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“Pinocchio” Comes to Life From a Visit by the Blu-ray Fairy

by on March 15, 2009

When a modern audience is confronted with an older film usually hailed as a “classic,” the first question that usually crops up is, “Does it still hold up now, or is this going to be one of those movies that’s ‘good for me’?” With the advent of remastered, re-released versions, the serious buffs will also ask, “Did the remastering turn into revisionist history?”, where the aesthetics of the work are changed in fundamental ways in the name of improvement. Luckily, the 70th anniversary edition of Disney’s Pinocchio can answer “Yes” and “No,” respectively, to these questions. The movie is now available on both Disney Platinum Edition DVD and a truly stunning Blu-ray high-definition disc.

Pinocchio and Jiminy CricketPinocchio manages to maintain a contemporary feel for modern audiences in the same way as other cinema classics like Casablanca or Singing in the Rain. Even though it’s a period piece and clearly not set in our own time, it still feels remarkably contemporary and can speak to modern audiences with ease. Like many stories adapted by the Disney studios over time, the animated film version of Pinocchio is now probably far better known to the general public than the source material on which it is based. Pinocchio is based on the serialized tales of Carlo Lorenzini (who wrote under the pen name Carlo Collodi), and the film still holds traces of the harsher and uglier source material. By now, most audiences know the fundamentals of the movie well: a marionette is given life by the Blue Fairy, picks up Jiminy Cricket as an often ignored voice of conscience, and adds inches to his nose when he tells a lie.

Disney made a wise choice to soften the harsher edges of the original character, who is mischievous and often rather unlikeable, and opted to turn Pinocchio into a well-meaning but very naïve character. His innocence makes him enormously appealing, even as we are left cringing at his positive talent for getting into trouble and his almost complete inability to keep a thought in his head. Luckily, he has Jiminy Cricket along. The latter is definitely one of the movie’s greatest achievements, partially due to marvelously expressive character animation and partially due to the witty and urbane performance by Cliff Edwards (a.k.a. Ukelele Ike). What could have been a thankless, shrewish role of constant harping and endless moralizing turns into something that’s surprisingly hip and contemporary, despite the age of the movie. Rather than being a know-it-all, it’s pretty clear that Jiminy Cricket because is struggling with the straight-and-narrow himself, as his humorous asides will often show. It’s also quite amusing that he feels like such a contemporary character despite being 70 years old; this is, at least in part, because his up-to-the-1940-minute slang and phrasing now feels like an appealing retro-hip affectation.

The serialized nature of the original source material is reflected in the structure of the movie itself, where Pinocchio himself is the only real constant in a series of vignettes that have almost no relation to each other. On the one hand, this makes for a somewhat disjointed story that occasionally feels like it’s stalling for time, especially at the start of the movie. On the other hand, those early digressions are stunning showcases of the animator’s art, as we take a quick tour through Gepetto’s shop of intricate and ornate cuckoo clocks. It’s also surprising to see how the rules at Disney have changed over the years. Pinocchio contains more than a few elements that wouldn’t pass muster at all today, such as the use of tobacco and alcohol by the main characters, even though the use of those substances leads to a surprisingly harsh end. In fact, it’s rather revealing that Disney felt compelled to slip a Pinocchio-themed anti-smoking public service announcement among the trailers at the start of the disc, as though the bad end to Pinocchio’s smoking in the movie didn’t speak well enough for itself. Indeed, the transformation scene where Pinocchio’s friend Lampwick pays the price for his willful disobedience can be really unsettling, and is staged with a skill at suspense worthy of Hitchcock.

The DVD itself doesn’t make note of it, but knowing of the competition between Disney and the Fleischer brothers makes one wonder exactly how much of Pinocchio was a response to the Fleischers’ grittier, more urban cartoons with their wildly different sensibilities. The iconic Disney animated musical is set in a fairy-tale land and focuses on the unreal lives and concerns of royalty. Pinocchio breaks with this mold by setting itself firmly on street level, starting with the barely concealed poverty of Gepetto and Jiminy Cricket’s pauper status at the start of the movie. It continues with the bizarre and slightly menacing characters the marionette has to deal with for the first 2/3rds of the movie. The slimy con men Honest John and Gideon feel like they’d fit in just fine in a Fleischer cartoon, and the cruel puppeteer Stromboli has the same mix of artificial charm and badly concealed volcanic rage that characterizes Popeye’s Bluto. It might be coincidence, but it was also true that the Fleischers were probably more successful and more popular than Disney in their heyday, and their ultimate downfall was at least partially due to attempting to out-Disney Disney rather than playing to their own strengths. Given that, it’s certainly plausible that Disney wasn’t above reciprocal behavior.

Gee, what they can do these days!The Blu-ray presentation of Pinocchio is nothing less than stunning. The film itself is amazingly sharp and clear, without a hint of dirt, scratches, or film grain to be seen anywhere. The new 1080p high-definition version of the movie also brings out details beautifully, like the fact that the Blue Fairy is supposed to be translucent. You can see all the nicks and scratches in all the well-worn furnishings throughout the movie, and occasionally even make out fine watercolor brushstrokes with ease, especially in the highlights of Cleo and Honest John’s fur or in the beautiful sea foam effects during the final third of the movie. They’re the kind of details that really show off the meticulous, hand-crafted artistry of the animators that created the movie. Colors have also been brightened without losing the organic softness of the original watercolors. Those who have complained in the past of garish or excessively saturated color palettes in Disney’s remasterings should have little to complain about in this transfer. One of the other great strengths of the movie are the chiaroscuro lighting effects, which are brought out beautifully on Blu-ray. If Pinocchio still looks like a film from 1940, it’s only because of its pacing and the fact that everything in it is still clearly done by hand rather than through the digital compositing and effects that are used in modern animation.

Both the Blu-ray and the DVD offer an enhanced version of the original theatrical soundtrack; the DVD has a 5.1 Dolby Digital remix, while the Blu-ray offers a 7.1 enhanced version. The enhanced home theater mixes do for the audio what the remastering does for the video—enhance the source material beautifully without losing its warmth and vivacity. The newer soundtracks also take wonderful advantage of modern sound gear, especially in the final sequences with Monstro the whale. This would have been a banner year for hand-drawn animation on Blu-ray after Bandai’s release of Akira, but the Blu-ray of Pinocchio just sets a new standard.

The Pinocchio vs. Wonder Woman matchup would ultimately give the lie to 'No Strings on Me'As a Platinum Edition re-release, Pinoccho comes with a raft of bonus features. The movie disc in both the DVD and Blu-ray come with an informative audio commentary track by Disney animator Eric Goldberg, historian and film critic Leonard Maltin, and historian J.B. Kaufman, along with spliced-in archival footage with several of the animators who worked on the movie, such as Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston. On the Blu-ray, this commentary turns into a “Cine-Explore” video track that will show the participants on screen while flashing pre-production artwork, photos, or interview film clips. The track is definitely worth sitting through, especially in the Cine-Explore mode. The three gush with us over the cooler parts of the movie, while still taking the time to place the film in its historical context and point out the obvious and not-so-obvious technical achievements. Younger audiences may prefer the pop-up trivia track and the trivia challenge game. The musical features on the first disc allow you to jump to any of the songs in the movie, with or without on-screen lyrics. There is also a music video of “When You Wish Upon a Star” best left unheard, since the horrible syntho-pop dance styling of this version is a pale, poor imitation of the original by Cliff Edwards. Another Blu-ray exclusive is “Disney View,” which places watercolor mattes by Toby Bluth on the sides of the screen to avoid pillarboxing on a high-definition TV set (read more about it here). It’s an excellent compromise to maintain the artistic integrity of the movie while addressing the concerns of audience members who don’t like black bars on their TV. For the most part, the mattes work well, although there are a few moments when they are slightly distracting, such as when the “stars” panel doesn’t move as the camera pans over the night sky early in the film.

Disc 2 is dominated by the hour-long documentary “No Strings Attached,” which focuses more on the context in and around the movie and the Disney studios in general rather than the movie-centric focus of the commentary track. As a result, there is relatively little repetition of material between the two features, with each one supporting the other. Three deleted scenes in storyboard format are also included, along with commentary that puts them in context and explains why the scenes were removed. There is also one deleted song, “Honest John,” which is fun but would have fit poorly with the rest of the songs. A “History of the Sweatbox” is a brief look at how films were made at the Disney studios when Walt was still running things, both through archival photos, recollections by participants, and historical re-creations. It’s relatively lightweight, but reasonably interesting. Several live-action reference films are also included, and will be of interest mostly to the real completists. A massive art gallery is included with art from all stages of the filmmaking process. We also get three trailers for the movie, one from 1940, and then two more for the 1984 and 1992 re-releases. The last, most lightweight video extra is “Gepettos Then and Now,” which interviews toymakers from around the world who continue to carve wooden toys by hand. There are also BD-Live features on the Blu-ray, although I honestly couldn’t generate the interest to find out what they were, and an array of games for the kids. I find it a little amusing that some of these games are tests of skill set on Pleasure Island. One hopes that participating kids won’t turn into donkeys for playing video games when they should be doing more productive things.

See? He doesn't know either.One of the bigger and slightly puzzling bonuses to come with the Blu-ray is a DVD of the movie, which seems to be just disc 1 of the Platinum Edition DVD. This is a growing trend among Disney home video releases (the upcoming Bolt Blu-ray will come with a Blu-ray, a DVD, and a digital copy of the movie), and I suspect it’s being done to ensure that families with high-definition rigs at home won’t be left in the cold when traveling or playing videos in the car. In any event, that audience and those sitting on the fence about taking the Blu-ray plunge might do well to invest in the Blu-ray edition anyway. In fact, the Pinocchio Blu-ray would be a compelling reason to upgrade to the newer technology all by itself, if not for the relatively high price tag and the current ugly economic climate.

While Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs may have been the first Disney animated feature, Pinocchio was the movie that set the standard for the studio for decades to come. There’s a reason why the theme song to this movie became the theme song for the Walt Disney Company as a whole, after all. The care and meticulous restoration in this lavish new release is a clear demonstration of the seriousness that Disney has towards its legacy. With the higher quality audio and video and the Cine-Explore feature, the Blu-ray is definitely the version of choice if you have the technology, but there really isn’t any reason why a fan of Disney and of animation in general shouldn’t own this latest edition of Pinocchio in whatever format they can play.

All images © Disney. All Rights Reserved.

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