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October 22nd, 2011

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11:57 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Halloween Tree
I don't care how controversial he is among genre fans, I love Ray Bradbury. The soil of the man's mind is so fertile, and he really knows how to tell a story. The science fiction community tends to dislike him because he uses the tools of sci fi (space and time travel, alien civilizations, and so on) without writing about actual science. I think he finds philosophy much more interesting than science, and this has worked in his favor; SF tends to date terribly, and he's one of the few mid-20th century SF authors who can still be read without much suspension of disbelief. Sacrilegious though it may be to say this, I sincerely believe that Bradbury's works will endure in a way that Isaac Asimov's won't.

It doesn't hurt that he can turn a beautiful phrase, too. The man has an amazing way with words.

Anyway, The Halloween Tree began in the late '60s as the screenplay for an unproduced collaboration with the animator Chuck Jones. When the movie fell through, Bradbury adapted his screenplay as a novel which was published in 1972. Finally, Bradbury was hired to write a new screenplay in 1992, and the animated film was produced by Hanna-Barbera. I'm actually a big hater of both the works of Chuck Jones and Hanna-Barbera (particularly classic Hanna-Barbera), but I really liked The Halloween Tree, and I think that the version we got was probably better than the one originally planned. Also worth mentioning, the '92 screenplay won an Emmy.

The movie is narrated by Bradbury himself, and begins in a small town in the upper portion of a midwestern state. I think this means Illinois, but that's only because Bradbury set so many stories there. Four friends meet in the middle of town for a night of trick-or-treating, but-- where's the fifth? Pip is missing. They go to Pip's house only to miss him as he is being rushed to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy. The friends take a shortcut to visit Pip at the hospital, and they think they see him running ahead.

The spectral figure of Pip leads them to a mansion inhabited by the mysterious Mr. Moundshroud, voiced by none other than Leonard Nimoy doing his best Mr. Magoo impression. Moundshroud hasn't seen Pip, and he's disappointed that none of the friends (who are dressed as a skeleton, a witch, a mummy, and a monster) knows the symbolism behind their costumes. Pip runs past again, and the children follow him outside to a giant tree with jack-o-lanterns hanging from its branches. Pip is after the pumpkin that looks just like him, and Moundshroud is none-too-thrilled when he runs off with it. Moundshroud takes the kids with him on a trip through Halloweens of the past, and the kids learn the origins of the symbols and traditions of Halloween. Meanwhile, Pip's life hangs in the balance...

I don't think it's meant to be especially didactic, but it comes off that way. I've really only revealed the setup of the story, and I can't wait to read the book. It's only about an hour and thirteen minutes long, so it moves fast and there's no time wasted. You'll have noticed that I didn't name any of the characters. Obviously, they have names, but the film doesn't really explore any of them as characters. Presumably they are fleshed out in the book, which I have yet to read.

Bradbury really loves Halloween. And carnivals, for that matter. Those two themes pop up in his non-SF works again and again, particularly in Something Wicked This Way Comes, which is a spectacular book (and movie). His Halloween is a magical, nostalgic fantasy where anything can happen, but it's more romantic than horrific (that's romantic as in, "of, characterized by, or suggestive of an idealized view of reality"). There are no axe murderers here, but there are things so much more delicious and frightening. I won't be writing up Something Wicked This Way Comes, but it has my highest possible recommendation.

The Halloween Tree does not, but it's a very worthwhile viewing experience. Really, the biggest complaints I have are that it's too short to develop the characters well, and I'm not crazy about the animation style. Otherwise, though, this is the kind of old-fashioned TV special that I wish they still made, it's really, really good.

Here's a not-very-good trailer, and the whole movie is available on YouTube.

Also worth watching: Rachel Bloom's music video, Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury, which is where I first heard of this movie.

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