When I think of Ray Bradbury, I usually think of his more adult-centered work like Fahrenheit 451 and "A Sound of Thunder". But you'd be surprised how much young-adult work that Bradbury has done in the past, like his haunting but older-kid friendly Something Wicked This Way Comes and "The Magic White Suit" which is something of a fairy tale. It just goes to show how versatile an author can be. In 1972, Bradbury wrote a fantasy novel geared toward children and young adults that celebrated the best kid-holiday of the year and also endeavored to educate those young minds that would eventually devour the tale. It was dark like most of Bradbury's work, but it was also touching and informative in a way that only the best young adult work can be. In 1992 he would write and adapt a feature-length television movie of the novel for which he won an Emmy Award, and it is this film that I want to talk about today. It isn't as well known as other cartoons based around Halloween (like It's The Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown) but it holds a revered place in the hearts of many who were raised at the time. So lets hop on an "October kite" and fly through the centuries of Halloween history as we climb The Halloween Tree.
The film opens to the voice of a narrator describing one small town's preparations for Halloween night. Four friends busy themselves preparing for Trick or Treat, each one giving his or her costume a unique flavor: Jenny is a witch and attached a broomstick to her bike, Ralph wraps himself in his father's bandages to become a mummy, Wally dons fur and a horned mask to appear as a monster, and Tom Skelton wears a classic skeleton costume. Each of them travels to a predetermined meeting place and are disappointed when their friend Pip (described as their leader and the greatest boy who ever lived) doesn't show up to meet them. They hurry to his house to find it looking sad and undecorated and in time to see an ambulance leaving the driveway. The children are distraught until they see what looks like Pip, only transparent, running off into the woods. They follow him to a creepy old mansion and there they meet the old and decrepit Mr. Moundshroud. It turns out, Pip has a debt to be paid to Moundshroud (which is unspecified but it is implied that it is Pip's soul) and Pip is avoiding paying by evading the clutches of Moundshroud. When Pip escapes again, the kids find him climbing a massive tree full of jack o' lanterns to try and reach a pumpkin which looks like him. Pip escapes into a whirlwind and Moundshroud, against his better judgement, agrees to let the kids join him on an adventure through the centuries so that they can uncover the four mysteries of Halloween. What then begins is an adventure through time and space which transports them to Ancient Egypt, England, France, and Mexico as they discover secrets they never knew existed.
Wow, if anyone can write an educational fantasy it is Bradbury. The tidbits and historical facts he crams into this teleplay's scant 73 minutes is astonishing, considering that he also needs to tell an engaging story. And what a story it is. Here we have an intelligent and non-pandering tale about the history of many of our Halloween traditions, but also one which dabbles into how we choose to cope with loss/tragedy, how we stand up for our friends, and how short our time on this planet is. The Halloween Tree covers all of these topics and more, and it never feels like it is trying to educate. This is the sort of kid-friendly Halloween programing that has been lost over the years because themes like these would seem too dark or serious for young ones now. Indeed, the fact that one of the main children is essentially 'dead' for the running time is enough to steer some parents away from this tale, let alone the walking dead, the gargoyles, and the frank way it depicts certain aspects of the way cultures deal with the dead. It is not a 'cheery' tale at all, but it is a 'sincere' one and I think it deserves respect on that alone. Now that I've seen the film, I am very interested in reading the book on which it is based. I can guarantee that this film is going to make my yearly rotation, particularly if and when I ever have children of my own, and I highly recommend that you make it one of yours.