Walt Disney’s initial flourish of success with Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) shocked Hollywood; a town not easily stirred or even as readily used to such welcomed surprises. Indeed, given the picture’s financial windfall and the accolades bestowed upon it – including a special Academy Award with seven miniature statuettes – Walt ought to have been sitting pretty immediately following the premiere. Alas, Disney was not one to rest on his laurels; his ambition knowing no limits, and thus, the period to follow became fraught with varying artistic and financial crises. While Walt concerned himself with building a campus-styled studio in Burbank to dwarf his cluttered Hyperion Ave. facilities, his thoughts had already shifted to several valiant successors to Snow White; his next animated project, the idealistically mounted Pinocchio (1940). If Snow White provided Walt with his finest moment of personal satisfaction (dismissing the critics’ cynical preludes predicting his imminent folly), then Pinocchio would almost affirm their pessimistic outlook; that Walt had bitten off far more than he could ever chew. In time, Pinocchio would rightfully be regarded as Walt’s most technically proficient and artistic masterpiece. Alas, the luxury of time itself was against Disney in 1940. Believing the kinks ironed out while feeling his way through the making of Snow White could only benefit and fast track Pinocchio into a more streamlined schedule and budget, regrettably, work on Pinocchio progressed at an excruciating snail’s pace, adding unanticipated costs and stalemates to its rocky gestation.
With its very adult and sophisticated themes, in many ways Pinocchio proved to be a much closer cousin to James Whale’s horror classic, Frankenstein (1932) than a valiant successor to Snow White; the story by Carlo Collodi, a harrowing nightmare about the harshness of humanity pitted against a creature not of this world. In this case, the outcast is a little boy whose soul is trapped within the whittled wooden shell created by a skilled woodcarver’s tools. Like Frankenstein, virtually all of the antagonists in Pinocchio are adult male authority figures – each more devious, divisive and threatening. Walt generally thrived on adversity. But in the preliminary stages of Pinocchio he quickly felt his animators had strayed too far from Collodi’s original concept for this figurative and literal ‘little wooden head’. The project was put on hold while Walt rethought his concept. Eventually, it was decided the character’s design should lean considerably toward camouflaging its puppetry. As such, Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’ draftsmanship abandoned Pinocchio’s angular features; the character made more child-like and naïve. The other character to cause immediate consternation among the Disney artisans was Jiminy Cricket; in Collodi’s book, taken at face value as an insect. In agreeing Jiminy ought to survive in the movie (he is callously squashed by Pinocchio in the book), Walt took it under advisement a cricket, in its literal form, was not at all appealing to movie audiences. Moreover, it was difficult to animate. Henceforth, a great deal of time and effort was spent refining Jiminy’s insect-like features; the head, smoothed out, retaining a light greenish pallor; his antennae, now more hair-like; his body recreated in miniature human form; with fingered hands and feet replacing the scaly and elongated talons of his species.
The discrepancy in size – a cricket being proportionately nonexistent in the human world – was resolved by affording Jiminy a good many sequences in close-up; his role as Pinocchio’s ever-present conscience significantly outranking the picture’s central protagonist (increasingly becoming the inquisitive to a fault innocent in chronic need of one); Jiminy given two of the movie’s best songs; Give a Little Whistle, and, the Oscar-winning When You Wish Upon a Star (in decades yet to follow, an anthem to all daydreamers and a reoccurring intro to Walt’s weekly ‘Disneyland’ TV show). The narrative eventually ironed out by Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner and Aurelius Battaglia significantly consolidates Collodi’s sprawling fable, split into three distinct vignettes for the picture: the first, charting Pinocchio’s (voiced by Dickie Jones) abduction by the co-conspiring fox, Honest John (Walter Catlett) and cat, Gideon (Mel Blanc), resulting in Pinocchio’s brief career as an actor in Stromboli’s (Charles Judel) traveling menagerie of puppets. Apart from a few brief moments where the full wrath of Stromboli is revealed, this opening vignette is by far the most light-hearted act in the picture; followed by what may still be the singularly most perverse and penetrating sequence ever visualized in a Disney animated feature. Pinocchio’s naïveté is ruthlessly exploited by the delinquent, Lampwick (Frankie Darro); a ‘real’ boy of his own years whom Pinocchio naturally gravitates toward. The boys are taken by The Coachman (Charles Judel also) to Pleasure Island – seemingly, a land of amusements where they are encouraged to indulge in some irreprehensible adolescent decadence without reprisals. To illustrate the point, given an ounce of encouragement a boy may be corrupted into self-destruction, Lampwick is eventually transformed into the physical manifestation of his ‘spirit animal’ - a jackass. The transformation, largely achieved in silhouette, with a few choice close-ups, is bone-chilling; Pinocchio about to suffer a similar fate before leaping from a steep cliff, to avoid capture by the Coachman, and swimming to safety; retaining a set of mule’s ears and a tail as his own comeuppance.
Pinocchio’s reputation as a bona fide classic today was not so immediately apparent in 1940; many critics and parents feeling Walt had gone too far with this Pleasure Island sequence. There is no denying, nothing quite as monumentally disturbing as it has ever appeared in a Disney feature again. But perhaps Pinocchio’s lack of popularity then, was not to be entirely blamed on this brilliantly conceived, though nevertheless too graphic for most kiddies depiction of past sins coming to bear on future repercussions. For all its technical proficiency, Pinocchio is a fairly cynical tale; its seemingly idyllic Tyrolian backdrop dominated by dark and oppressive male figures (from the bombastic Stromboli to the monolithic Monstro, the whale) who insidiously seek out and nearly do irrevocable harm to the innocent of the piece. While Disney movies, Pinocchio included, would continue to emphasize the strength and endurance of kindness, in Pinocchio’s case, overt sentimentality is wholly absent (there are, as example, no cute and fuzzy woodland animals to gather round and protect; even the solitary and oft fallible Jiminy, repeatedly falters in his duties to Pinocch’ as ascribed by the Blue Fairy); his efforts eclipsed by a more grotesque view of societal cruelties at large. And in the Pleasure Island sequence, Walt distinctly pushes his animators to probe the macabre to its fullest; the tenuous imbalance between goodness and evil exposed, suggesting goodness, by its virtue alone, may not always triumphant over evil and, even more unsettling, when unaccompanied by constant conscious reasoning, hardly proves to be its own reward; a little too pungent and profound a statement for most prepubescent palettes to sample, much less digest.
In the final sequence, Pinocchio returns home to discover his father, Geppetto (Christian Rub), has been swallowed up by Monstro, a giant whale, while in search of his wayward son. Having inadvertently caused this latest catastrophe, Pinocchio is now presented with a chance to reprieve himself by becoming a catalyst for goodness in the world. Together with Jiminy, he charts a search and rescue operation; perhaps not fully aware of the dangers in this penultimate odyssey or even as determined to overcome them in due course or be damned for trying. The satisfaction derived from this undiluted self-sacrifice is proof enough to the Blue Fairy that Pinocchio has earned the right to become a real boy. He is liberated from the relative shortcomings of wood-carved puppetry, only to endure the more physically fallible form of flesh and blood. Throughout, Pinnochio features some of the highest quality animation ever put on film; making extensive use of Disney’s patented multiplane camera; establishing an uncanny depth in the two dimensional animated world. From its dizzying descend from a twinkling star in the heavens, soaring over tiled rooftops and into Geppetto’s cozily lit woodcarver’s shop, to the writhing tides that sweep briny foam past Monstro’s gaping mouth and leering eyes as he attempts to swallow Pinocchio and his cohorts whole, Walt’s attention to every last detail proved an extremely costly endeavor. One sequence alone, a complex camera zoom over the village lasting barely a few seconds, added $45,000 to the production costs (more than $300,000 in today’s dollars). Another pricey decision: Walt electing to add spectral highlights to Geppetto’s cat, Figaro’s whiskers (in the days before CGI, painstakingly painted frame by frame onto celluloid). Interestingly, one of the most impressive shots in the movie also proved the most economical: a steamer crossing the ocean en route to Pleasure Island, created from a single cell with smoke effects trailing overhead and distorted glass mimicking the ripple of water below; a moment so simply created; yet, it drew spontaneous applause from the audience at Pinocchio’s premiere and remains hugely impressive even today.
To offset the darkness in Pinocchio’s misadventures, Disney artisans were instructed to make Pinocchio a sublime and ravishingly handsome visual experience. This, to be sure, has been attained, though at what price?…certainly, none Walt could afford at the time, encumbered by development on two more ambitious features; Fantasia (also to be released in 1940) and Bambi (1942); also, the construction of his Burbank Studios. In hindsight, while Pinocchio did little except to strain Walt’s coffers, its everlasting salvation remains Jiminy Cricket. In Collodi’s original story, Jiminy is rather unceremoniously squashed by Pinocchio before the real plot even begins. In Disney’s version, Jiminy (voiced with empathetic perfection by comedian/singer, Cliff Edwards) not only survives, but assumes the function of deus ex machina (or The Blue Fairy, voiced by Evelyn Venable, imprimatur); entrusted with our pint-sized protagonist’s salvation from sin. Jiminy is far from innocent. At varying intervals he even suggests a satirical world-weariness (hinted to have been a scamp with the ladies, glibly admonishing actors as lacking a conscience of their own, etc.). As reincarnated by the animators, Jiminy Cricket takes on an almost Chaplinesque quality, inspiring as the altruism of man, woman and child.
At a cost of $2 million, Pinocchio is in every way technically and artistically superior to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; its Oscar-winning ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, earning a reputation as one of the most iconic ballads in screen history. Regrettably, the movie’s intake at the box office was barely $3 million; a colossal disappointment and, given the negative costs to promote and release it, resulting in a net loss of badly needed profits for the studio; eventually recouped by numerous reissues throughout decades yet to follow. In hindsight, what Walt seems to have forgotten with Pinocchio is his audiences were suckers for love stories and romance. Pinocchio lacks amour; its greatest love between a father and his son. Even so, Geppetto and Pinocchio’s relationship is not at the crux of our story either; rather, the impetus to bring about a successful conclusion to its last act finale. Today, it is perhaps easier to appreciate Pinocchio as a departure from the, by now, oft regurgitated formula inherent in most animated features. Walt would pay dearly for such ‘experimentation’ when Pinocchio’s disappointing returns were compounded by outright losses on both Fantasia and Bambi; the studio narrowly averting financial ruin, commandeered by the U.S. military to produce wartime propaganda and training shorts; Walt’s permanent retreat into some very familiar fairy tale territory with the release of Cinderella in 1950 assuring historians a more straight forward antiquity to deconstruct in their own time. If only audiences had embraced Walt’s visionary pursuits of perfection then, there is no telling where the art of animation might have gone after Pinocchio’s debut. Instead, Walt found it increasingly impossible, and quite unproductive to challenge his audience, seemingly incapable of embracing the level of artistic genius he had so delicately wrought.
So, here we go again: Disney Inc. re-issuing Pinocchio on Blu-ray as part of their newly re-branded ‘Signature Series’. Some years ago, I wrote extensively on the end of the company’s self-imposed moratorium marketing ploy, whereupon classic animated features are made available only for a limited time on home video before being retired back into ‘the vaults’ – thus, increasing the hype and need for reissue to a whole new generation six or seven years later. This worked spectacularly well when VHS was the format du jour. After all, tapes wear out at an alarming rate; especially when overplayed by parents seeking to anesthetize their kids for a few hours in front of the boob tube; even more when manhandled by kiddies with less acumen for their hygienic preservation. The moratorium model was arguably even feasible during the DVD era, primarily as the company seemed to attack all subsequent reissues by topping off the extras; a bare bones release given ‘special’, then ‘deluxe’ treatments. But then came Blu-ray with its promise of perfection the first time out, and, the porting over of virtually all the goodies previously available on other home video formats. Once restored and remastered in hi-def, the criteria for another reissue became not only a challenge (what more via extras could be added to entice a repurchase?) but rather moot, as properly cared for Blu-rays can last for many generations; making the purchase of new discs obsolete.
This repackaged release of Pinocchio, while sporting new cover art, appears to contain the same 1.33:1 pristine image of its hi-def predecessor; Pinocchio last having appeared on retail shelves in 2009. Then, as now, the image has been effectively scrubbed of virtually all its indigenous grain and age-related artifacts. A lot was made of the fact Pinocchio now does not resemble what Pinocchio looked like in 1940. While I have to agree a lot of digital tinkering and pixie dust have generally taken the film-esque quality away from this presentation; it has nevertheless been replaced by a flawless - if ever so slightly homogenized - image that is pretty hard to resist; vibrant colors, exquisite levels of contrast and fine detail, in some cases revealing brush strokes in the original painted backdrops. Age-related artifacts are nonexistent. It all looks very good indeed, particularly for audiences accustomed to our present era of razor-sharp video vs. film stock. The 7.1 DTS audio is also a revelation; the film’s score benefiting the most from this upgrade. It should be pointed out that apart from the last act, Pinocchio’s showdown with Monstro, there is very little need or use of the expanded sound field; dialogue front and center with only the subtlest hints of spatial separation in orchestral underscore and SFX. For purists, we also get the restored DTS 1.0 mono.
As before: Pinocchio can be viewed 3 different ways: (1) in its original theatrical version (2) or with its black pillarboxing bars replaced by Toby Bluth’s artwork (DisneyView), and finally, (3) in Sing-Along mode with subtitled lyrics during the songs. New to Blu: The Pinocchio Project: When You Wish Upon a Star: a behind-the-scenes look at a new music video featuring Alex G, Tanner Patrick, and JR Aquino. There’s also Walt’s Story Meetings: Pleasure Island in which Pixar director, Pete Docter and Disney historian, J. B. Kaufman discuss Walt’s process in refining this sequence (originally titled ‘Boobyland’). Finally, we get In Walt’s Words; an assemblage of archival recordings and interviews from 1956. The rest of the extras are holdovers from the original 70th Anniversary release, and it is gratifying to see the Mouse House did not jettison these as they had previously done on virtually all the vintage extras for their Beauty & The Beast: Signature Edition reissue. Badly done, in my opinion! Herein, we get the nearly hour-long No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio, a comprehensive behind-the-scenes look at this Disney classic; ten plus minutes of deleted scenes; a six minute featurette on Walt’s refining process, and, interviews with toy makers who have a strong kinship to Geppetto. There is also the ‘reference footage’; almost ten minutes of live action film used to help the animators get into their characters. Add to this a new ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ music video, several trailers and promos for Disney’s pending releases of the live-action Beauty and the Beast and Moana and there it is. For those who already own the previous Blu-ray of Pinocchio, I really cannot see the point in this upgrade. However, if you never bothered to pick up this superior example of Walt’s high-classic animation style, then it is high time to add Pinocchio to your collection with the company’s ‘Signature series’ reissue. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)