Fan Film, Fan Films

Fan Film Review: Beagle

(2005) 3 minutes. United States.

Beagle shotOne of the most intriguing and unsung observations ever concerning Generation X was floated a decade ago by a rather unlikely source—not a sociologist, psychiatrist or historian, but rather Rob Fulop, programmer of the video game Missile Command for the Atari 2600. Speaking in the documentary series Once Upon Atari, he noted, “God knows what those games did to the minds of the kids who played them. I think about this a lot—I mean, they’re adults now, but by the time they were 12, they’d played 100,000 hours of those early VCS games that we made. A lot of adults walking around now are shaped by videogames they played when they were younger and the message is pretty clear: You always lose. There’s a lot of nhilism in music and in culture; [my generation] didn’t grow up like that—people in my culture grew up with ‘It will always work out in the end.’ The generation that we helped create, that we helped form, says ‘We always lose’ and we [the programmers] are all responsible for that.”

While it’s a brilliant concept and probably a handy stick to beat one’s self with at 3AM on a restless night, to be fair, the Baby Boomers who wrote those games also grew up with the daily message that ‘you always lose.’ It just came in a more subversive package: Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.

Clearly, each of the comic’s characters represented a different part of the average person’s emotional life—Linus as faith, Lucy as anger, Snoopy as joy, Schroder as creativity, Peppermint Patty as determination, Marcie and Woodstock as blind submission, Sally as delusion and so forth. It’s no accident, however, that the key character—the centerpiece of the cartoon—was Charlie Brown, the very embodiment of depression and failure. Kids may have started playing videogames around 8- or 9-years old, but they were internalizing the lessons of Peanuts from the day they were old enough to ask an adult to read the comics page to them. While Schultz always had a few good gags here and there, and the characters are doubtlessly iconic, the underlying theme of the entire 50-year run was readily apparent in most any given day’s comic: You will always lose.

That pathos also spilled over into the comic’s TV specials, as well as its handful of movies, particularly 1972′s Snoopy Come Home, which might beat Bambi as the most depressing kids’ movie ever. Usually, however, Snoopy was carefree in the Peanuts universe, although even he could experience a miserable loss: just witness the TV special What A Nightmare, Charlie Brown, where the beloved canine dreams he’s a sled dog, growing mean and vicious as he works his way up to being the leader of the sled, only to be unable to keep himself, the sled team and the driver from drowning in a hole in the ice at the end. Of course, he wakes up, but through this TV special—guaranteed to mess with the minds of eight-year-olds everywhere—even the comic’s own envisionment of Joy and Innocence is treated to the same brutal lesson of failure and futility. Whew—Schulz sure knew how to stay on message.

All of this, then, leaves one moderately unprepared for the win—and dare I say it, the rather jaunty happiness—presented in Jacob Kafka’s Beagle, an unlikely but highly enjoyable mix of Star Wars and Peanuts. Made single-handedly when he was 16, the computer-animated adventure is true to the cartoon’s universe, but with a positive vibe rarely achieved in the later years of the actual comic strip. To be fair, some of that must have to do with not merely having a different person writing for the classic character, but also the time in life when he wrote it (16 vs. aging adult) and the time in history that he lives in as a member of Generation Y, as opposed to the “Greatest Generation,” which had lived through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean War, the JFK assasination and the start of Vietnam by the time Peanuts itself turned 16.

The three-minute movie updates the classic scenario where Snoopy fantasizes that he’s The World War I Flying Ace, taking his Sopwith Camel into a dogfight (har de har) against the Red Barron and his famed triple-Folker airplane. Here, our intrepid canine hero instead zooms his X-Wing into battle against the Death Star, complete with Woodstock sitting in for R2-D2.

There’s plenty of fan films that merely mix two pop-culture entities together and squeeze out a few meager laughs at the dichotomy (“Hey, lets mix Sesame Street and, uh, Miami Ink!”), but Beagle succeeds on a deeper, more emotional level. It sounds like splitting hairs, but here it is: If Snoopy wound up in the Star Wars universe, it would be unsettling, because despite his Joe Cool persona, Snoop is a regular, working-class dog, just as defined by his own world as any of us. Put him in a life-or-death situation with lasers and spaceships and Darth Vader, and there’s only two ways it can go: Either he slickly handles everything and the whole exercise comes off smarmy, or (make the jump with me here) the short plays it “real,” and the poor little guy gets overwhelmed by his surroundings. Either way, it’d be pretty sad (of course, perhaps Schulz would’ve approved).

Kafka sidesteps all that, however, and instead takes the opposite tack: He puts Star Wars into the realm of Peanuts, where it’s Snoopy’s daydream, defined by the limits of the Peanuts universe. The original score is piano-based, just like a Charlie Brown TV special; noisy spaceship engines are replaced by gentle human hums while someone goes “spkoow spkoow” every time a laser fires; and what’s deadly in one universe is rendered cute and ultimately harmless in this one, which is a relief—who wants to see Snoopy get blown up? Much as the real Star Wars showed naivete triumphing over all-knowing evil, here, innocence and joy conquers the universe from the safety of Charlie Brown’s backyard—and when that happens, we all win.

Amazingly, not only does this movie look right—all the more impressive, considering it’s 3D computer animation–it also feels right. If our favorite cartoon beagle really was going to pretend he was Luke Skywalker, this is probably how he’d do it—and how strange is it to contemplate that? Meanwhile, the animation, created using the freeware program Blender, is smooth and clear, and the gags work, sometimes eliciting gentle chuckles, and other times big laughs. The whole thing is just a wonderful example of an animator and writer who really understands the subject matter he’s tackling, executing (I would presume) a purely instinctual take on the idea.

All this may make Beagle sound rather intellectual, but rest assured, it’s not. In the end, it’s merely an animated dog and bird going after the Death Star, and it’s a satisfying experience—plus you’ll feel happy at the end without the need to load up on Prozac. Schulz might’ve scoffed at that result, but Snoopy would surely be proud.


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