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The Peanuts Gang

Matt Schudel

The great animator Bill Melendez died this week at the age of 91. If you don't recognize his name, you certainly know his work: He animated every "Peanuts" cartoon that has ever appeared on television or in film -- including more than 370 commercials.

Mr. Melendez was a Mexican immigrant who began drawing as a child and began working for Walt Disney in 1938. He had a hand in all the iconic Disney films of the late '30s and '40s, including "Fantasia," "Pinocchio" and "Bambi" before leaving the studio during a contentious strike that he helped lead in 1941.

Mr. Melendez later worked at Warner Bros., where he drew Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig cartoons, before becoming an important animator and producer of commercials in the 1950s. Still, he's best known for his collaborations with cartoonist Charles Schulz and producer Lee Mendelson on the "Peanuts" specials that have become landmarks of television and simple storytelling. Their first -- "A Charlie Brown Christmas" -- was, in many ways their best and showed the charmingly simple style that Mr. Melendez used to bring Schulz's preternaturally wise children to life on the screen.

I first watched "A Charlie Brown Christmas" as a child. I've seen it many times since, and it never fails to move me. Most of the story's poignancy, of course, comes from the peculiar genius of Charles Schulz, but not a little of its power derives from the way Bill Melendez made the characters, with all their foibles, come alive.

And, of course, don't forget the bouncy, charming musical score by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, which gives the Christmas special -- and many other "Peanuts" productions -- a grown-up insouciance. For a deeper look at Guaraldi's music and its imporatance to the "Peanuts" enterprise, you might want to check out this story I wrote about it in 2006.

By Matt Schudel |  September 4, 2008; 11:11 AM ET  | Category:  Matt Schudel
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