In 2012, this intrepid reporter plans to watch, in chronological order, all of Walt Disney Studios' 52 theatrically-released, feature-length animated films, one per week.
Flush with cash and confidence following the huge financial and critical success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney doubled down on ambitious projects. After building his animators a state-of-the-Art Deco campus, Walt dumped the remainder of Snow White's profits into a number of diverse films. Refusing to rest on his laurels or take the safe route, Walt looked for fresh, innovative stories and ideas for his next work. Ever the innovator, Walt flat out refused to follow up Snow White with another princess story and managed to hold out for almost a decade and a half before the studio's continued financial straits brought about by these risky chances forced his hand, and Cinderella was put into production. Two such gambles saw release in 1940, the first of which was Pinocchio.
Based on a 19th-century novel by the Italian author Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio was a riskier bet than Snow White from the get-go. While popular, particularly in its native country, Pinocchio was nowhere near as recognizable or beloved as the timeless fairy tales the studio later mined for feature film gold. The story of a puppet who is tested with temptation on his journey to becoming a real boy, the work is a series of morality tales designed to scare kids straight. While these elements remain intact in Disney's version, a lot of the darker themes have been eliminated. For example, the original serialized work sees the puppet hanged for his many transgressions.
After a brief prologue, Pinocchio begins at night as transient cricket Jiminy Cricket stumbles through a small Italian village looking for a warm place to stay the night. He happens upon the workshop of woodworker Geppetto, a kindly old man living with his cat and fish, who is just finishing up work on his latest creation, a puppet he names Pinocchio. Geppetto goes to sleep wishing that his puppet will become a real boy. Shortly thereafter the Blue Fairy arrives granting Pinocchio life and deputizing Jiminy Cricket as the puppet's conscience.
I mentioned last week how audacious it is that Snow White spends so much screen time on a small domestic scene at the dwarfs' cottage. Little did I know that a similar sequence happens in Pinocchio and plays out for a similarly long period of time. The opening section, which besides the opening credits and prologue, all takes place in Geppetto's workshop, unfolds over twenty-seven minutes, one full third of the film. It is so sure of itself, in its storytelling, jokes and characters that we the audience barely notice the passage of time. It's easy to forget how wonderful this low-key section of the film is because so much action and plot occurs afterward, but upon this most recent viewing, this opening segment has become my favorite section of the entire movie. We get the lovely interplay of Figaro the grumpy cat (beautifully animated by Eric Larson) and Cleo the flirtatious fish. We also get wonderfully creative cuckoo clocks, my two favorite being the dunking duck duo and the hiccuping wino (also, there's Geppetto's hilarious reaction to all of the synchronized chiming, "I wonder what time it is"). This cozy section of the film works almost as well as a stand alone short film but as a prelude for the series of mishaps about to ensue, it is marvelous. Like the dwarf's cottage, we spend enough time with these characters to get a bead on them, learn of their relationships, hopes and dreams. By scene's end we are sufficiently swept up in the emotional turmoil of separation that drives the rest of the film.
Immediately following this scene comes that glorious tracking shot I mentioned in last week's post. It is the next morning and we descend upon the quaint village through multiple planes of scenery, panning to the right and pausing periodically to see children leaving home for school, their mothers wishing them well. We move past foliage and through stone archways before resting on Pinocchio, eager to join the kids. I mentioned at the time that the shot, though beautiful, is a little too flashy, and I stand by my assessment but dear god, how beautiful it is. The technical achievement on display here--and later on in the film--is giddily exciting. You can still feel the rush of exhilaration that the animators must have felt upon completing such a virtuosic and elegant shot. Their audacity for achieving the unknown is utterly infectious.
Despite his best intentions, Pinocchio is quickly whisked away off his path to school by the grifters Honest John and Gideon, a feline pair of mischievous scoundrels who quickly sell Pinocchio to the greedy puppeteer Stromboli who imprisons Pinocchio, after his initial success with the rousing "I've Got No Strings" musical number. After the arrival of the Blue Fairy and the unforgettable nose-growing scene, Pinocchio is set free only to run into Honest John and Gideon again who convince him to join a cavalcade of rowdy boys on an excursion to Pleasure Island, where they can brawl, smoke and break stuff to their hearts' content. That is before they get turned into donkeys and are sent to work in circuses and salt mines. Even as a full grown man (or as full grown as one can be whilst writing lengthy essays about cartoons) I must confess that fellow delinquent Lampwick's transformation into a jackass is still one of the most terrifying moments in cinema history. His comeuppance is at first cathartic since he is such a nuisance, but once he discovers the extent of his transformation and begins pleading with Pinocchio for help--his hands that grip Pinocchio's shirt turning to hooves and his cries into whines--all frivolity is lost and we are frozen with horror. The sequence is one of the most effective in the film, if not the entire Disney canon. Ask anyone who has seen the film what they remember most and chances are it's Lampwick becoming a donkey.
Luckliy for our heroes, Pinocchio and Jiminy escape Pleasure Island relatively intact. From here, the puppet is finally able to prove himself worthy of boyhood as he goes off to save his father, who is trapped in the belly of a whale. The subsequent aquatic search and rescue of Geppetto is an absolute tour-de-force of animation. The underwater effects are spectacular, particularly in such moments as when Pinocchio asks a school of fish where Monstro the Whale is and the fish flee in terror. Their movement forces a blurring of water in the foreground, a sign of the exquisite attention to detail, that in its subtle genius thematically enhances the encroaching danger of Pinocchio's quest. Sixty years after Pinocchio's release, Pixar released the wonderful Finding Nemo, a similarly heartwarming story of separation and reconciliation between a boy and his father that takes place mostly underwater. The film was built on banks of expensive high-powered computers but I defy you to make the claim that the underwater animation is of a higher quality than that of the last ten minutes of Pinocchio.
Is it possible to nitpick a masterpiece? Well, despite my reservations with such an endeavor I'm going to give it a try. While I consider Pinocchio a supreme achievement, certainly one of the most innovative and rewarding animated works ever released, I am irked by a few minor quibbles that refuse to quiet down. For one, I find the episodic nature of the second half of the film a little jarring. There is barely any room for reflection from one escapade before we are thrust right in to a new danger which has little continuity with the preceding proceedings. This is obviously a flaw inherent in the source material, which started out as a serialized work in Italy before being compiled and expanded into a novel. A series of adventures piled on top of one another was the best way to keep audiences interested but as a film narrative it feels a little strained, especially after the beautifully contained rhythm of that opening sequence.
The other minor flaw that sticks in my craw is the repeated dei ex machina of the Blue Fairy. I can get on board with her first rescue when Pinocchio is Stromboli's captive because hey, she's a magical being, she can come and go as she pleases, but at the end of this scene she says to Pinocchio and Jiminy that this is the last time that she will help them. Of course, shortly after their next misadventure on Pleasure Island, Pinocchio and Jiminy are back at a vacant Geppetto's and are moments away from throwing in the towel, when a magic note descends from the sky telling them where to find Geppetto. Come on Blue Fairy, make this kid work for it! You shouldn't guide him every step of the way. Anyway, a very minor quibble but it never fails to bug me.
Last week I failed to mention the wonderful songs permeating Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While "I'm Wishing", "Whistle While You Work" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" are all gems and the score as a whole may be better than Pinocchio's, nothing can compare to the iconic "When You Wish Upon a Star" that bookends the latter film. Maybe I've been on Main Street USA one too many times at dusk but within the first few notes of "When You Wish Upon a Star", I'm welling up. It's no wonder that Disney has continued to use this song as its anthem, seventy years after its release. The song is a timeless masterpiece, not just from a songwriting perspective, but the film's version sung by Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket, is peerless. A quick search shows contemporary versions by the likes of Brian Wilson, Los Lobos, and 'N Sync, but none of them will ever surpass Edwards' inimitable, reassuring croon.
Pinocchio may be the most lavish feature Disney ever released. Thanks to those aforementioned receipts from Snow White, Walt spared no expense bringing this story to life and it shows in every single frame. The wonderful characterizations, exquisite backgrounds, and phenomenal special effects are second to none. Unfortunately the war then raging in Europe cut off a huge portion of potential box office revenue and the film was less-rapturously received than Snow White. Subsequent Disney features would be constrained by budgets and management. Who knows what artistic riches we would have reaped had this film and the next few in Disney's line-up been commercial successes. We are lucky enough that films like Pinocchio were once given every opportunity to be great.