PBS “American Masters” profiles seldom provoke much controversy, but this slow-moving yet intriguing documentary devoted to “Peanuts” creator Charles M. Schulz has managed that feat. Painting Schulz as a depressed, emotionally distant personality, plagued by self-doubt despite having achieved enormous success and wealth, the special clearly shares a perspective with David Michaelis’ new biography, which has been derided by the cartoonist’s children. Even so, for those who know the characters but not the man, this 90-minute spec does deliver insight into a low-key figure who managed to imprint his four-panel masterpiece into the national psyche.
Michaelis is listed as a consultant and prominently featured among those interviewed, along with former Schulz friends and family members. In dissecting the laconic artist — who died of cancer in 2000, at age 77 — writer-director David Van Taylor pushes the usual buttons, including Schulz’s chilly Minnesota youth and the early death of his mother, his failed marriage and fortuitous enrollment in art school, where his colleagues included a friend named Linus and a “little red-haired girl” broke his heart.
Melding the man and his work, the documentary frequently uses “Peanuts” comics or snippets from the classic TV specials to highlight episodes in Schulz’s life, hailing the strip’s simple genius — which filtered universal themes, including uncertainty and fear of failure, through the prism of childhood — while characterizing its creator as someone who never fully enjoyed the bounty the widely licensed Charlie Brown, Snoopy and company brought him.
It is not an entirely unflattering portrait, but one can see why the Schulz heirs would object, since Michaelis in particular (unlike the testimonials from Schulz’s widow or friends) injects a degree of pop psychology into the analysis — questioning rather unconvincingly, for example, whether the cartoonist’s fascination with the movie “Citizen Kane” amounted to a kind of pathological obsession.
From that perspective, the most telling clips come from interviews with Schulz himself, whose simple demeanor reflects a man of considerable wit, who is nevertheless clearly ill at ease with the spotlight.
Launching “Peanuts” in 1950, Schulz’s historic run yielded nearly 18,000 strips, which is, ultimately, a far more enduring legacy than whatever conclusions can be inferred about him by biographers. So while PBS’ press release suggests that after viewing this production, “you’ll never look at ‘Peanuts’ the same way again,” that’s neither how it is, nor, frankly, how it should be.