****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A
story adaptation Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia
supervising directors Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske
by Bill Chambers Bambi was supposed to be Walt Disney's second feature film, but the phenomenal success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs1 had thrown his fledgling empire into such chaos--most of it created by Walt's manic spending and multitasking--that it got swapped out for Pinocchio, ostensibly the easier to animate as well as the more commercial of the two. It's not that Disney was playing it safe, it's that he thought he could bank some time and audience good will for experimentation in the years ahead. But before Pinocchio even opened, Disney was apologizing for falling into a sophomore slump, and the film wound up being a box-office disappointment, grossing less than Bambi eventually would.2 It's interesting to try to watch Pinocchio from a contemporary perspective and determine what's lacking (the crude sentimentality of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for starters), having grown up with it as a brand classic. Is it possible this idiosyncratic motion picture--more of a dry run for Fantasia than Walt maybe realized or intended--was ahead of its time, and time caught up? It's possible, though Pinocchio undoubtedly benefited from Disney's practice of cyclically reissuing their animated features: people started to appreciate that it had in abundance what modern Disney movies lacked, chiefly, personality, inspiration, and ambition.
There was, within the studio, a sense that the constant sculpting of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio were somehow different--that the one had been polished while the other needed rigorous perfuming to hide the stench. All this fretting can be traced back to Carlo Collodi's source novel--written for children, yes, but weird, misbehaving Italian children of the late-19th century. Certain elements of it--talking animals, a biblical encounter with a whale--obviously lend themselves to animation but, as Disney quickly discovered, the asshole title character does not. At least not Disney animation, which by this time had sanded down the last vestiges of Mickey Mouse's incorrigibility. The book is also a picaresque, without a real throughline; even though Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs barely resembles the Grimm telling that inspired it, the source material gave Disney a strong spine on which to hang his reconceptions. In fact, though, Pinocchio is a model of adaptation, finding an arc in a morass of incident and successfully looting the text for buried treasure, like the talking cricket who voices Pinocchio's conscience. Collodi quickly snuffs him out, but movies lack the prose writer's capacity to editorialize ("The story of Pinocchio and the Talking Cricket, in which one sees that bad children do not like to be corrected by those who know more than they do," goes Collodi's Brechtian introduction to that chapter), so Disney latched onto him for moral grounding in the depiction of Pinocchio's poor judgment.
He christened him Jiminy Cricket, once a popular alternative to taking the Lord's name in vain. The animators groused about having to soften the grotesqueness of Jiminy (voiced by Cliff Edwards, the first to popularize "Singin' in the Rain") and Pinocchio (Dickie Jones) to the point where both were blandly human, but as you can see, a bit of Collodi's rude spirit did rub off on them. Until late in production, for example, Pleasure Island was called "Boobyland"--and even "Pleasure Island" is pushing it, given Collodi's reserve in naming it Toyland (or the Land of Toys, depending on the translation). Then there's the "I've Got No Strings" number, which despite Disney's legendary prudishness prophesies the "It's a Small World" ride as a peepshow, wherein an international cavalcade of buxom marionettes bluntly hit on Pinocchio. ("I've got strings/But entre nous/I'd cut my strings for you," ooh-la-las the little French number.) With Pinocchio himself, Disney aimed to evoke Shirley Temple, and does--including the tendency to place her in inappropriately suggestive situations. Granted, at the time that wasn't risqué humour so much as just humour, the incongruity of sexualized children as legitimate an avenue for comedy as a monkey in a dress--or, say, a fish with lipstick and eyelashes, like Geppetto's Cleo.
What saves this sequence from tarring Pinocchio for "woke" generations is that the act's sleaziness and the seductive applause it gets convey real danger to our hero's body and soul. Why does Stromboli (Charles Judels, doing double duty as The Coachman), the tyrannical master of ceremonies, have an empty, boy-sized birdcage handy in his office, anyway? Pinocchio appears to be being groomed for something besides the stage. It has been said, by no less than Disney himself, that this Pinocchio is too passive; until he springs into action to save Geppetto (Christian Rub), he mostly backs into jams then waits to be rescued. Indeed, that criticism covers most kid protagonists, considering childhood is disenfranchisement. But it's missing the point to lament that Pinocchio isn't a proactive, Huck Finn type: When Pinocchio's first day of school ends with him enslaved and held captive by a pervert, it becomes clear that Pinocchio isn't some "Boy's Own" yarn--it's about parental anxiety. Disney, like many of his underlings, was a father and bound to interpret Collodi's novel as the story not of a boy unleashed upon the world but of the world unleashed upon a boy. If Pinocchio is the most like a horror movie of any Disney cartoon, it's not because kids are turned into donkeys (though there's that, and it's still freaky3), it's because the filmmakers' fear of the dangers lurking around every corner is so palpable--especially in how the picture breaks P.O.V. more than once to show sinister adults scheming against Pinocchio.
Disney's method of compartmentalizing the feature narrative into individual sequences and developing them like his short subjects results in unmodulated rhythms (Thunderball's underwater set-piece could be said to pay homage to that of Pinocchio in its too-much-of-a-good-thing-ness) and again seems to cause him to lose track of details, such as whether or not animals can talk4, or the amount of time Pinocchio's away from home. Of the latter, it was Michael Barrier in his crisp Disney bio The Animated Man who alerted me to how absurd it is that Pinocchio returns to a dusty, cobweb-strewn house after only a few days in the wild. It's easy to overlook this because an eternity is how it would feel to Geppetto; visually, the film doesn't go to the extremes of distortion that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does, but it's absolutely another work of expressionism in serving an emotional reality first and foremost. Of course the imagery is striking and often surreal in its own right--telling fibs doesn't cause Pinocchio's iconic nose to merely grow, for instance, but to sprout lush green leaves and a nest full of bluebirds, as well. And when he keeps lying, the leaves turn red and wilt, and the birds fly away.
Pinocchio's animation is more complex and refined than that of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. That the perfection of the movie's artistry is a by-product of techniques like rotoscoping--which enabled Disney to assign multiple animators to one character without sacrificing the consistency of the "acting," since they were tracing over a single performance--and decidedly less efficient spending habits fuels the criticism that it's cold and impersonal. But how could it be either with Geppetto in the equation? In Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, Neal Gabler suggests that Fantasia's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment was autobiographical for Disney, "the story of his new power and his vexed relationship to it," though what's more self-referential than a puppeteer, who gives life to the inanimate? Geppetto is heartbreaking. He lives with an adorable kitty (Figaro, nestled high in the top tier of Disney animals for both his cuteness and his believability) and a sexy goldfish, yet whatever bond he has with them, it's not the bond between father and child; and whatever joy he gets from anthropomorphism, it's not enough anymore. He's surrounded himself with so many clocks that Jiminy Cricket has to tell them to shut up to get some sleep--the passage of time is an oppressive presence in the house of this grizzled figure, whose subconscious is manifesting his anxious neediness. When Geppetto weeps with desperate pride at his imperfect offspring, it captures the bittersweet madness of parenthood as eloquently as any work of art ever has. Pinocchio isn't mawkish in the typical Disney style, simply because it can't be. That made it unfashionable, but nothing could curtail its resonance.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Signature Collection (SC) reissue of Pinocchio is a single-disc consolidation of the Platinum Edition (PE) Blu-ray from 2009 that hopes to spur a double-dip with a few new items of interest. Recycled from the PE, the film's 1.33:1, 1080p transfer has lost none of its brilliance in the interim. Disney's approach to restoration was witchcraft in those early days of the format: Regarding celluloid as a transitory delivery system for animation, Disney archivists (somehow) managed to leach the image of film grain without harming fine detail. Any lost picture info was possibly replaced during the frame-by-frame removal of dust trapped under the cels during principal photography, but what a daunting thought. All this may sound like revisionism but it was instead idealism, with approximating the immediacy of the original artwork the main objective. If the presentation sometimes looks a little dead in motion, blame an aggressive image stabilization that isn't natural to hand-drawn animation. After a few minutes of the attendant 7.1 DTS-HD MA track, I switched over to the original mono mix and never returned. There's a robustness to it that belies its lossy compression (DD 1.0), while the remix sounds comparatively brittle as the audio is contorted in directions it doesn't want to go. Also on board is an audio commentary from '09--Disney, alas, has dropped the picture-in-picture option that made this a full-blown "Cine-Explore feature" on the PE--teaming Leonard Maltin with Disney animator ("and unashamed animation geek") Eric Goldberg and film historian J.B. Kaufman, who at the time was writing a book about the making of Pinocchio that finally got published in 2015. (I've not read it yet.) Peppered with remarks from Disney artists of old, it's an extremely amiable slice of cinephilia and really the sum total of the remaining extras.
Video-based bonus material--all in HiDef except where noted--begins with an 11-minute featurette highlighting three recently-rediscovered scenes deleted from Pinocchio during production, cobbled together from story-meeting transcripts, storyboards, and new animatics. In the first, Pinocchio struggles with the idea that he's made of wood after setting his finger on fire, and Geppetto consoles him with a tall tale, to be extrapolated in a comic fantasy sequence, about Pinocchio's grandfather, a noble pine tree. He's a good dad, Geppetto. The second elision is a genuinely funny bit of gallows humour, as the starving Geppetto and his pets receive a package in the belly of the whale containing a cook book! Lastly is an alternate ending, which survives only as thumbnail sketches, that would've had the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable) turn Pinocchio into a real boy on the beach rather than at home. One does wonder why his resurrection became slightly convoluted, except to lend symmetry to the opening and closing scenes.
Singers JR Aquino, Tanner Patrick, and Alex G record a horrible cover of "When You Wish Upon a Star" in a combination music video and making-of featurette that lasts roughly 6 minutes in total. Aquino would like viewers to know he actually fell out of his chair when Disney asked him to do this, something I imagine happens to the best of us upon learning we're the Chosen One. It joins the video for an earlier version by "10 Things I Hate About You" star Meaghan Jette Martin. She's easy on the eyes, but, geez, there's more than one song on Pinocchio's soundtrack, you vultures. Exclusive to the SC, "Walt's Story Meetings: Pleasure Island" (7 mins.) is a companion piece of sorts to the deleted-scenes reel featuring a voice actor reciting Disney's own words from story meetings vis-à-vis the erstwhile Boobyland. I'd rather just read the notes for myself, but at least the impersonation is interrupted periodically by talking-heads with the likes of Pixar's Pete Docter, who calls Pinocchio's VHS release once upon a time "a godsend" to budding animators. Disney himself can be heard in "In Walt's Words: Pinocchio" (5 mins.), in which he reflects, with no shortage of nostalgia in his voice, on the lean years that had preceded and ultimately followed Pinocchio.
Mickey Mouse precursor Oswald the Lucky Rabbit appears in the 1928 cartoon Poor Papa (5 mins.). Therein, Oswald becomes a father to dozens of bunnies (his apparent wife is visited by both storks and a doctor), and eventually their nonsense drives him to climb the roof and shoot at more incoming storks. I confess I'd never seen an entire Oswald cartoon before--is he always this vituperative? The animation is startlingly basic and the image is mushy; it wasn't until 2006 that Disney regained the rights to Oswald from Universal (swapping sportscaster Al Michaels for them!), and as Poor Papa carries the Universal imprimatur here, it probably comes from a dated master despite a slipcover sticker hyping this as a "brand-new version."
"The Making of Pinocchio: No Strings Attached" (56 mins.), resurfacing from the PE, gathers together a familiar crop of experts (e.g., the commentary participants, animation historian Brian Sibley, Disney veteran Andreas Deja) to recount the production from its genesis to its legacy. Nine Old Men Frank Thomas, Eric Larson, and Ward Kimball contribute soundbites via archival interviews. It's a comprehensive piece that takes the time to single out individual animators for praise, thus compensating for a slickness that feels slightly corporate. I appreciated its density of insight more once I got to "A Wish Come True: The Making of Pinocchio" (5 mins., SD), a vapid holdover from the VHS era and one bedevilled by interlace artifacts galore, incidentally.
"The Sweatbox" (6 mins.), not to be confused with the feature-length documentary of the same name, ruminates on the infamous projection room where animators screened their work-in-progress for Walt Disney to critique. It earned its nickname due to its lack of air conditioning, which only intensified a high-pressure situation. Some cheesy re-enactments attempt to provide a sense of what it must've been like to sit in on these sessions (at least the positive ones), although the first- and secondhand accounts of Floyd Norman and Goldberg, respectively, already do that. "Geppettos: Then and Now" (11 mins.) interviews toymakers working in the tradition of Santa's elves before seguing greasily into a commercial for Disney-brand toys and then a nightmarish exposé on the mind-controlled playthings of tomorrow. "Live Action Reference Footage" (10 mins.), a training film shot during production on Pinocchio, explicates the rotoscope process to such a degree that it bothers to diagram the geometry of camera angles and show the construction of the mock sets against which Jiminy Cricket's live-action model will pantomime. Frankly, its glorious wonkishness is something I wish were more commonplace in these collectible packages.
Standard-def trailers for the various reissues of Pinocchio plus an ancient storyboard-to-screen comparison of the scene where Geppetto puts the finishing touches on the titular puppet (4 mins., SD) round out the supplements. HiDef previews for the live-action Beauty and the Beast, Moana, and DisneyNature's Born in China cue up on startup of the platter, part of a combo set that includes DVD and digital copies of Pinocchio.
1. Until Gone with the Wind came out, the highest-grossing picture in U.S. history (displacing an Al Jolson relic, The Singing Fool).
2. That wasn't entirely the movie's fault: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made most of its money abroad, and by the time of Pinocchio the onset of WWII had closed up European channels of distribution. It can't be denied, however, that Pinocchio attracted a smaller audience than Snow White and did almost no repeat business.
3. Hey, ever notice that H.R. Giger's design for the xenomorph in Alien is reminiscent of Monstro? (See first framegrab.)
4. The strange taxonomy of Pinocchio: Crickets and foxes can talk, cats and fish cannot; if a donkey talks, it is an abomination.