Thursday, 19 March 2009

PUPPET'S PROGRESS

I was amused to see on the Amazon page advertising the new Platinum Edition DVD of Walt Disney's Pinocchio, the following details...

Pinocchio (2 Disc Platinum Edition) DVD - Mel Blanc

The thing is, to list Mel Blanc as the star of the film is, to say the least, perverse. You see, whilst Blanc - who was famously the voice of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Elmer Fudd et al - was indeed hired by Disney to provide the voice of Gideon the Cat, side-kick to that foxy gent, 'Honest' John Worthington Foulfellow, it was subsequently decided that Giddy (as HJWF calls him) should be played - like Dopey in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - as a mute pantomime character. As a result, all that remains of Mel Blanc's vocal performance - but enough, as far as Amazon are concerned to win him top billing - is an inebriated hiccup!

Anyway, you now know an arcane bit of Disney trivia and won't be too disappointed not to hear Mr Blanc among the film's voice cast.

Now, as long-term readers of this blog will know, I have posted before about my passion for this quite astonishing film...

Click on images to enlarge
...and I had an opportunity to enthuse when, a few months back, I was interviewed for No Strings Attached, the 'Making of...' feature that's included on the new 70th Anniversary DVD release of the film. Just to prove it, here is a screen-grab of me in mid-gab...


Naturally, I watched Pinocchio prior to the interview (although, over the years, I must have seen it close on fifty times) and having now seen it yet again in what is, literally, a sparkling restoration filled with the richest colours and deepest shadows, I am even more certain that this film is not just one of the great masterpieces of animation but also a great movie in any genre.

I first saw Pinocchio from the front row of the circle in the Odeon, Bromley, sometime in the early ‘sixties, when it was already on its umpty-umpth re-release. So entranced was I that I went back to see it again and again - and again!

This, of course, was in the days of 'continuous performances' which meant that I was able to watch Pinocchio eight times in one week!

Teaching myself to write in the dark, I filled an entire notebook with minute observations about the animation, the structure of the storytelling, the set-pieces and effects and the incredible richness of detailing (such as Geppetto's incredible array of carved clocks like the one on the right) that create an intense - almost claustrophobic - atmosphere of fantastical reality that swallows up the viewer as surely as Monstro the Whale has swallowed up Geppetto's boat.




The paintings (left and above) by the Swedish artist, Gustav Tenggren, are two of many pieces of inspirational art which helped create the ornately sumptuous styling of the film that is, essentially, a European picture book come to life.
Pinocchio was released in 1940, just two years after Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the picture undoubtedly benefited not just from all the lessons learned in animating Snow White, but also from the fact that the huge financial success of that debut outing made it possible for serious money to be spent on developing the studio's second feature. The refinement of craft and increased expenditure can be seen in almost every sequence of Pinocchio.

Nevertheless, he two films could scarcely be more different: the first has freshness, exuberance and a naïve innocence that no Disney feature would ever re-capture; the second is more a more mature and studied piece of film-making, bolder and braver in breaking with the sweet formula of the fairy tale and in creating a cast of characters several of whom have an ambiguous morality.









Then there is the tone and look of the film. Despite the occasional scary moments Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is essentially a light, airy film, whereas Pinocchio is dark and sombre…

It runs for just under an hour and a half and yet less than 15 minutes of that time takes place in daylight: the rest is made up of sinister night sequences and scenes shot underwater and within the gloomy, vaulted, cathedral-like interior of the whale.


There are scenes of menace and sheer out-and-out terror: Pinocchio cowering in a cage as Stromboli the puppet-master tells him that he will make a lot of money and when he is no longer any good he will make excellent firewood - a warning which he demonstrates by hurling a hatchet into the body of a lifeless puppet lying in a basket of wood...


Or, again, the scene in the dingy, smoky interior of the Red Lobster Inn where the Coachman reveals his scheme for abducting naughty little boys and taking them to Pleasure Island, his fat, flabby face transforming into a leering demon that terrifies even the crooked Honest John.

Above all, there is the shocking moment when the tough-kid, Lampwick, begins to transform into a donkey: running amok in the pool hall, kicking over chairs and tables and smashing mirrors with his newly-developed hooves.


True, at the end of the film there is a happy ending for Pinocchio, but not for Lampwick or for the other donkey-boys who have been crated up and sent to the salt mines.

A number of sequences carry a terrible sense of desolation: the ruins of Pleasure Island after the boys have reeked havoc and destruction; and the dusty interior of Geppetto’s deserted workshop after he has gone off to look for his missing boy.

Magically, the film juggles the terrifying with the funny, the harsh with the sentimental. And the forces of malevolence, whilst being an ever-present threat, are always counterpointed by the constancy of Geppetto and the loyalty of the temperamental but big-hearted Jiminy Cricket, who begins the film as a storyteller but then steps into the story itself not just as Pinocchio's conscience but also as the audience's guide and companion.


When Geppetto wishes on the Wishing Star that Pinocchio might become a real boy, Jiminy observes: “A really lovely thought but not all practical…” And when the Blue Fairy does, indeed, endow the puppet with life, he says with genuine astonishment, “What they can’t do these days!”

The Jiminy device (unique to the film since, in the original book by Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio flattens the Talking Cricket with one of Geppetto's mallets!) gives immediacy to the tale so that it appears to be a first hand recollection a true story that really happened.


We ought to wonder about the oddness of it all - a sharp-talking, street-wise American commentator who looks hardly anything like a real cricket and basically is only a cricket because we are told that he's a cricket. But we accept it entirely at face value despite the fact that this spunky little insect-man is providing a commentary on a story that unfolds in a quaint, old-fashioned European world that is less like Collodi's Italy than somewhere on the borders of Switzerland and Germany.


The use of the multiplane camera, that had been employed only sparingly in Snow White, gives Pinocchio great depth as can be seen in the opening pan across the moonlit rooftops and the spectacularly elaborate sequence of the hustle and bustle of the village coming awake to the sound of the school bell: the camera moves among the knotted jumble of streets and squares to reveal children running, laughing and playing at the pump; a mother giving a child's face a final scrub; an old man smoking his pipe; a baker going on his rounds; a goose girl driving her geese...


The animators also made skillful use of visual perspectives as in the shot filmed from Jiminy’s point of view as the camera - along with the cricket - literally hops towards the lighted window of Geppetto's workshop.

As for the special effects, they proliferate and are stunning: fire, smoke, lightning and rain; the Blue Fairy's magic wand; the distorted view of Pinocchio through Cleo’s goldfish bowl; Jiminy floating down on his umbrella reflected on the convex surface of Monstro’s eyeball; and the extraordinary sea scenes: the waves, wind and foam, the uproar of surf churned up by the enraged Monstro and the picturesque underwater landscape filled with reflections, bubbles and swirling shoals of fish...


Pinocchio is a tour de force of economic storytelling: compressing the many exploits in Collodi’s book into a single, compelling narrative, told in part through the music and songs that help delineate character and advance the plot: the fraudulent Honest John's 'Hi-diddly-dee, an Actor's Life for Me'; Pinocchio's 'There Are No Strings On Me', an ironic song of freedom sung just before his imprisonment by Stromboli; and Jiminy Cricket's 'Give a Little Whistle' and the opening and closing ballad, 'When You Wish Upon a Star' (movingly rendered by Jiminy's voice, Cliff Edwards) which became - and remains - the anthem of the Disney studio.


Apart from having restored the film to such pristine brilliance that is difficult to believe one is looking at a film that is seventy years old, the DVD contains a lot of extras.

There are puzzles and sing-alongs for the youngsters and many fascinating bonus items for the animation devotee including deleted scenes, an alternate ending, an abandoned song for Honest John, an art gallery, a feature about toys and toy-making past and present (that manages a not-to-subliminal plug for the unltimate WALL.E toy!) and, as has already been noted, an almost-hour-long feature on the background to the making of the film...


No Strings Attached explores every facet of the film from conception to release with inspirational art, storyboard sketches accompanied by the recollections, anecdotes and comments of animators past and present, sundry 'historians' (moi included!) and Dickie Jones, the original voice of Pinocchio who, it turns out, was a real boy after all!!

As for me, whenever I watch Pinocchio I, too, become a real boy once more...




14 comments:

Suzanne said...

My girls had the video and watched it over and over, as kids do, but I never got the chance to watch it in full until a couple of weeks ago! And of course I loved it - for all the reasons you've mentioned Brian. Nobody does it like Walt!
monsf: a boat-and-man swallowing whale

LisaH said...

Yet another 'tour de force' - it's no wonder you get flown over to the States to share your expertise.

Can't wait to see that cute little rosey-cheeked boy singing 'I Got No Strings' in the new digitised version.

As for 'Mel Blanc' appearing as the main name in the credits, that's a bit of cheek (or perhaps it was an unintentional hiccup). It does often happen though, that a film or tv programme is plugged on the strength of a 'name' and when that person only turns out to have a very minor role, people can feel cheated.

Brian Sibley said...

SUZANNE - What is also fascinating is how (outside of Italy and maybe even there) 'Walt Disney's Pinocchio' has supplanted 'Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio'...

LISAH - To be fair to Amazon (though why?) Mel Blanc is alphabetically first on the cast list; although - ironically - on the film itself, the voice talents receive no credit at all, as was the case with all the Disney features from Snow White to Bambi.

Andy J. Latham said...

A great description of a wonderful movie. I hadn't seen Pinocchio since I was a young boy myself so when I watched it last weekend it was fantastic. I never realised as a kid how dark it was, particularly the Pleasure Island bit. Boys getting turned into jack-asses.....I think rather too many are born that way these days!

I can't wait for the next re-release. Snow White I believe? No doubt you'll be back on the plane for that soon enough!! ;)

Brian Sibley said...

What is amazing about the Pleasure Island sequence, Andy, is they way it goes from pleasure dome to hell hole and the mood from unrestrained, destructive fun to danger and desolation...

Snow White? Actually, I've recorded my interview already!

Andy J. Latham said...

Haha oh yeah, I forgot! Well no doubt you'll be back for the NEXT one!

Good Dog said...

It's just so utterly beautiful. And the level of art and craftsmanship astonishes me again and again and again.

Compare it to contemporary (non-100% CG) animated movies, where, say, the camera moves are now created in a computer where they can be tweaked and adjusted on the spot, rather than having to wait to check rushes the next day where one little glitch means bringing the artwork back and putting it back under the rostrum, Pinocchio still stands head and shoulders above them.

The film just bowls me over.

Brian Sibley said...

GOOD DOG - You are so right! I was looking at one of the scenes that never ceases to amaze me: it is an aerial shot of Honest John, Gideon and Pinoke trooping down the street while singing 'Hi-diddly-dee'.

They go round and behind a tree which is a fiendishly difficult sequence to animate as the tree is painted on the background which means that in each frame the animators had to paint a little less of the characters as they disappear behind the tree and then more and more of them as they reappear on the other side...

There are so many brilliant touches of that kind that we scarcely notice but which represent a phenomenal amount of work...

Boll Weavil said...

Just reading your blog evokes in me all the emotions that seeing the film did years ago.In the days before video, my visual reminders came from a Disney book that contained the stories and some very realistic paintings from the original animation.Those scenes appeared so much larger than than life to a child and, as you say, still have an effect now.
AMARGE: A volume we read in childhood, fetched down again for the kids and still occasionally sneak a peak at when no one is looking.

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, BOLL, I had several of those books, too; and a number of Disneyland Storyteller LPs, the sleeves of which incorporated a booklet illustrated with stills from the films. Stupidly, of course, I cut them up and stuck them in a scrapbook!!

Steven Hartley said...

Everything I love about Pinocchio: animation, art direction, story, effects animation, warm characters, etc.

Its great of how Walt Disney got rid of those antic Mickey and Donald animation into realistic animation!

I have seen your talks of the Making of the film and I really found it very informative and interesting!

However, on my website, Blabbing on Arts and Culture, I wrote an article on Pinocchio today about an Trade Ad from 1940, and it shows the name of the characters and who were the animators and the other artists in the credits!! Its very interesting!! Check it out!

P.S. Also, have you ever used Hans Perk's website, A Film L.A., he's got those very interesting documents about the Pinocchio draft which are sheets of paper that describe who animated each scene?

Michael Sporn said...

"As for me, whenever I watch Pinocchio I, too, become a real boy once more..."

It's no wonder I seek out any review you've written. Such a charming line. Enjoy your vacation and thanks for the new Disney blog.

Loren Broaddus said...

Oh my gosh. I totally agree about the demon-faced coachman part. When I first saw that part it just came out of nowhere!!! It scared the heck out of me!!!!

And personally, my favorite characters are Honest John and Gideon, who are animated by the legendary Norm Ferguson (or at least in the inn scene) and John Lounsbery as well as lesser masters like Hugh Fraser, Charles Otterstrom, and Norm Tate.

Brian Sibley said...

Yes, the Fox and the Cat (rather sleazy characters in the original book) become classic Disney villains: a bit scary but camp enough (well Honest John, anyway) to also be funny...