Tuesday, February 09, 2010


Got no strings to hold this film down

By Edward Copeland
Even though my own circumstances confine practically all my moviewatching to home viewing, I think something was lost when Disney stopped its practice of re-releasing its animated classics to theaters every seven years or so with the idea that each new generation would get the chance to experience the magic of something like Pinocchio, which turns 70 today, in a darkened movie theater. With such a constant complaint of a lack of solid films for family viewing, you'd know there would be an audience and don't you expect that as great as Pinocchio remains today, 70 years after its debut, is not going to apply to an animated film such as Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (or going further back a Ferngully or Rock-a-Doodle) decades down the road?

Watching Pinocchio again, probably for the first time since I was a youngster, it's quite amazing to remember that this was only the second animated feature Walt Disney had made following 1937's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Talk about remarkable achievements for essentially uncharted territories, his directors,
writers and animators worked wonders with the Carlo Collodi dark 1873 fable. All of the voice talent went uncredited as well, as opposed to today where it can sometimes be distracting as stars bring characters to life and often front-end billing. (One of the uncredited voices on Pinocchio for some of the minor parts happened to be one Mel Blanc, whom I bet they heard more from in the future.) The supervising directors are credited as Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, whose supervising directing credits would appear collectively and separately on such future Disney classics as Fantasia, Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Much is made of the amazing detail that can be achieved with computer-generated animation today, whether it be a Beauty and the Beast or any Pixar effort, but for 70 years ago, the team assembled by Disney for Pinocchio produced some remarkably rendered images. Whether it's simple scenes as Pinocchio's large eye peering in a keyhole as Jiminy Cricket attempts to pick a lock or when Pinocchio is goaded into take a huge puff of a cigar on Pleasure Island and his face goes from every possible shade of red, to purple before his eyes fill with pools of water before he collapses in a shade of green.

Let's not give short shrift to the story while I wax on about the art. Pinocchio isn't a simple retelling of a fable that every child would know, it goes deeper than most of those because it has a real message about avoiding temptation and being a good person. Our guide through this story is a hobo cricket named Jiminy who opens the film singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" with a full moon behind him and the book of the story of Pinocchio at his feet. As the tale goes, Geppetto is a lonely Italian woodcarver who makes lots of clocks, music boxes and toys when he carves a very special marionette, the marionette Pinocchio. When you look at the designs of some of Geppetto's cuckoo clocks, you know there must be a bit of sadistic streak beneath the demeanor of that kindly old man. One clock sounds off as a mother violently spanks her child, another has a hunter shooting a bird and still another shows a man decapitating a turkey. Still, the night after he makes the puppet, he wishes upon a star that somehow Pinocchio could become a real boy. Jiminy says he didn't believe wishes could come true, but if crickets can change their mind, anyone can. Sure enough, as Geppetto, Jiminy, Figaro the cat and Geppetto's pet fish Cleo sleep, the Blue Fairy visits and grants the wish making Pinocchio a real boy. (Though perhaps she should question Geppetto's fitness to be a dad since he feeds a goldfish a slice of layer cake.) There are conditions. At first, he is just a walking, talking wooden doll until he can prove he's brave, truthful and unselfish. Hell, with those requirements, there wouldn't be enough men or women with those attributes in D.C. to answer a Senate quorum call.

Though Jiminy has been deputized to be Pinocchio's conscience, he has a hard time keeping the doll in line as Pinocchio's first tricked into Stromboli's marionette show and later when the would-be-by is taken to Pleasure Island where he does discover that "being bad's a lot of fun." The Blue Fairy bails him out of the marionette show, even though he flat out lies to her with obvious results to try to make himself look better. As she reminds him though, "A lie keeps growing and growing until it's as plain as the nose on your face." Once, Jiminy gets him out of the Pleasure Island jam (albeit with side effects) the pair have to hit the road to rescue Geppetto who has left in search of his lost prize. Unsurprisingly, his journey redeems him, but would you expect anything else from a classic Disney film? It's 70 years old today, but Pinocchio in some respects still seems deeper than some animated films being produced now.

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