(KGET) — Charles M. Schulz told the story of the lovable loser Charlie Brown for decades through his syndicated comic strip, books, movies and TV shows. He drew 17,897 published “Peanuts” strips that appeared in more than 2,600 papers in 75 countries.
Now the tables have been turned.
The new Apple TV+ original documentary, “Who Are You, Charlie Brown?,” looks at the life of one of the greatest cartoonists of all time through animation. Information regarding his life and work is blended into a cartoon special where Charlie Brown has been assigned the daunting task of writing a report on who he is.
Director/writer and executive producer Michael Bonfiglio knew immediately he wanted to use animation for the biography that will be available starting June 25 on the streaming service.
“We knew that we would be able to collaborate with WildBrain Studios who is doing all of the new ‘Peanuts’ shows for Apple TV+,” Bonfiglio says. “Knowing you have a collaborator like that is really inspiring in terms of getting to what this thing could be.
“We had always thought about trying to tell Schulz’ story through his characters. I had done a couple of projects where I had combined documentary with other formats. I felt like we could pull it off.”
Bonfiglio brings a long career in filmmaking to the project. The director, producer, writer, and camera operator won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Nonfiction Special in 2018 for his producing role on “The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling.” A year earlier, he picked up an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing of a Variety Special for “Jerry Before Seinfeld.”
A career in documentaries taught Bonfiglio that a production is as only as strong as its material. He found that in the cast of characters Schulz had created and the people he interviewed for the film.
The only person who knows as much about Schulz as Charlie Brown, his widow Jean Schulz, serves as an executive producer on the project. Along with being married to Schulz for 27 years, Jean Schulz is Chairman of the Board of Charles M Schulz Creative Associates and President of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center Board of Directors.
She is convinced Schulz – who died in 2000 – would have loved the animated story of Charlie Brown’s quest to understand his own identity that serves as the structure.
“I think he would have found it very inventive and also revealing,” Jean Schulz says. “I think that it reveals something about the comic strip and a lot about him from this blended story that you wouldn’t have come up if you had just had a traditional interview.”
Those elements that get revealed in the documentary not only look at the history of Schulz but also examine the impact his characters have had on the world and pop culture. Much of the story is told through interviews with Jean Schulz plus Drew Barrymore, Al Roker, Kevin Smith, Billie Jean King, Paul Feig, Ira Glass, Noah Schnapp, Miya Cech, Keith L. Williams, Chip Kidd, Lynn Johnston and Robb Armstrong.
Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o narrates the documentary.
“Who Are You, Charlie Brown?” reveals that at a very basic level, the characters created by Schulz provide sweet and wholesome entertainment. It also shows that there is also another level of worldly philosophy that is delivered with grace and understanding.
The way Schulz wrote and drew his characters inspired a generation of artists including Paige Braddock who is the talent behind the long-running comic series “Jane’s World.” Along with being an executive producer on the documentary, Braddock is the Chief Creative Officer at Charles M. Schulz Creative Associates. She has kept the Schulz legacy alive by illustrating several Peanuts children’s books.
Braddock discovered that it was easy to find writers and illustrators to work on projects featuring the Peanuts characters because they can trace their early influence back to Schulz.
“There are so many of us who are huge Peanuts fans,” Braddock says. “He was an inspiration because of what a great designer he was.
“With each panel of the comic, he was very thoughtful and deliberate about how he spaced everything out. How much text he used versus the characters size and shape. I never get tired of looking at his original drawings because he was such a master craftsman when it came to pen and ink.”
The Peanuts characters have built a massive fan base having been around since 1950. Both Braddock and Jean Schulz want the new documentary to be something the loyal fans embrace and serves as an introduction to new potential fans.
Jean Schulz adds, “I also hope there is a new appreciation for the man who created it.”