Disney has issued what few could argue is the definitive presentation of the film, along with a pleasing collection of supporting materials.
For older generations, the deal that merged Disney with Pixar – granting the latter’s John Lasseter creative control over Disney’s animation output – was a bittersweet moment. After experiencing an inarguably good run beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989 and running through 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney’s animated films developed a distressing proclivity towards pandering. Features like Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor’s New Groove felt slight, and seemed to exist only as a vehicle for merchandising tie-ins with soda companies and fast food restaurants. Meanwhile, the runaway success of Pixar’s computer animated films (of which Disney was the contracted distributor) would only serve to rub Disney’s nose in its own mounting mediocrity. There’s little argument that the creative merger with Pixar will benefit Disney in the long run, but it’s still a shame that they needed the help in the first place. The company’s first 5 animated features constitute an awesome artistic feat; the films from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, through Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi in 1942 would constitute the beating heart of American feature-length animation for that era. In the ’50s, Disney became more television-oriented, concentrating on marketing its stable of characters to young children and letting Warner Bros surpass their achievement with sharper writing and sarcastic characters (Bugs and Daffy were just plain cooler than Mickey and Donald, period). And though the decade did have its share of memorable films, the studio ended the practice of using hand-inked cells with the visually opulent Sleeping Beauty in 1959, and began using the cheaper xerography method going forward. The golden age of hand-drawn animation had passed.
In 2009, the story of Pinocchio is so familiar that it almost feels like children emerge from the womb already knowing the major movements. Even if you haven’t seen the film since early childhood, there are perhaps more individual sequences that are indelible from memory in Pinocchio than any other Disney film: the Blue Fairy’s first visit with Pinocchio and Jiminy (along with Geppetto’s reaction the next morning); meeting ‘Honest’ John and Gideon (the Burke & Hare of the cartoon world) and being taken to perform for Stromboli; Pinocchio’s Rumspringa period on Pleasure Island (the fertile ground from which many a childhood nightmare grew) along with the terrifying price paid for behaving like a ‘jackass’;* and of course, the search for Geppetto and the encounter with Monstro the whale.
Watching the film for the first time in decades, we were absolutely shocked by the adult nature of many of Pinocchio’s adventures; from the moment the Blue Fairy breathes life into him, he seems to become a lightning rod for trouble, from simple grifters, to outright transmogrification, slave labor, being eaten alive by a whale, and even death! Certainly there were other Disney films of the period that addressed adult issues; the loss of a parent (both on a permanent and temporary level) was central to Bambi and Dumbo, and as a result, both feature moments that pack a ferocious emotional response (we still cannot watch Dumbo’s mother cradling him through the bars in the window). But it’s Pinocchio’s constant brushes with very real threats keep the film from being just a 90-minute lesson in responsibility. Instead of merely getting a finger wag from Jiminy for his transgressions on Pleasure Island, this poor little guy gets the little bit of humanity he had ripped away and turned into an animal! Pinocchio’s road to being a “real little boy” is paved with far more than figurative life lessons – he literally goes to Hell and back again.
After the success of Disney’s Blu-Ray version of Sleeping Beauty last year, the company has much to live up to. That film had used the ultra-high resolution process Super Technirama, which allowed for an unprecedented amount of detail in the animation. And while the Blu-Ray of Pinocchio, a film produced almost 20 years earlier, might not have the nearly 3D-like “pop” that Sleeping Beauty did, the 1080p image allows for the range of subtle splendors to be seen for the first time outside of its initial theatrical engagements. This is, quite simply, the best example of the classic style of animation available on home video.
Each frame is painterly in both design and rendering; whereas Beauty’s style was ultra-modern, recalling both the fashion and architecture of the time (in fact, the cocktail party-cool style of the artist Josh Agle, better known as Shag, shares numerous style points with this unlikely source), Pinocchio’s style feels almost European by comparison. It’s hard to imagine now, but Disney took a bath on both this film and the next year’s Fantasia, so when production began on Dumbo, the standing order from Walt was “inexpensive” and the designs of both characters and backgrounds were greatly scaled back. A quick glance at the difference in the human characters in Pinocchio and Dumbo spells this out clearly, and the Blu-Ray reveals detail in every inch of the frame that isn’t likely to ever have been noticed before. The colors are also bright and vibrant without seeming artificially enhanced(something Disney has been accused of in the past). It’s hard to imagine this film ever looking better.
For its 70th Anniversary (69th, actually, but for a film that features both an unmarried old man whishing for a little boy of his own and an island where young boys are enticed to live out all their most prurient adolescent fantasies, it was probably best to stick with 70 for the box art), Disney has issued what few could argue is the definitive presentation of the film, along with a pleasing collection of supporting materials.
Disc One features audio commentary with Disney’s master of ceremonies, Leonard Maltin, along with animation authorities Eric Goldberg and J.B. Kaufman, a pop-up trivia track that plays along with the film, and Disney Song Selection which plays the songs from the film in a karaoke format.
The second disc features a feature length documentary “No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio,” two deleted scenes and an alternate ending rendered in storyboards, and “The Sweat Box,” which tells the story of the eponymous room at the studio where Walt would critique rough animation, story reels and dailies. Also included are reference footage used to give the animators a handle to begin rough character concepts, some deleted background music, and Pinocchio’s Puzzles, game which should be self-explanatory.
There are several Blu-Ray exclusive features which utilizing BD Live, which allow you to chat with other users while watching the film, send personalized clips, etc. The Blu-Ray package also comes with one unexpected surprise – a standard definition copy (sans extras) of the film on a separate DVD. It’s a pretty shrewd way to get people without players to buy now, and not double dip later, especially when the disc inevitably moves to ‘out of print’ status. We’d also like to mention that the menus, called the Cine-Explore Experience, are far easier to navigate than previous Disney sets (the curtain-pulling effect on Dr. Syn got real old, real fast).
Early on in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary (Richard Dryfuss) asks his children to choose the family activity for the night, and offers a choice between Goofy Golf – “which means a lot of pushing and shoving and probably getting a ‘zero’” – or Pinocchio – “which means furry animals and magic and a wonderful time.” The children want no part of the ‘stupid G-rated cartoon’ and choose golf; the payoff for what seemed like a good natured jab (or a comment on how horrible children were in the ’70s – and that’s from one who knows) comes at the end of the film: as the spaceship carrying Roy off to the future that he’s given up his Earthly life to see lifts off, we clearly hear the strains of “When You Wish Upon a Star” in John Williams’ music. It’s subtle, yet clear, and for Spielberg, the most immediate and evocative expression of the belief that anything is possible, be it visitors from space, or a wooden puppet who wants to be a real boy.
- We have no doubt that somewhere down the line, Disney will issue a version of this film with a very different sojourn on Pleasure Island. Pinocchio’s status in the canon of world cinema has thus far allowed it to keep its scenes of adolescent smoking and drinking (maybe the 100th anniversary edition will replace the offending material with walkie-talkies)
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