Pinocchio: 70th Anniversary Edition (US - BD RA)
Our Gabe Powers revisits the sheer terror of Disney's most terrifying movie...
There isn’t, or shouldn’t, be any question as to the incredible achievement of the Walt Disney Studio’s second feature length animated film. I could sit and spin on Pinocchio’s amazing qualities for at least five paragraphs, but that would be boring (not to mention really easy, I could just transcribe this disc’s audio commentary). In hopes of drumming up adult interest in this new release I’m instead approaching the film with the freshest adult eyes I can muster. Pinocchio wasn’t one of my favourite Disney films as a kid because it scared the crap out of me. This second glance reveals just as dark and strange a film as I remembered; I’m just old enough now to process the information in a more logical fashion.
The whole thing is downright weird from any traditional storytelling standpoint. The narrative is fractured into four episodic mini-stories, each featuring a new series of random events and characters we’ve all learned to take for granted over the years. When’s the last time you questioned the logic of a liar’s nose growing with each new lie? Or the logic of a living wooden boy? Or the logic of sending a ‘newborn’ wooden boy to school?
I find the character of Jiminy Cricket the story’s strangest aspect. Geppetto’s a little off, to be sure (I’m positive that if they film came out this year parent groups would be calling him some kind of paedophile), but he’s at least a human. Jiminy is a cricket, for Christ’s sake. A talking cricket (that looks nothing like a cricket by the way) that acts as an abstract concept—a conscience. And Jiminy is a strange choice for Pinocchio’s conscience considering his penchant for flirting with every artificial female human in the vicinity, not to mention the fact that he’s obviously a drifter. It’s also notable that Jiminy appears to only be seen by Pinocchio, the Blue Fairy, Honest John’s cohort Gideon, and Lampwick, all child-like or magical characters. All this wouldn’t be quite so strange, had the character not caught on, and become one of the most memorable and beloved in the studio’s history.
The strangeness of a wooden boy with an insectoid conscience soon gives way to sheer terror. Not only is Pinocchio kidnapped, exploited, and thrown in a cage, but his capture tells him plainly that he plans on killing him and burning his body as soon as he wears out his welcome. Later, Honest John, who’s a fox for some reason, takes a job from a creepy man who’s paying good money for little boys, who he’s talking to a place called ‘Pleasure Island’, where he announces they will not return as boys. We learn later they’re going to turn into donkeys, but it all sounds pretty dirty, not to mention that they’re smoking and drinking beer, two big no-nos according to the new rules of the G rating.
The Pleasure Island sequence is a nightmare. I recall closing my eyes or leaving the room when I was a small child. First a strange, unnamed fat man drops off a bunch of young boys via horse drawn carriage, and they immediately take to fighting each other, smoking cigars, drinking beer, and breaking things. Then a group of black monsters lock the gate. Turns out that the island turns naughty boys into donkeys, and the unnamed fat man strips them (yeah, he strips them), and shoves them into crates for mostly undefined reasons (apparently there’s always slave labour jobs available for boys that are willing to make jackasses out of themselves). Pinocchio watches in horror as his new best friend Lampwick transforms into a donkey, while braying in pain for his mother.
Then the story delves even deeper into nightmare logic as Pinocchio and Jiminy return to find Geppetto gone. They make it home and father is gone. They crawl tooth and nail out of one nightmare, only to find themselves in another. But soon a random dove (the Blue Fairy in disguise, apparently) appears with a letter announcing that Geppetto have been swallowed by a whale while looking for the missing boy. Not only has he been eaten, but he and his adorable pets are slowly starving to death. Later, in the battle against the whale, Pinocchio actually drowns and dies (even though he was successfully breathing under water in the preceding scene), but his sacrifice is not in vain, as he’s resurrected by the Blue Fairy… just like that other immaculately conceived young man. The nightmare/dream aspect is also informed by the strange way that the film’s entire world seems to exist in one place, where Jiminy and Pinocchio can access anything with a simple walk.
It’s all beautifully animated (though not quite as beautifully as the studio’s next film, Bambi), relatively true to the original tale (which, as I learned from the making of doc, was episodic), and quite charming, but looking back one has to wonder who the film was really made for. The story is all about a child living up to someone else’s moral code, and he’s forced to follow this code under the threat of never becoming a ‘real boy’, which sounds surprisingly fascist now that I stop to think about it. It’s like the world of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (or more accurately the Paul Verhoven film version), where civilization earns ‘citizenship’ through service.
The cleanliness of Sleeping Beauty, along with its more recent vintage (which is still pretty ancient), led to a more impressive standard definition to high definition upgrade. Pinocchio looks more ‘handmade’ in comparison. In hi-def you can see the pen and paint strokes. There’s a water effect used as Pinocchio prepares to jump into the sea to find his father that appears almost digital. The following underwater scenes have the most interesting water effects, colours, and fine details in the entire film. In high def the incredible smoothness of the blurring effects are especially impressive. The following scenes featuring Monstro the whale are mix of sketchy cell animation, and highly detailed matte paintings. The contrast of these scenes has always been apparent, but in hi-def it’s almost alarming, as is the incredible scale of the sequence.
There’s an interesting addition made on this new release which takes advantage of the 1.33:1 framing, which is the film’s original aspect ratio. Selecting the Disney View option before playing the film will lead to simple framing images on the left and right instead of plain black. These edges usually take one element of a scene (wood panelling, dark water, circus tents), and change with the on screen action. The changes are sometimes awkward, drawing attention away from the film, and sometimes don’t blend quite as inconspicuously as needed, but it’s a nice option.
The film may’ve frightened little Gabe, but the soundtrack record got a real work out on the old Fischer Price player. The specifics of the plot might’ve gone missing from my brain, but I remember the words to every single one of these tunes. Pinocchio was made in 1940, so stereo wasn’t an option, and 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio was even less of an option. The last time Disney remixed one of their catalogue films the result was the simply immaculate Sleeping Beauty Blu-ray DTS track. The difference is that the people working on Sleeping Beauty had stereophonic tracks to work with.
This DTS track is very close to the restored mono track in scope. There’s plenty of opportunity for surround overload (the clock sequence at the beginning, and the whale sequence at the end both come to mind), but for the most part the technicians don’t bother. This is fine, though, as crisp and warm mono is preferable to artificially recreated surround and stereo effects. As is, the surround and stereo channels are mostly devoted to the infectious score. The 7.1 adds the most to the .1 piece to the equation, and is a little tougher than the mono track. I was expecting a bit more bass when Monstro the whale is inhaling pre-sneeze, but was not at all disappointed by the LFE punch that followed his breaching attacks on Pinocchio and Geppetto’s raft.
Disc one starts the extras with an all new commentary featuring Disney experts Leonard Maltin, Eric Goldberg and J.B. Kaufman. The commentators run through all the film’s most important and incredible points (there’s really nothing fair or balanced about the subject matter), including story points (even the stranger ones), the film’s place in the development of the Disney brand, and ultimately animation in general, and several of the more technical aspects of the animation process. Along the way they share archived interview audio from the original animators, producers, etc. Some of the more intellectual stuff found here is fascinating beyond anything I’d ever be able to muster. There is a Cine-Explore option as well, which augments the track with footage and images, though much of this can be found in the second disc’s documentary.
Under ‘Music and More’ is a music video for Meaghan Jette Martin’s new pop version of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’. Martin apparently can’t sing because they digitally augment the hell out of her voice. Also included is a sing along option for the film five songs. Under ‘Games and Activities’ are a fact track option and a trivia answering game. The facts are mostly copied from the commentary, but there are a few bits of additional knowledge, while the game is surprisingly difficult (when expert level is selected), with a multi-player option.
Disc two is divided into two categories, as per the norm for the studio’s big animation releases. Under ‘Games and Activities’ you can find ‘Pinocchio’s Puzzles’ and ‘Pleasure Island Carnival Games’. ‘Pinocchio’s Puzzles’ is aimed at pretty young kids (ones that can’t yet recognize shapes) and moves pretty slowly. It also froze my player—twice. ‘Pleasure Island Carnival Games’ include target practice, a guessing game, a strength testing game, and a donkey race. All of them are marginally entertaining.
This brings us to the ‘Backstage Disney’ menu. The entire set’s big extra, even better than the expert commentary, is ‘No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio’. This nearly hour long documentary is every bit as information packed as the other solid behind the scenes docs that often accompany Disney’s special edition animation releases. This particular doc covers the usual ground, from source material and historical standings, to story development, casting and animation. The usual animation experts explain what makes the film so special, and the animators themselves explain much of the process, though in the form of archive footage, as most of them are very, very dead. The experts indulge in a bit of hyperbole (seriously, how many Disney films can be called the ‘pinnacle of animation’?), but don’t avoid touching on the film’s excruciating horror streak. There is a special focus placed on the film’s sound design towards the end of the doc, and the importance of Disney’s animated movies in the history of sound and music in film.
Next up are three deleted scenes with an introduction, which includes the story behind finding the scenes. The scenes are ‘re-created’ in the form of script stuff, story boards, and production art, and each feature their own introduction. There are sound effects, and some minor voice acting, along with a commentator that describes things that may not be entirely clear from the sketchy drawings. The first scene is a bedtime story Geppetto tells Pinocchio concerning his ‘grandfather’, a king tree. The second scene is an extended version of the rather depressing sequence where Geppetto and his pets sit starving in the belly of the whale. The final scene is the sketchiest, and is an alternate ending. In all these run just over ten minutes.
‘The Sweatbox’ is a brief, six and a half minute look at Walt Disney’s innovation of story reels. Apparently Walt was the first person to ever produce film using storyboards by cutting them together as a reel. Then these reels would be scrutinized by Disney and a small audience in order to deal with editing issues before expensive animation commenced. Modern computer animators still use this process. Next are ten minutes of silent ‘how-to’ footage concerning live-action reference, set with a new narration track.
The art gallery includes sections for development, Gustaf Tenggren’s specific development art, character designs, maquettes and models used, backgrounds, storyboards, production photos, and live-action reference. There are a whole lot of images here, but even busy viewers should make time for the Tenggren drawings. There are then three trailers from three different releases of the film (1940, 1984, and 1992), a deleted song about Honest John, presented in audio only (very contemporary for the time), and a sweet little eleven minute featurette about toy makers called ‘Geppettos Then and Now’.
The third disc of the set is a DVD copy of the movie, for those of you that don’t own a Blu-ray player, but think you might someday (I guess?), or for reviewers like me to score screen caps.
Thankfully I can verify that Pinocchio is still a prime example of vintage Disney animation, but I’d think twice before showing it to your wee ones. Adult fans should take a close second look at this charming and shocking little nightmare on film, it’s a wonder of imagination, and features some knock out early character animation. Just put it in perspective for yourself, and I think you’ll be surprised what you find. It’s not as stunning a Blu-ray release as Sleeping Beauty, which was a more refined motion picture to begin with, but it’s still high quality hi-def, and the new extras are divine.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 10th March 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master 7.1 English, Dolby Digital Mono English
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: Expert Commentary, Deleted Scenes, Disney View, Cine-Explore, Pinocchio's Trivia Challenge, Pleasure Island Carnival Games, 'No Strings Attached', Geppettos Then and Now, Trailers, Image Galleries, Music Video, Sing Along
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton S. Luske
Cast: Don Brodie, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro, Cliff Edwards
Length: 88 minutes
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