Retro Recaps: (Tim Burton’s) Hansel and Gretel (1982)
Retro Recaps is where we will look back at old television episodes from the past, and analyze their story, content, and much more.
Throughout the years, there have been many variations of the famous Grimm’s Fairy Tale, Hansel & Gretel. By now, almost all of us know the tale: A wicked mother does not like the young charges in her care, and has them sent off into the woods to die. However, the two children come across a candy house, but are soon imprisoned by a witch who lives there, with plans to devour the two.
I’ve seen numerous adaptations over the years, but one that had not surfaced until recently, was a variation made by Tim Burton.
Produced on a budget of $116,000, and sporting an All-Asian cast, Burton’s live-action effort was made between his stop-motion short Vincent, and his live-action short, Frankenweenie, in 1984. It only premiered once, way back on Halloween 1983, on the newly-formed Disney Channel…and then was never heard from again…until recently.
The short starts by showing us numerous toys and playthings, each one with large round eyes, and intriguing features. We soon see these are the playthings made by Hansel and Gretel’s father. The two children eagerly watch the toys, when their stepmother angrily scolds them for lazing about, and their father for doing nothing productive except making toys.
As night falls, the mother serves everyone a goop-like substance, berating the father for not making enough money, and the kids for being lazy. While she spoons out a small amount of goop for each of the three, she fills her bowl to the brim, and noisily devours the meal.
The kids quietly make fun of her eating habits, causing her to strike them, before their father intervenes. Angered that he has taken “their side,” she sends the kids to their room in the attic.
After some time, their father climbs the ladder, and performs a little puppet show for them, and gives them cookies. Gretel says how she does not like their stepmother, but the little puppet promises that she will soon be gone.
The next day, the stepmother encourages the kids to go on a walk with her. A little unsure, Hansel takes some small stones, and creates a small trail behind them as they venture into the nearby woods. The stepmother then distracts the kids with a sparkling toy, and disappears from sight.
Later that evening, the father wonders where the children are, but the stepmother offers little help. It is soon after that a knock is heard on the door, and the children appear, and are embraced by their father (as the stepmother feigns joy that they have returned).
The next day, the stepmother gives Hansel a pull-toy shaped like a duck, that she claims was from their father. The kids are led back out on another journey, with Hansel dropping the stones, and pulling the duck behind him. Unseen by Hansel, the duck eats up each pebble he drops.
This time when the Stepmother abandons the kids, the two realize they have no way to get home, and fall asleep in the forest. Overnight, the duck toy turns into a spindly-robot. Upon awakening, the children follow it, and it leads them to a large candy house!
The children begin to eat at the front of the house, with Hansel surprised that the walls contain candy-coated filling. As they continue to eat, the door opens, and out steps a pale old woman with dark glasses, and a candy cane nose. She eagerly invites them in, and allows them to eat some candy chairs and a table.
After they have finished eating, the witch takes them to a room with marshmallow beds…but it doesn’t take long before suddenly, striped hands emerge from the beds, and grab the children, holding them down!
The hands then push Hansel down a chute into the basement. He is soon joined by a talking cookie, called Dandan the Gingerbread Man. Dandan then taunts Hansel to eat him, as well as makes all sorts of bad puns (including a take on Rod Stewart’s If You Think I’m Sexy).
Upstairs, the witch has put Gretel to work making sure the oven is warm enough. Finally, the witch can’t wait any longer, and has Hansel brought up for cooking. However, Gretel whacks the witch with a poker, and the witch begins to fight back with her striped cane. Eventually, Hansel gets free, but not before the witch half-blindedly begins poking her cane all over the house, cause the walls to spew all sorts of candy filling.
Things get dicey when in a fit of craziness, the witch’s cane turns into a pair of nunchuks, before she blindly begins throwing candy objects from her dress, that turn out to be candy-filling bombs (that explode in a spatter of color!).
Quickly, Hansel and Gretel position themselves in front of the oven, and when the witch makes a flying kick at them (yes, you read that right), she flies into the inferno.
The kids quick rush out of the house, and watch it melt into a puddle of candied goo. Once the house has completely melted, a swan-shaped boat rises from the remains. The kids board it, and the candy goo turns into a river, carrying them home.
Their father eagerly greets them, and happily tells that their stepmother is gone. He then proposes that they roast marshmallows and make a spaghetti dinner, only for Hansel to exclaim that they still don’t have any money.
As the family’s eyes turn to the swan head on the boat, its beak opens up, and gold coins pour out, causing the reunited family to cheer for joy at their good fortune.
As one can read from that synopsis above, this is definitely a different take on the Hansel and Gretel story. It’s never really been explained just why the short was then stashed away deep in the Disney Vaults. In the book Burton on Burton, Tim mentioned the following regarding its premier:
“I think it showed one night, Halloween, at 10:30 pm, which for The Disney Channel is like the 4:30 am slot. So, that one didn’t go over too big. But there are little moments in it that I like. It was like one of those scary children’s shows I grew up with.”
In truth, the show comes across almost like a bigger-budgeted, small-town stage production. All the sets are as simple as can be, though the real creative production design is saved for the witch’s house. Instead of the standard gingerbread house, Burton’s use of a cake-like house oozing with filling inside its walls and furniture, is a concept I have never seen attempted before. One can easily imagine the multiple takes needed for these scenes, but it’s a sight that is almost a ‘horror’ sign, in the way the filling seems to almost “bleed” from the soft walls.
What was most interesting to me, was seeing so many staples of future Burton production design in almost every single scene! As well, the short may be one of the brightest Burton productions there is, with Hansel and Gretel dressed in blue and pink shades. This coloration makes them stand out in the normal world, but when they get to the witch’s house, they seem to blend right in…while the witch’s dark black robes pop out at you, almost as a sign that something is amiss.
The witch’s pointy-hatted attire, and pasty face, immediately put me in mind of the Mayor in Nightmare Before Christmas, and Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Even the rather cloying mannerisms of the witch seemed a little familiar, almost like how Burton and Depp worked to make their Wonka like an off-kilter kids-show host.
Burton’s stylings also seem to work well when things go from charming, to creepy. I’m sure some kids were terrified when those candy-striped hands popped out of the marshmallow beds, and enfolded the two screaming children…not to mention how their bed frames look like teeth with big eyes on the edges.
This short shows one of the first times Burton directed live-action, and one can see that the staging is not particularly strong at times. Then again, that could be where the charm of this bizarre short comes from, in that it feels like something you would have seen on Saturday mornings long ago.
Even the music has an air of simpler times, sounding more like a music box, putting me in mind of the melancholy and calming sounds heard from Mr Roger’s Neighborhood.
Acting-wise, Michael Yama seems to have the more fun role, playing the dual parts of the Stepmother, and the Witch. Most of Burton’s work usually has a character that seems larger-than-life (like Beetlejuice, or the Joker), to play off the more ordinary persons, in this case Hansel, Gretel, and their father. These three are the more soft-spoken, and seem moreso to be there to show that the innocent and simple-minded will triumph over the wicked and mean-spirited.
Of interest is that it’s never said exactly what becomes of the Stepmother. One could assume that maybe she was the Witch, but like a number of plotpoints in the short, it’s never resolved. The story seems to exist in its own realm, wherein while certain things seem modern, others seem old-fashioned (almost like the way Edward Scissorhands, is a film that seems entrenched in old monster movies, 1950’s suburbia, and the modern day).
There are some fun little wordplays that spell caution if you listen, notably when in one scene, the witch mentions how ‘everything’ in her house is edible, along with calling the children “cutlets.”
For this short, writing chores were given to Julie Hickson, who was said to be Tim Burton’s girlfriend at the time. She also served as the writer on his short Frankenweenie, and had a small hand in the treatment for Burton’s first Batman film.
Looking online, there are a few areas that have been fascinated by this lost Burton short. One of the most intriguing things was this post at a blog titled Unpopped , that has pictures from a Japanese Tim Burton Tumbler fansite, that has several black-and-white, behind the scenes pictures of the production. One that shows detail lost due to the video tape copies, is the detail in the floor you can see on the right. Those whorl patterns in the forest floor set are all but lost when one views the video of these scenes.
It should be noted that the posted short online is incomplete. Before it started, Vincent Price appeared in a pre-show, to introduce the story. The only thing I could find in regards to this appearance, was the following picture, with the puppet Hansel and Gretel’s father made, perched over his shoulder:
Prior to the posting of this special on Youtube, the only place one could have seen it, was as part of the Tim Burton exhibition put on at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibit also appeared in Los Angeles in 2013, but as of now, there’s been no word if it’s still out there, touring in the US or other parts of the world. If you do happen across the exhibit, the short can been seen in its entirety, along with the Vincent Price opening. And if anyone knows if the exhibit is coming to the American Midwest anytime soon, please let me know.
During his early days working as a Disney animator, Burton often said that much of what he did creatively seemed odd to the management staff. Some said his less-traditional character stylings on The Black Cauldron would have been amazing to see, and some of his first preliminary work on The Nightmare Before Christmas dates back to that time. Eventually, Burton struck out into the world of live-action filmmaking, and the quiet animator with the quirky drawings has become a name almost everyone knows now. And with this short posted to Youtube, it serves as another little insight into his early creative roots.
“I’ve never been able to predict or think what an audience would like to see. I’ve always felt: how can anybody else want to see it if I don’t want to? And if I want to see it, and nobody else wants to, then at least I get to see it. So, there’s one person who’ll enjoy it” – Tim Burton, from Burton on Burton