It’s the official start of the holiday season, and for me that means the Peanuts holidays specials. Oh how their round-headed earnestness cuts through the holiday hype, the true meaning of the season intoned in their dulcet nasal tones. The Easter one is splendid, the Halloween one is of course a classic, their Valentine’s Day special is even serviceable. I force my kids to watch, I mean watch them with my kids, every year.
All, that is, except the Thanksgiving Peanuts special. That thing is the worst. It’s educational, and what’s worse than that? A harrowing faithful account of the pilgrims’ hardships, it actually features Peanuts puking over the side of the Mayflower. Some of them die. The Peanuts can’t die! It’s excruciating, and seemingly endless.
I guess it’s a good way to teach kids about the Pilgrims, except that they’ll wander off and sob quietly in a corner after the trauma of seeing Charlie Brown wearing a Pilgrim buckle hat and talking somberly about how many people they’ve lost. The Peanuts Thanksgiving is a dismaying act of betrayal and only those of us with the boxed set of Peanuts specials (ahem, me) have probably endured it. That’s why I only plan on watching it five or six times this year.
Starting with those Pilgrims themselves, travel, and its attending catastrophes, really is the theme of Thanksgiving. The real Thanksgiving classic is, of course, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” which sets the standard for comedies based on relentless hilarious mishaps. John Candy plays a hapless, gregarious and irritating traveler who becomes an albatross around Steve Martin’s tightly wound neck when as they team up to make it home for Thanksgiving.
If you prefer your comedies to be not that funny, more like grimly humorous and more like dramas, then you’d prefer Ang Lee’s wonderful film “The Ice Storm.” Set in the 1970s, it concerns dysfunctional Connecticut families coping with their various crises over Thanksgiving weekend. Every scene of this film is perfect, and demonstrates Ang Lee’s range- this guy directed “Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and this film, among others. They are so incredibly different, and so amazingly good.
With crystal clear emotional and period details, the ensemble cast captures all manner of complicated family relationships, but my favorite is the college student, Tobey Maguire, coming home from New York City, trying to hook up with a girl and rebuffing his younger sister (Christina Ricci.) The familiarity and unease stirred up by reunited families as the kids grow up is I think the essential ingredient of Thanksgiving itself. It’s all about families coming together, and feeling more or less terrible about it. That is reason for the season, and the families in this film serve it up beautifully.
Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver plays adulterous neighbors and Joan Allen is Kline’s suspicious wife. The whole things culminates in a terrifying “key party,” as well as uncomfortable sexual experimentation among the largely unattended teen kids, and of course, the ice storm of the title, with devastating, fatal results. It’s so riveting, no amount of tryptophan will tempt you to look away. Throw in the DVD for a house full of guests, and clear the place out.