Compared to Christmas, Halloween doesn’t boast a wealth of TV specials with different takes on the holiday. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown would seem to be enough, because how much more can you make out of the day beyond what kids already know so well about trick-or-treating and dressing up in costumes that express a different side of their personality vividly for one night?
The late, great Ray Bradbury had an idea with The Halloween Tree, which was first a book for children, and then was watered down by Hanna-Barbera into a television special. “Watered down” isn’t quite fair since Bradbury wrote this adaptation and also narrates the special. But whereas his book had eight boys at its center, flung into the past by the mysterious Moundshroud, to see how Halloween was celebrated in olden times, this animated take has four friends trying to save Pip, the leader of their park. There’s a heavyset boy, a bespectacled boy, a girl afraid of heights, who wishes he could be the leader of the group once in a while, though he, just like the others, has great admiration for Pip, and can’t imagine Halloween without him, even though they must for a time since he’s in the hospital with appendicitis.
But in their quest to go to the hospital to see him, they are waylaid by a haunted house which serves as the residence of the amusingly misshapen Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud (Leonard Nimoy in an entertaining vocal performance. He doesn’t sound like he usually does, and seems to relish being able to play an unusual creature), who has, in the backyard of the house, a Halloween Tree, on which various carved pumpkins hang. Lots of them. Later, we take them to mean that they are the souls of people, and the kids see the ghost of Pip running off with his pumpkin, angering Moundshroud, who wants it back. But instead of raging on and on about the injustice of not getting what he wants right away and having to chase after it, as any other villain would do, Moundshroud is not so much a villain for kids (though they certainly have their beef with him), as he is a guide into the past. He decides to have them along to search for Pip, and engage in a scavenger hunt along the way, which is not so much a concern for the script as is the kids exploring Halloween in other time periods, such as 4,000 years back in Egypt, at the time of the harvest when it was celebrated as the beginning of the new year as winter approached, and in Paris and Mexico. Bradbury and director Mario Piluso smartly understand that kids aren’t going to want to learn, to be lectured to, to have to know about this and that with the fear of being tested on it, so the forays into Egypt and the rest are just part of the search for Pip’s ghost and his pumpkin. Bradbury is very aware of how much kids can stand to know, and the best way to do it is to couch it in engaging animation. If they can see it, they can know it, and they’ll be glad to learn it even though they don’t know that they’re learning. That’s the best way to go about it.
Even though Pip’s ghost runs and runs and runs from Moundshroud and the storyline therefore remains mysterious, it does become tiresome in the wait for why he’s a ghost and why he snatched his pumpkin from the Halloween Tree and therefore Moundshroud. Part of the problem is that the kids have enough personality traits for viewers to know that they’re kids, and one has a fear of heights which is temporarily cured while riding on a witch’s broom, but they play like cardboard most of the time. If not for Leonard Nimoy and the clever presentation of the history of Halloween, this special would be immediately forgettable. However, one thing among so many that Bradbury does well is atmosphere, and there’s a noticeable feeling of Halloween in the Midwest here. The neighborhood is close-knit, the kids are great friends, and all the houses are decorated for Halloween. It’s what a community does. It’s a nice start to an interesting adventure from a master of imagination. Also, watch for the circus animal poster kite. That, and the Halloween Tree, are Bradbury at his finest. He knows well the imagination of children, plumbs its infinite depths, and comes up with Halloween as it should be seen more often today. It’s not only about collecting a wealth of candy; it’s also about what you can’t quite see in front of you, but are convinced it’s there. It’s spooky, and it’s fun.