Friday, 21 October 2016

The Halloween Tree (1993)

How many kids, pumpkin-shaped buckets in hand, are going to dress up like a Lego Knight or Rey from Star Wars, knock on the doors of strangers, and expect a handful of candy this October 31st?  And how many kids are going to know why they actually get candy? Why do people carve faces into pumpkins and stick candles inside, why do firecrackers get set off, why is there that scene in Meet Me in St. Louis where the children have a bonfire and throw flour in people’s faces?

What exactly does all of this Halloween stuff mean?

Chances are good that the pint-sized Stay Puft Marshmallow man on your doorstep has no clue what makes these traditions tick. He just knows you’re trying to give him a mini-toothbrush and sugar-free gum, and that makes you a wash out. Dude down the street has full size Snickers, FYI.

Back in 1972, author Ray Bradbury noticed this trend of people not explaining Halloween to their kids, and thought it would be a good idea to write a juvenile novel about the holiday’s origins. His research for The Halloween Tree wasn’t necessarily comprehensive, and it isn’t his strongest prose by a long shot, but it gets the job done. It’s kind of like if Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe got fused in a transporter accident, and less what I would call “Classic Bradbury.”

Then, in 1993, an award-winning made-for-TV animated was adapted from Bradbury’s book.

Rod Serling once famously complained that Ray Bradbury stories lost their charm when adapted for television. Bradbury himself took great offense at this notion, but it’s true. Most of his stories sing because of his prose, narration that can’t make it onto the screen without seeming intrusive. Radio adaptations served him well in the 50’s, but there’s never been a film or TV version of one of his books or stories that was better than the original book or story.

Except for The Halloween Tree.

It probably helps that Bradbury wrote the adaptation himself.

He also provides the narration, which is… um… well… it’s always cool to hear an author read their own stuff, and always kind of puzzling when they’re not very good at it.

This narration handily sets the stage of a sleepy Anywhere, USA kind of town, where front doors are left unlocked, the preferred method of travel is hand-me-down bicycles, and people leave pies in windows to cool. Orange leaves fall to gather or breezes that swirl around ankles and rattle loose fence boards, and a mixture of nostalgia and dread fills the evening sky as it darkens in anticipation of Halloween.

A group of young friends prepare themselves and their costumes for a night of unexamined symbolism and free candy.

Tom Skelton, the perspective character of the original story, is the level-headed sort-of-leader of the group. He’s dressing as a skeleton, because puns. His friends are Jenny, dressed as a witch but with very sensible red Keds; Ralph, an Egyptian mummy that we won’t be discussing at length because I’m all mummied out; and Wally, dressed as some kind of monster. Good old Wally is an amalgamation of a bunch of boys from the original story, and for the most part it’s an improvement, but I kind of miss the kid who rolled around in mud for a cheap costume and declared himself a gargoyle.

And then there’s Joe Pipkin. Pip is the reason Tom only gets to be the sort-of-leader, because it’s Pipkin’s adventures that everyone always goes on. It’s Pipkin who has the best ideas of where to find fun or mischief, and it’s Pipkin who holds the group together like glue. He’s – as they used to say – all boy. Frogs in his pockets, grass stains on his knees, freckles on his cheeks, and who-knows-what tangled in his hair. Accordingly, it’s Pipkin who reaches out his hand on All Hallow’s Eve and grabs the biggest chunk of shadow.

When the gang shows up at his door, candy route planned, expecting him to burst onto the front porch in a costume so masterful, they never could’ve dreamed it until they saw it themselves, a bucket of cold water is thrown onto the festivities.

Pip is being loaded onto an ambulance, his house dimmed and undecorated. A note on the door tells his friends to go on and have their fun without him, and a life-or-death appendectomy is hinted at.

But how can there be a Halloween without Pipkin? That’s like a spring without flowers, a summer without lemonade, a Valentine’s Day without rampant speculation about other people’s love lives. It simply won’t do.

The gang decides to follow him to the hospital, and the quickest way to do that is by cutting through the ravine.

Ah, the ravine.

It’s a staple of Bradbury stories that bring natural and unnatural darkness into nameless Midwestern towns. Sometimes, older brothers go to get ice cream and cut through the ravine at night, then take an awful long time coming back; sometimes stubborn spinsters walk through it alone after country visits, knowing that a serial killer is about. The ravine is a deep, shadowy crack in the earth that a Bradbury character can slip through at any moment.

It’s down in the ravine that the children see a gossamer, eerie vision of Pipkin. Blue and white and airy. He urges them on, racing further into the trees and darkness.

Tom, at first, thinks it’s all one grand prank. Pipkin was never sick at all, and this is all part of some Halloween scheme. The others aren’t so sure.

They follow Pip’s ghost to an old, Victorian-style house decked out with a ruby-eyed weather vane that watches them climb a set of wooden steps that sound like organ keys. And there they meet an old man with skin so sunken and weathered, you can see the shape of his skull. He calls himself Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, and he’s voiced by Leonard Nimoy.

Mr. Moundshroud is the guardian of the titular Halloween Tree. A massive, leafless, blackened skeleton of a tree, decked out with thousands of jack-o-lanterns, each with a difference face and expression. The tree is what Pip’s ghost is after – more specifically, his pumpkin off of the tree.

The ghost steals the Pip pumpkin, the Pip soul, and disappears into “the undiscovered country” of Halloweens of yore.

Moundshroud turns out to be the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future all rolled into one. Except he has no interest in any times but the past. There’s no examination of modern Halloweens or glimpses of the future, just a trip down the ages chasing Pip and his pumpkin.

Why Moundshroud brings the children along, whether he wants his pumpkin returned, or to claim Pip’s soul, indeed whether he’s friend or foe, is all left up for grabs. Halloween is a mysterious holiday, and its ambassador equally so.

Ancient Egypt is visited, where Mummy Ralph learns all about what his costume represents. Then Witch Jenny gets a very tame, child appropriate view of the heyday of witches and witch hysteria, and constantly pronounces the word “broom” as “brum” to my great annoyance. Monster Wally has the best sequence of the movie and the book, when Pip leads them to the half-built cathedral of Notre Dame, and Wally brings the building to life with his daring jumps and bounds, every landing calling up stones beneath his feet, and summoning the gargoyles. Lastly, Tom’s costume leads us to Mexico and the Day of the Dead, where a sugar skull and a dark bargain hold the key to Pip’s fate.

Like most histories made for kids, The Halloween Tree leaves out some of the rough stuff and glosses over the details, but it’s also a great way to get little ones more interested in why holidays are holidays. But, unlike something like Voyage of the Mimi where it’s so educational it stops being entertaining, The Halloween Tree manages to be gripping and suspenseful in a way that’s not too overwhelming for the animal crackers set.

Because of its made-for-TV status and being released during the heart of the Disney Renaissance, it wasn’t a big hit, but it’s had a very loyal following despite sporadic availability.  The animation isn’t as smooth as a lot of its contemporaries, and the character models apart from Moundshroud are all fairly bland, but that has more to do with budget than anything else.

The Halloween Tree is a well-told, interesting holiday special, and I highly recommend it for kids who love history or trick-or-treating, and for grown-ups who like Halloween as much as I do.

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