If young Charlie Brown (voiced by Peter Robbins) didn't have bad luck, he'd have no luck at all, and this gets him down. Take the time he tried to make a kite, he assembled it properly, but it collapsed when he took it outside; undeterred, he made another one, but couldn't get it to fly and when it finally did take off, it flew out of his hands and started buzzing him like a haywire, remote controlled aeroplane until it crashed. Then there's his local junior baseball team, of which he is a member: they haven't won a game all season, and now there are dandelions on the pitcher's mound. Will nothing break Charlie's run of ill fortune?
A Boy Named Charlie Brown was, of course, adapted by Charles M. Schulz from his celebrated comic strip and merchandising empire which still endures to this day and comfortably outlasts its creator. The age old question about the strip is whether it is intended for children or adults; the adults don't use the Snoopy lunchboxes, but the children don't get the subtleties and ironies of the humour, which takes the form of a sort of philosophical despair at the world, and Charlie's inability to be anything other than a feeling-sorry-for-himself loser. Perhaps "loser" is a little harsh, underachiever might be kinder.
Nevertheless, "loser" is the opinion of the boy's classmates and only his best friend Linus (Glenn Gilger) remains optimistic about his chances, even if his loyalty is tested during this film. Most of the Peanuts gang are present, but some are noticeably missing, with Snoopy's accomplice Woodstock nowhere to be seen, and how come the piano playing Schroeder gets a whole musical number to show off his talents when Peppermint Patty appears for mere seconds in a non-speaking role? There's no Marcie, either. There is a nod towards Disney in the film's efforts to incorporate songs and music, along with some trippy visuals that are indicative of the times and a "words" set piece that looks better suited to The Phantom Tollbooth.
A story eventually emerges, but not after Charlie Brown is put through the mill of depression after going to see Lucy (Pamelyn Ferdin) for a psychiatry session. She points out his shortcomings in a not terribly helpful manner, and video records her patient's attempts to kick a football, which, as is traditional, she pulls away at the last moment leaving him a crumpled heap on the ground. After being demeaned in song, Charlie has a moment of inspiration in school - he will enter the spelling bee to prove himself and provide a rebuttal to the taunts he endures. After getting words like "failure" to spell (talk about rubbing it in) he succeeds in front of the whole class.
However, Charlie soon learns the price of success which takes the wind out of his sails. Having won in class, he is sent on to the national spelling bee finals, and the pressure is on; Lucy dreams of being his agent and taking her own sizeable cut of his profits, and Linus gives him his beloved security blanket as a good luck talisman. Will Charlie silence his critics and be spelling champion? Well, what do you think? In the meantime, Linus is missing his blanket so much he's suffering fainting spells, and Charlie learns that not being the underachiever for once means that people's expectations of you are much higher. The film captures the spirit of the comics without adding much to it, but has a measure of whimsical, sympathetic charm in its favour. Music, as in the first few Peanuts television specials, by Vince Guaraldi, with songs by Rod McKuen.