paramount has chosen not to issue an accompanying Blu-ray Disc, and they should be ashamed of themselves for it, but I can’t really complain about the DVD transfer we got.

Finally properly framed and restored, the colors are brighter and more vibrant than I’ve ever seen the movie look before on TV broadcasts and VHS versions. This release is cause for Peanuts fans to celebrate, even though Paramount quietly tossed it to Walmart’s kid’s section shelves with little fanfare or advertising.

“Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown” follows the Peanuts gang on a bus ride to Camp Remote, followed by Snoopy and Woodstock on motorcycle, “Easy Rider” style. Almost any kid at that time, or even today, could relate to the summer camp experience. For most, it meant being away from your parents for the first time for an extended period of time. The movie recreates the “rough” conditions, the terrible food and the brutal competitive sporting events that pitted cabin against cabin in survival of the fittest contests.

Bullying was as much of an issue then as it is today and was the theme of many kid’s films from that generation including “My Bodyguard” (1980) and “The Karate Kid” (1984). Here, Charlie Brown and his friends must confront a cabin full of nasty punks and their spike collared cat who’ve been the “number one” cabin in every sporting event for the last couple of years and who will stop at nothing to be number one again this year. Fair play is off the table for these little bastards.

The centerpiece of the movie is an epic boat race that will take place over several days and nights alone in the wilderness without adult supervision. The kids have to build their own rafts and hope that they will be sea worthy enough to navigate multiple life and death challenges including construction blast zones scheduled to operate DURING the boat race, dangerous wild animals, severe weather and even a deadly waterfall towards the end of the course. Armed with only dry cereal to eat over several days and only their wits to battle Mother Nature and each other, this is clearly the most incompetent and irresponsible summer camp ever devised. It’s “Lord of the Flies” in cell animation.

In other words, Camp Remote is AWESOME!

In true Peanuts fashion, the characters deal with a lot of adult issues from a kid’s perspective. The girls’ cabin and its self-appointed leader, Peppermint Patty, decide to make all decisions by casting secret ballets, skewering our own Democratic system and its many faults.

As I watched the film for the first time in at least 20 years, I must admit fighting back tears on several occasions probably as much out of the nostalgia for my own lost innocence as due to the power of the film itself, but there are moments that truly speak to the child inside all of us.

At one point, Snoopy and Woodstock get lost and separated from each other. Left alone to face the cruelty of nature, they both suffer physically and emotionally without their best friend at their side. Their ultimate reunion could surely melt the heart of even the grumpiest adult.

I won’t spoil the ending regarding who ultimately wins the boat race for those of you who’ve never seen the movie, but I will say the finale is clever, unexpected and completely brilliant. I still get a “stand up and cheer” shot of adrenaline when Snoopy totally cold cocks that evil bastard cat — TWICE!

I remember the review of this movie in the local paper, a backhanded compliment from a cynical adult critic, who said the movie was the kind of product made for parents to drop off their kids at the cinema for an hour and a half of unencumbered shopping or peace on Saturday afternoon. He did relent in his three star review, however, that if parents absolutely had to sit through “Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown,” that they may actually end up enjoying the ride.

As the credits role, Charlie Brown rides off into the sunset on Snoopy’s hog to psychedelic colors and strange editing, as if they had all taken a hit of acid for the road. Like I said, Camp Remote is AWESOME!

The Phantom of The Ville

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