Friday, 20 May 2011

THE PUPPET'S PROGRESS

My recent post on the naming of Jiminy Cricket has prompted me to write about what is, pretty much, my all-time favourite Disney film...


...which is why I was so delighted, back in 2009, to get the opportunity to officially enthuse for the No Strings Attached, 'Making of...' feature on the 70th Anniversary DVD release of the film. And, indeed, here I am, caught on a screen-grab, in mid-gab...


I recently watched Pinocchio again (although, over the years, I must have seen it close on sixty times) and having now seen it yet one more time – in that last sparkling restoration filled with the richest colours and deepest shadows – I'm 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, Kent, 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 no fewer than 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 (above) 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 painting above (and the one below), 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, a number of whom have an ambiguous morality.

Like the book, the film is a picaresque tale in which Pinocchio's journey (similar in didactic tone to that of Christian in John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress) is fraught with disturbing encounters, difficult choices and painful self-discoveries.


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 – as I mentioned in my last post – Carlo Collodi, originally had Pinocchio flatten 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.


At the end of the film, Pinocchio the puppet becomes a real boy and whilst he is nowhere near as appealing as he was as Geppetto's "little wooden-head", the old woodcarver, along with Figaro and Cleo, seems very happy about the transformation.

I, too, am content, since every time I watch Pinocchio, I am transported back to the front row of the circle in the Odeon, Bromley, and also become (albeit briefly) a real boy once more...


7 comments:

A Snow White Sanctum said...

Terrific post Brian! There is no doubt that "Pinocchio" is one of the most beautifully animated films of all time.

Not an easy story to tell either. Yet, amidst all the sinister darkness and temptation, Pinocchio himself remains innocent and likeable throughout--thanks to Walt Disney's personal storytelling genius.

Clement of the Glen said...

Like you Brian, I was totally inspired by a Disney film and spent as much time as I could gaining as much information as I could about its production. For me it was Disneys 'Story of Robin Hood' for you it was 'Pinocchio' and I can tell it has a special place in your heart. Disney's legacy has inspired so many people down the years!
I was amazed to read Pinocchio was released only two years after Snow White!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Brian, for your delightful, insightful post. We have two things in common--the same first name, and the same favorite Disney movie. Just last evening, I was watching "No Strings Attached" (for about the fifteenth time); how serendipitous that, when I checked your blog this morning, I found your wonderful commentary. I think if we sat down to breakfast to talk about the film, we would still be chatting through supper. I appreciated your comments on the DVD; I only wish the feature had been 10 times longer. My (questionable) claim to fame is that I almost was on that DVD. Disney had planned to include a bonus feature on Pinocchio collectors, of which I was one of three chosen. I was the first collector interviewed; the project was dropped the day after my filming. Hmmm... Anyway, I thank you again for your blog. I always enjoy reading the comments of historians and critics about Pinocchio. I know JB Kaufman is planning a book on the making of the film; I hope it's about 5000 pages long!

Brian Sibley said...

Snow - I agree with your description of Pinoke and it is one of the many triumphs of the adaptation of book-into-film that we identify with and CARE ABOUT the central character.

Clement – Whichever Disney film became our personal touchstone (and I have a number of others in addition to Pinocchio), it is a testament to Walt's passionate involvement in the films that came out of his studio.

Anon (Brian ------?) – Nice to hear from a fellow Pinocchio-fan and I am sorry that you didn't make it onto the DVD: I would have loved to have seen some of your your gems. How long have you been collecting Pinokeana? And how extensive is the collection?

Hadn't heard about the Kaufman book. How do those guys keep getting these plum jobs??

Brian Sibley said...

Snow - I agree with your description of Pinoke and it is one of the many triumphs of the adaptation of book-into-film that we identify with and CARE ABOUT the central character.

Clement – Whichever Disney film became our personal touchstone (and I have a number of others in addition to Pinocchio), it is a testament to Walt's passionate involvement in the films that came out of his studio.

Anon (Brian ------?) – Nice to hear from a fellow Pinocchio-fan and I am sorry that you didn't make it onto the DVD: I would have loved to have seen some of your your gems. How long have you been collecting Pinokeana? And how extensive is the collection?

Hadn't heard about the Kaufman book. How do those guys keep getting these plum jobs??

Bryan said...

Hi, Brian. I didn't mean to be anonymous last time; I couldn't figure out how to put in my name!

I first heard about Kaufman's book when he mentioned it during the Pinocchio film commentary. Then I had the good fortune to be at the Walt Disney Museum in San Francisco the weekend he was giving a talk about the film, and I spoke to him briefly about the book. He said he hoped it would be out for the 7th anniversary. He is doing a book for Snow White as well.

I recognized you from other Disney film extras, and always enjoyed your comments, so I was delighted when I discovered your blog. I just love that you took notes in the dark while watching the movie!

I have been collecting Disney Pinocchio items all of my life, although when I was a kid, we called it "buying toys." In fact, my earliest memory (Age 3) is when I DIDN'T get to see the movie, and I have been hooked ever since.

I can't say that my collection is extraordinary or particularly special (except to me). I know others who have far more impressive collections. I think the producers of the segment were most interested in that fact that Pinocchio was the only Disney stuff I collected.

Naturally, my collection is limited by my financial resources--school teachers are not notorious for being wealthy. There was an auction in Hollywood two weeks ago with some wonderful Pinocchio maquettes and a Tengrenn original painting I drooled over. Pity I didn't have a spare half million hanging around to buy everything!

I do have an Pinocchio head maquette (probably my most prized possession). And currently I am on a mission to acquire all of the Brayton Laguna Pottery Pinocchio pieces. As I now live in Laguna Beach, California, where the pieces were originally made back in 1939, I think it's fitting that I should bring these ceramics back home. There are 21 different pieces, and I have 18 so far.

Enough about me. Were you aware that in the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy says "Jiminy Crickets" after being scared by the Wizard in the throne room? (I really enjoyed your Jiminy history piece).

And finally, there is some animation humor in Pinocchio that I have never heard anyone mention before. When Pinocchio and Geppetto are reunited in Monstro, Geppetto fusses over Pinocchio and poor Figaro keeps getting pushed aside. He is dropped, shoved off the barrel, then whisked off the quilt. I always liked that little touch of humor, and since they never show Figaro reacting to being ignored, it can be so easy to miss. I can't remember when I first noticed it, although I think I may have you beat on the number of times I've watched the film.

My, this is getting long. Since I don't have an email address for you, I had no other way to respond to your questions. And I always LOVE talking about Pinocchio to anyone who shares my enthusiasm for the film.

Bryan

Brian Sibley said...

Bryan – Thanks for the great reply and fascinating memories. Like you, I salivated over the sale last week and, leafing through the catalogue, I felt like a penniless kid with his nose pressed against the toyshop window!

My best Pinocchio treasure is the limited edition of the storyboard issued in book-form for copyright reasons, signed to me by Kimball and Thomas.

Glad you tracked me down, my e-mail can now be accessed if you go, via the side-bar on the right, to 'View my complete profile'.