Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Our Feature Presentation (20/50) -- Pinocchio (1940)

After Snow White and the Seven Dwarves made Walt Disney Studios a giant heaping truck full of money, Walt was excited to get started on his next follow-up project, and had about nine or ten different ideas of what he wanted to do. He kicked around nearly every single fairy tale and story heard of by the Western world (many of which he would eventually end up adapting) before finally settling on an 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi about a puppet brought to life. The plot was tweaked, the characters were refined, and after a good three years of toil, Pinocchio was released to American audiences on February 7, 1940.

Pinocchio, aside from Fantasia, would be the last time that Walt got truly, fully into every single facet of one of his films. In the following years, he would make suggestions, contribute ideas, and hold final say on all of his animated movies, but in Pinocchio, along with Snow White and Fantasia, Walt was involved in everything—character designs, script writes and rewrites, individual gags, everything. The result is one of the most lovingly crafted animated films seen on this side of the Pacific, and a film that grows better with age.

Generations of kids and adults have enjoyed Pinocchio, and it's not hard to see why.

Pinocchio (as you no doubt know already) is about the titular puppet and his quest to become a real boy. Carved by a kindly old man named Geppetto (Christian Rub) and brought to life by the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable), Pinocchio (Dickie Jones) is eager to try to become a real boy for his father, but often gets sidetracked and falls into temptation. At his side is Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), a transient insect who is appointed by the Blue Fairy to help Pinocchio on the road to good behavior. Together, the two are sold to the gypsy puppet master Stromboli (Charles Judels), tricked into attending a horrid, child-transforming theme park, and swallowed by a whale. And you thought you had bad days…

Back in the early days of animation, before any suitable shortcuts were discovered, Disney animators did everything by hand. Every background, every small character movement, everything. It was fantastically expensive to do, but the result is that Pinocchio is one of the most gorgeously animated movies I’ve ever seen. Several times during my showing, I had to pause the film and marvel at the intricately designed clocks in Geppetto’s workshop, or the wondrously imagined sea floor during the film’s latter half. More than any film I’ve watched so far (except, perhaps, Fantasia), this is best seen on Blu-ray, for all of the hi-def goggling that ensues.

Pinocchio's animation is positively breathtaking, including several complicated and gorgeous tracking shots like this one.

More than just a technical achievement, though, Pinocchio is a wonderfully charming film, and filled to the brim with outstanding characters. The time invested in changing Pinocchio into a sympathetic protagonist (as opposed to the raging toolbox that he is in the original story) was well spent, as he has no problem carrying the brunt of the film’s emotional weight. The movie is also blessed with an excellent supporting cast, from the humongous, showy Stromboli (I love when he discovers he’s been paid with a slug, which he bends with his teeth), to the conniving, charismatic Foulfellow (Walter Catlett), to the loveable, fatherly Geppetto.

Even the now-clich├ęd Comic Supporting Animals are great, with Figaro the cat exuding the best, rascally traits of every kitten I’ve ever known, and Cleo the fish providing a nice splash of character (ba ha ha). My favorite, though, is Jiminy, who is an absolute riot through the whole picture, dropping throwaway gags left and right (“What would an actor want with a conscience, anyway?”), and Edwards showcasing some wonderful personality. All-in-all, I don’t think there’s one main or supporting character that I don’t like in Pinocchio.

Perhaps I've simply grown into Jiminy's vaudeville comic stylings, but I find him way funnier now than I did as a kid.

Musically, Pinocchio is pretty dang strong. There’s not a weak song on the whole soundtrack, and the movie’s main song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” has become the anthem for the entire Disney company. “Give a Little Whistle” was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, with Jiminy’s playful banter with Geppetto’s various carvings. And though it gets stuck in my head far too easily, I’ve always enjoyed Foulfellow’s “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee,” partially because of my love for nonsense lyrics, but mostly because it’s catchy as hell.

Of course, as fun as it is, Pinocchio is far from an empty, harmless lark, and is painted with many dark corners in addition to its bright ones. Pinocchio’s faceoff with Stromboli turns sour fairly fast, with the big guy shouting and brandishing threats at our puppet pal, and the ensuing rain adds a bit of bleakness, though Jiminy helps take the edge off (“C’mon son, buck up. Be cheerful. Like me”). Monstro the whale is a huge, hulking mass of teeth and blubber, with a Sauron-esque eye and an incredible tenacity for chasing down what it wants. By far the most terrifying scene, though, is the sequence where Pinocchio’s friend Lampwick transforms into a donkey—the scene is done as a slow reveal, with Lampwick losing control and eventually changing through silhouette (his final cries are still as chilling to me now as when I first watched this movie 17 years ago). The dark patches don’t necessarily make the film “better” for having them, but the dynamics between the dark and the light help create a more balanced experience than many films aimed at the family.

A mass of teeth and blubber, Monstro is a nigh-unstoppable force that's a far cry from, say, Rumpelstiltskin.

If I had to harbor one complaint with Pinocchio, it’s with the episodic structure of the narrative. There’s not much of an overarching plot to the film, other than that Pinocchio wants to become a real boy, and some may get turned off by the seemingly-random occurrences that our little wooden protagonist has to work through. This is probably the most piddly complaint you could lodge against this movie (unless you are also turned off by what a blatant Deus Ex Machina the Blue Fairy is), and it does almost nothing to inhibit my enjoyment of Pinocchio.

Many films in the Disney Animated Features canon are trumpeted as “classics” (Robin Hood, anyone?), but Pinocchio totally and unabashedly deserves the title, as well as all of the accolades it’s been showered with in the 71 years since its release. One of the most wonderful examples of a family film for each and every member of the family, Pinocchio deserves a spot on DVD shelves everywhere.

Top 3 Songs:

  1. “When You Wish Upon a Star”
  2. “Give A Little Whistle”
  3. “Hi Diddle-Dee-Dee”

Favorite scene:

  • Pinocchio and Geppetto escape from Monstro

Favorite character:

  • Jiminy Cricket

The Jar Jar:

  • Lampwick

How I Watched It

As I mentioned above, I watched Pinocchio on Blu-ray, the second film in Disney’s Animated Feature library to get the hi-def treatment. Unfortunately, Disney is putting this film (along with Snow White and Fantasia) back in the Vault on April 30th, giving you few precious days to secure a new copy (though I imagine it’ll kick around on Amazon for a couple weeks before becoming super-inflated like most out-of-print classics). I’d recommend snapping it up, too, because Pinocchio on Blu-ray is a real treat.

Let’s assume for a moment we already know it looks spectacular in full 1080p (and does it ever!); the colors are bright, the detail is amazingly intricate, and the whole package is one big visual feast. Instead, let’s focus on the two discs of extras (including the main film’s disc). On the first disc is an audio commentary from Leonard Maltin, animator Eric Goldberg, and Disney historian J.B. Kaufman. I haven’t listened to it yet, though I did rather enjoy their commentary for Sleeping Beauty, and I assume it follows suit. Pinocchio also offers DisneyView, a mode that adds scene-specific art to the black bars surrounding Pinocchio’s 1.33:1 screen (I rather like it, if only because the bars make me feel like I’m “wasting” the space on my TV), as well a pop-up trivia track called Pinocchio’s Matter of Facts.

The second disc offers a whole host of supplementary goodies (as well as the usual Fun & Games bollocks offered on Disney DVDs and Blu-rays). Of greatest interest is the Making Of Pinocchio featurette: No Stings Attached. Part of the reason I love the Platinum line (which this film was the last member of before Disney switched over to the Diamond line) is because of the supremely thorough Making Of segments created for the releases, and No Strings Attached ranks somewhere near the top for me. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but at a good four minutes shy of an hour, No Strings has plenty of content for enquiring minds who wish to know about Pinocchio’s production. There are also several deleted scenes, live-action test footage, and a few other shorts on different aspects of production, all of which would surely be interesting if I had time to watch them. Pinocchio is a fine release on Blu-ray, and you would do well to snatch it up before it’s gone.

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