Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Snoopy Goes Home: Bill Melendez

Bill Melendez, multi-award winning animator, and the "voice" of Snoopy, died today in Santa Monica, CA at age 91.

Melendez, a great-grandfather 11 times over, was the chief animator for Charles Schultz's "Peanuts" productions, and was the only animator permitted by Schultz to work with the characters. He was known well for his handlebar mustache, as well as the grunts, groans and guffaws that underlined Snoopy's pantomimic actions on screen. Before that, he was an animator for Walt Disney, working on several classic Disney movies and shorts like "Pinocchio", "Fantasia", "Dumbo" and "Bambi" among many others. We also worked for Warner Brothers, doing animation for many of the Merrie Melodies and Loony Toons characters. After leaving Warner Brothers, he developed a prodigious portfolio of commercials and films for several production companies; one of which brought him on to animate several car commercials involving the Peanuts characters.

Several years later, Melendez and Schultz teamed up with producer Lee Mendelson to create "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which in the initial opinion to all was a collosal failure. "Oh my God, we killed it," moaned Melendez to his staff. Even the network executives were down on the final results. But serendipedy favored the luckless trio as the network executives were forced, because of time constrainsts, to release the movie as scheduled. The rest was history.

A few thoughts stand out in my mind... one is of Melendez with Peter Robbins, the original voice of Charlie Brown, talking about the recording process and how he had to instruct the children how to inflect moods and tones in their voice acting. Because he spoke with a heavy Spanish accent, Robbins said, he often repeated what Melendez said verbatim... including the accent. "And he even copied that!" Melendez laughed.

Another thought is of the animation style that Melendez employed for Peanuts; static backgrounds and simplistic line variations, but easily identifiable with it's source material. Melendez used colors and shadows in a way that made the world of children seem bright and inviting, or foreboding in the mind's eye of a child. Comically underwhelming, yet artful.

My favorite moments in Melendez' Peanuts animation are many, but the ones that stand out the most are (in no particular order:)

-A Charlie Brown Christmas: the dance sequence (especially that kid doing the head-bob and shoulders thing, along with Shermy doing the Running Man and Sally the twins with a simplified version of The Wop), Linus' immortal speech about the meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown's agony over "killing" the tree he bought, and the gang's redemption and subsequent revival of the tree and themselves. The closing chorus of "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" still brings me to tears.

-A Boy Named Charlie Brown: "I Before E Except After C", Linus' struggle to find his lost blanket, Snoopy's ice skating solo, Linus finding his lost blanket, Charlie Brown's ignominiously tragic defeat in the Spelling Bee after surviving to the last round (notice how the scene lingers in a wide shot on a slumping and humiliated Charlie Brown alone in the spotlight on the darkened stage after blowing his last word), and the closing sequence where Lucy pulls the football from Charlie Brown as he flies in the air and crashes (to the strains of "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" sung by the illustrious Gene Kelly), signifying that life would go on as usual.

-A Charlie Brown Halloween: Linus' lonely vigil as he waits for the Great Pumpkin, only to be disappointed, his vow to "wait 'til next year" (and his fear that he may have forever alienated the Great Pumpkin by letting slip with a phrase that implied doubt), and of course, "I got a rock..."

-Snoopy Come Home: One of the most heartbreaking moments in movie history was the good-bye party for Snoopy, who felt obligated to return to his original owner, who was sick. After all of his friends tearfully spoke in front of a podium and gave him a goodbye gift, Charlie Brown approached the stand, bowed his head, struggling silently to say something... and screamed as Snoopy wailed loudly beside him. After Snoopy left, Charlie Brown sang himself to sleep, looking over his empty doghouse. You'd have thought Snoopy had died the way Charlie Brown was carrying on over him, and perhaps there was more to it behind the scenes than we know. It was an honest way to deal with loss as a child.

-Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown: This was Snoopy's showcase, mind you, but we did have a ball with him going from one place to the next, First Class all the way. Of course, the best parts were when he was flipping off the French drivers as Marcie yelled at them in fluent French. But who can forget, "Loaf de bread, sie vous plais? Mer-ci!"

Race For Your Life, Charlie Brown: Somehow, this is my sentimental favorite. Charlie Brown shows some leadership for a change, yet we realize that for all his triumphs and moments of personal growth, he is constantly undermined by his friends, well meaning and otherwise. At the moment of victory, the girls overzealously celebrate and knock all of the boys overboard before they reach the finish line, allowing the camp bullies, who had been dogging them and cheating throughout the entire race, to pass them. However, their overqualified vessel sinks after having absorbed much of its own abuse. When Woodstock fashions a makeshift sail to continue the race after his and Snoopy's tube is grabbed and punctured by the bullies and their nasty cat, the cat takes aim to strike again, but Snoopy, in one of the greatest moments in Peanuts history, knocks the cat out with one punch, securing Woodstock's victory. (In a later scene, the cat tries to catch Woodstock again, but Snoopy bum-rushes him and applies a well-deserved beatdown...)

-It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown: Charlie Brown finally gets the girl of his dreams, and she smooches him at the big dance, setting off a satisfying flight of fancy for ol' boy (too bad he didn't remember how gangsta he was after that...)

And this one, which for some reason has only been seen a couple of times: I think it was a vignette in "A Charlie Brown Celebration"; it was an update on the older Linus & Lucy joke, "Put in the mouth!" in which Linus has programmed a new arcade video game starring Snoopy and Woodstock, frolicking in the meadow searching for Easter eggs. Lucy happens along and watches Linus demonstrate the game, during which Linus nervously suggests that she may want to skip the monster that tries to catch them. Of course Lucy demands to see the monster, and Linus is forced to reveal a giant Lucy roaring and chasing the video-game Snoopy and Woodstock. Outraged, Lucy grabs the joystick and manipulates the giant Lucy monster to swing at the video screen, and "POW!" Linus is seen laid out on the floor, stars floating around his head.

As with Charles Schultz, Melendez informs much of my own artwork. Knowing that he also worked on some of Disney's most memorable animation makes me feel much better about his influence, being that as I do love Peanuts and the feel that was created in their shows, it was not fulfilling in terms of the style I seek in my won work. Bill Melendez was no one-trick pony, to say the least. He will be greatly missed in this part of the world.

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