halloween tree titleSometimes I wonder if the cartoons I remember from my childhood were real or something I thought I saw and then, as the idea grew, believed it so much that it became real. Luckily, thankfully, I didn’t make this one up; Ray Bradbury did. The Halloween Tree, a children’s book written by Bradbury in 1972, tells the tale of a group of trick ‘r treating friends who chase the spirit of their beloved, Halloween loving friend, Pipkin, across time with the help of the mysterious Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud. In the process of trying to save their friend’s life, they learn the true origins of the costumes they wear as they explore various celebrations honoring the hallowed connection between mortals and spirits from Ancient Egypt to modern day Mexico.

The book had actually been going through development limbo for some time before Hanna-Barbera finally produced an animated television movie in 1993 that went on to win an Emmy in 1994. The movie was adapted by Bradbury for television with the author also lending his voice as the narrator. In the film, the premise is essentially the same, though the eight boys in the book are reduced to three, Tom, Wally, and Ralph, and the token girl of the group, Jenny. Donning their costumes (a skeleton, mummy, monster, and witch respectively) in order to meet up with their group leader, and Halloween prankster, Joseph Pipkin, or Pip, the four friends quickly learn that Pip has appendicitis and can’t join them for their typical trick ‘r treating antics. But when they believe they see Pip running through the woods, they chase his spectral apparition to the gothic home of Mr. Moundshroud and begin their journey to save Pip as he leads them on a wild goose chase across time.

Pips FriendsI remember this movie airing a few years in row as a kid, though it’s only recently that I rediscovered it online. A happy accident in my opinion as I got to relive some memories from my childhood while appreciating the quality of the movie as an adult. As a student of history, I adore Bradbury’s time-traveling tale that shines a light on the historical origins of the costumes worn by the group. His surrogate narrative voice, Moundshroud (played amazingly by Leonard Nimoy), is quick to dole out exposition on the spiritual practices observed by the people of Ancient Egypt, the persecution of witches in “the Dark Ages”, the purpose of monsters as reminders of the darkness we try to ward off, and the value of life over the fear of death as seen through Dia de los Muertos. It’s a fantastic story that paints Halloween as more than just a night of frivolity and candy consumption, but the culmination of various cultural practices, some of which are still practiced and celebrated today.

Historical context aside, the message sent to children elevates this television movie above most. In chasing Pip, the group learns that the jack o’ lantern he’s stolen off the Halloween Tree represents Pip’s soul; the fading light his tenuous hold on life. Each history lesson allows the individual friends to encourage Pip to fight, recounting the ways in which Pip has been a true friend to them while they, in turn, conquer their own fears and admit their foibles. The moments are oddly cathartic, as if Tom, Wally, Ralph, and Jenny are paying their last respects to their friend even as they try to save him. In the end, they make a deal with Moundshroud – one year off the end of their lives in exchange for Pip’s. Unable to pass up four for the price of one, Moundshroud agrees and Pip survives his illness. Finding him recovering at home (on the same night as a major surgery for some reason) tears are shed as Pip thanks them even if he’s not quite sure if everything he dreamed was real. It’s a beautiful message about friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice. How far would you go for your friend? What would you give up to ensure their survival?Moundshroud

For a movie made 20 years ago, it holds up surprising well. The animation is still good save for a few moments where it looks like they weren’t quite sure what to do with the characters in terms of their movements. Moundshroud is wonderfully creepy, yet still likeable as a mysterious creature in the business of collecting souls. I suppose there’s a reason he’s not that enthused to step into the moonlight shining through Notre Dame cathedral. That being said, it’s still a very dated movie, not so much in the early 90s (though you will get tired of hearing Ralph say, “Oh my gosh!” repeatedly), but in a sort of timeless nostalgia. It’s like Bradbury is trying to encapsulate the idyllic nature of childhood in one fell swoop. It may come off as a little cheesy, but hearing Bradbury read his own prose is entirely worth the it.

So if you have 70 minutes to spare, sit down with your kids and watch what I consider a Halloween classic.

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