Tuesday, August 16, 2011

DATE Night: Pinocchio

We continue our DATE Night series with the second entry in the Disney animated feature canon- Pinocchio.

The Background:

I see translucent people.
Following up a smash like Snow White was bound to be a challenge. Bambi was actually next in line, but was pushed back when they realized it would take more time to render effectively. That put Pinocchio in the sophomore slot, bless his sweet lil' soul. After initial work was done animating the film, Walt scrapped it because it depicted our little wooden friend much closer to the original in the book- a rascal who was hard to sympathize with.

After much revision, Pinocchio was released to a warm critical reception in the US. Owing to World War II, the film did not do as well overseas and did not recoup its production cost immediately. Still, it holds a vaunted place in cinematic history. It is near plenty of top whatever lists, mostly due to its exquisite artwork and ubiquitous music.

It is pretty clear that the goal from go was to top Snow White's success and in some ways, it managed to. Certainly, by creating a film that was completely different from its predecessor (a princess centered fairy tale versus a young boy centered adventure fable), the studio could not be accused of repeating itself. That ambition, while admirable, would prove to serve them better in the future. Hold on kids, it's gonna be a bumpy ride through a rainstorm in a wagon full of creepy puppets hanging from the ceiling, looking like they are dead. Shudder.

The First Impression:

The Disney Project- Part 2: Pinocchio. An interesting choice for a follow-up to Snow White. Strange, overtly moralizing, and episodic. Once again, amazing artwork. The care and craftsmanship is unreal. I especially loved the underwater scenes. Overall, I appreciate it more than love it.
January 30, 2010 at 1:11am · 

The Art:

9/10. This is where Pinocchio really excels. The art is exquisite from the first frame to the last. I could spend forever discussing the amazing artistry, because every detail of this movie is so fantastically rendered, so I will do this (relatively) quick and dirty and rattle off some of my favorite examples of full-on excellence. Oh! And fun fact! Pay close attention to the very beginning when Jiminy opens up the storybook. There are two other book spines with visible titles that will later get the Disney treatment!

Blue Fairy concept art by Gustaf Tenggren. Wowza!
Everything about the Blue Fairy, from her soft edges to the glitter in her wings to the glow that seems to emanate from within her to the amazing effect when she touches anything with her wand. When I was the Wake Up Fairy in preschool I used to pretend that the same thing happened when I tapped the other kids on the shoulder with a ruler when naptime was over. The translucency of Geppetto's nightshirt when he walks in front of the fire. Purely because it's such a smart detail to add, of course. Minds out of the gutter. You don't see any naughty bits. Pinocchio's nose not only growing, but changing seasons.

The camera showing Jiminy's perspective hopping to Geppetto's. The rich detailing in the shop- such as the amazing clocks (which was each built in real life for the animators to study) and music boxes, the metal dogs in the fireplace, and the bedside candleholder with the surprised face and melted wax hair. Cleo's water distorted view of Pinocchio approaching her. Moonlight washing over the room when Figaro opens the window. The simply spectacular rain, underwater (that shot of the colorful creatures retreating at the mention of Monstro- wow!) and wave effects. The fire, smoke and heat distortion.

My absolute favorite shot in the entire film is the morning after Pinocchio comes to life. There is an incredible shot using multiplane camera technology that takes you into the village and down to Geppetto's, where Pinocchio is getting ready to head off to school. The richness and depth of that long shot is so unbelievable that you'll want to rewind and watch it again. It is just as immersive, if not more, as any 3D shot of the past several years. It will really take your breath away.

The Story:

5/10. If the art is the strongest aspect of this film, the story is easily the weakest. The original book was a series of stories and the film maintains an episodic feel, with Jiminy bookending the film by breaking the fourth wall, which is a problem. It makes for a disjointed experience. You don't have enough time to really get hooked into one storyline before another is introduced, often with the Blue Fairy conveniently serving as a deus ex machina. He's bonding! No, he's going to be an actor! No, he's going to Pleasure Island! No, he's being chased by a whale! Each story has it's own set of characters, with only Pinocchio as a constant, but he is such a cipher by design that he's easy to adore but not to really care about.

Added to Disneyland in 1983.
More than most Disney films, Pinocchio has a rather moralizing tone. Usually, the lesson learned organically springs from the story. In Snow White we learn that kindness to others and faith in your dreams will make for a happy ending. In Pinocchio, it feels as though we are told these stories for the soul purpose of being taught a lesson. Don't lie. Don't overindulge. Don't ignore your conscience. Go to school. It's the lack of grace in teaching that makes the lesson seem preachy.

This all results in few of the scenes having real emotional resonance. I feel heartbroken when Geppetto realizes that Pinocchio isn't coming home and goes searching for him in the rain- calling out his name as the wagon he is trapped in ambles by. The reunion in Monstro's belly was joyous and sweet. Some of the opening moments in Geppetto's worshop are quite lovely.

Almost every other moment that stands out in my memory is one of horror, which is a shift in balance from where the best Disney films are. Stromboli threateningly throwing an ax into a discarded puppet that looks like a crime scene. Everything about Pleasure Island from the creepy clown lit from beneath to the boys who have the bodies of donkeys, but can still talk, cowering against a wall. Monstro's attack. Pinocchio washed up onto shore, face down for several beats too long for it to be comfortable, looking, for all intents and purposes, dead.

Of course it is well known that first on the scary list is Lampwick's transformation into a jackass. It is easily one of the most horrifying moments ever in any piece of film. His body is morphing in front of his (and our) eyes and he is helpless, calling for his mother, despite the being a cocky ne'er-do-well just minutes before. It's retina-searingly, flesh-crawlingly awful to watch and incredibly effective.

The Characters:

One of these guys is Jiminy Cricket and one is Ukelele Ike.
You've got three guesses and the first two don't count.
6/10. My favorite character is easily Jiminy Cricket, who was Ward Kimball's consolation prize for having all of his prominent scenes in Snow White axed. In order for him to be more likable Kimball changed the design from insect like to a little man with an odd head who is a cricket only because they say he is. It worked and how. Jiminy is the most charming and funny character in the movie, yet his humor springs so organically from him. It doesn't feel gaggy or forced. His voice is done by Cliff Edwards, who also known as Ukelele Ike and first introduced the song "Singin' In the Rain" on film. He was a well-known personality and was Disney's first use of celebrity voice casting. Edwards' performance is warm, lovely and imperfect in the very best of ways. If you ever run across the now out-of-print Ukelele Ike Sings Again CD from the Disney Archive Collection, for heaven's sake, get it! It'll cure what ails your soul.

I was gonna show Cleo being flirty but
Geppetto is probably the easiest character to feel an emotional pull towards. His joy and pain are palpable and his tendency towards silliness and absent-mindedness make him likable. His pets are two of the most dimensional personalities in the movie, despite not having any dialogue. His cat Figaro is like a young child who gets petulant when things don't go his way. His goldfish Cleo is a saucy little minx who likes to flirt by twirling about and then revealing herself from behind her tail fin. Both are fantastically animated.

The Blue Fairy is simply lovely from top to bottom. Her voice, by Evelyn Venable, is like silk. She is so beautifully drawn that it is hard to take your eyes off of her whenever she is on screen. And every word out of her mouth is like a level-headed pearl of wisdom to sew into a sampler. "A lie keeps growing and growing until it's as plain as the nose on your face." Preach it, sistuh.

There are too many villains. None of them really have an impact because by the time they get scary, you've moved on to the next. They are all pretty creepy though. Honest John and old-school comic relief Gideon (who was voiced by Mel Blanc, of Bugs Bunny fame, in his only Disney appearance before it was decided that Gideon would be made mute save a hiccup) are more slimy than scary. Violent-tempered, onion-munching Stromboli with his Constantinople butt-wiggle dance. The red-faced, crazy-eyed Coachmen with his creepy black void minions. The huge revenge-seeking behemoth Monstro. They are all effective baddies but are diluted because they all have abbreviated screen time. Also, there's also no closure since none of them are actually defeated. They all just disappear.

I love this re-release poster.
Pinocchio is a bit problematic. He is kind of a void, which makes sense because he is made out of wood and is supposed to be everyboy. His look and voice could be those of a million little tykes. We learn through his experiences, just as he is getting a crash course in life. He asks all the questions. He is sweetly enthusiastic about everything that is new, which is everything. Through his travails we learn important lessons. Don't blindly follow those around you. Listen to your conscience. Do as you are told and don't stray from the path. He is well-designed and animated. I love the moment where he shows Geppetto his school outfit by spinning his body while keeping his head facing forward. The problem is that he becomes a vessel rather than a dimensional character. His transformation into a real boy is quite wonderful, though.

The Music:

7/10. Truth be told, the fact that Pinocchio contains "When You Wish Upon a Star" is enough to warrant this score. The song is pretty much synonymous with Disney, now playing briefly before each of their films. Two of the most important thematic threads in the world of Disney are wishes and dreams, so "when you wish upon a star your dreams come true" is as close to a credo as it gets for the company. Cliff Edwards' performance of the song is delicate and familiar, as if it has existed forever exactly like that and was plucked from the ether and mounted in the opening of this movie. I adore it. It is wistful and comforting, convincing you that its sentiment is true.

The rest of the songs, which, like "When You Wish Upon a Star", are by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, are not quite as spot on. Unlike Snow White, where each song propels the plot forward, the songs in Pinocchio more or less halt the story for a musical interlude which restates something that has already been covered and stews in that idea for a spell. I don't necessarily learn anything new over the course of the songs, but they are still good.

"Give a Little Whistle" is a charm song which shows Jiminy instructing Pinocchio to whistle when he is need of his guidance. "Little Wooden Head" is an opportunity to show Geppetto's light, loving touch with Pinocchio even before he comes to life, but the melody is better used as a theme elsewhere in the score and the most interesting part of the song is that the underscore starts as a tune on a music box.

Ooh la la, indeed!
"I've Got No Strings" is an effective number which fares considerably better. It is chipper without being joyful, feeling like happiness forced by oppression, which is a contrast to the lyrics celebrating being unfettered. We know that Pinocchio is actually enslaved. The staging, with Pinocchio being humiliated and overtaken by his fellow puppets, who speak with eerily still mouths, create an odd and creepy feeling, while the regional variations of the song are quite enjoyable.

"Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor's Life for Me)" is the other song in the score and it's a trifle. Honest John sings it to lure Pinocchio into a life on the stage. I actually quite enjoy this song because, as a former actor, I like to wallow in the sheer irony of the whole thing. We who have tried and not quite succeeded in making a life in the theatre know that it is, in fact, the opposite of "the easy road to success". The lyric promises all of the fortune and fame that rarely accompany a life on the stage. The melody is appropriately jaunty and hummable but nothing that couldn't be expressed as effectively with a few lines of dialogue ("what does an actor want with a conscience anyway?"). I should have paid more attention to Pinocchio's experience before I got my BFA in Acting with a minor in Women's Studies, I guess. It's pretty much spot on.

The other reason, however, that the music is generally held in such high regard, is its score by Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith. It is pretty much spot on. It supports the story, helps guide your experience in the film and integrates the melodic themes from the songs into the underscoring. Oftentimes the use of the same melody in the score is more powerful than its usage in the song itself. I didn't remember the song "Little Wooden Head", but I sure as heck remember the sound of all of the music boxes creating the underscore and the tune itself. The score goes from joyful to terrifying, from timeless to jazzy, innovating music from sounds made by whales and clocks, doing everything it can to make up for the shortcomings in the storytelling. Half of the score is quintessential Fantasyland and the other half very effectively heightens the tension of the scarier moments. Both the wonderful score and "When You Wish Upon a Star" walked away with Oscars.

The Gay Scale:

4/10. Not gonna lie. There isn't much that is gay about Pinocchio at all. All of the parallels to the gay experience that I came up with were a) a bit of a stretch and 2) also allegorical of just about anyone and not specifically queer. I'm sure something can be said of framing Pinocchio as newly out young gay man in the big, bad world being tempted by corrosive forces to take the wrong path. He is ushered towards fame seeking, substance abusing, and giving himself over to hedonism. Honestly, though, these are battles that most face nowadays as a young adult. I also don't much like the idea of Pleasure Island being made out to be a metaphor for gay life, with young gay men being ushered into an apparently consequence-free space where they are ultimately punished for not living by societal structure. Michele Bachmann may interpret Pinocchio's journey as a cautionary tale for young men against the dangers of homosexuality, but this ain't her blog. Homey don't play that.

They love the theatre and are awfully chummy.
Honest John seems a tad light in the loafers and Gideon is terribly attached, but they don't really read as gay either. Cleo is a bit divalicious, but it would be pretty lame to assign her a gay following just on that basis. Of course, there is the fantastic Blue Fairy, who could possibly take Glinda down in a magical cage match, but she hasn't accrued much loyalty from the gays either, despite inspiring the gayest line in the whole film when Jiminy exclaims, "As I live and breathe...A fairy! Mmm-mm."

To me, the most interesting quasi-gay narrative would be that of Geppetto. He is an older single man of indeterminate sexual orientation who is a childless craftsman. He treats his pets as though they were his kids, but still longs to have a child of his own, improbable as it may be, leading him to make that famous wish upon a star in hopes of fulfilling that dream. The joy of finally having a little one to call his own and the excruciating pain at losing him would be just a notch more poignant reading Geppetto's gayness in a world that doesn't accept him as the reason that he has been alone until now. But even this interpretation doesn't quite jibe.

If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is a textbook princess film, Pinocchio is almost the opposite, geared towards a little boy's action-driven interests. There is a more masculine energy that permeates the movie and a noticeable lack of camp, female leads or male eye candy. This all combines to makes one of the least queer Disney animated classics.

The Bottom Line:

Wonder Tale? Um. OK, sure.
6/10. Tom pretty much hit the nail on the head when Monstro appeared and he commented, "This is like a nightmare factory for children." Coming off of Snow White, where there was a perfect balance of charm, heart and terror, Pinocchio feels tonally off. I found myself being charmed by moments and characters throughout the viewing, but the feeling that the film as a whole left me with was dark, disjointed, creepy, moralizing and weird. Artistically, this was a huge leap forward, but in terms of storytelling it was a few steps back. If the bar hadn't been set so high with their first picture, I may have felt different, but Pinocchio is a bit of a disappointment. It is one of the few early Disney Classics that I don't get excited about revisiting. I must say, however, that always letting your conscience be your guide is pretty sage advice, so kudos on that, Blue Fairy.

The Miscellanea:

This is far more effective than that annoying TRUTH
campaign. Enough to make me never want to smoke again.
I would like to start by saying that it seems to overstate the obvious a bit to have an anti-smoking commercial at the start of the disc. I think that the fact that Pinocchio's face turns four different shades of unnatural covers the "smoking is bad" territory. As I tweeted (follow me @movedbythemouse) during the viewing, my favorite quote of the night was courtesy of my roommate, Katie. Tom: "How does he turn into a donkey if he's made of wood?" Katie: "He smoked the grass, man..."

I also remember a series of cautionary shorts from my Disney Channel watching days. Ah. Remember when they used to show classic cartoons on the Disney Channel? They all kicked off with the "I'm No Fool" song and then showed us how to avoid stupidity when in different circumstances. The shorts have a highly stylized look that was popular in the fifties and fun as the dickens to revisit. It reminds me a lot of one of my favorite shorts, "A Cowboy Needs a Horse". Next time you're having fun, maybe it would behoove you to remember a few of these tips.

Jiminy wasn't the only Pinocchio character to show up in a short or two. Figaro and Cleo also showed up again in other shorts, including this one from 1943 where they show up together. It's a bit jarring to see the mammy figure featured prominently, but we'll save that discussion for Friday when I give my thoughts on The Help. For now we'll just enjoy Figaro being mischievous and Cleo being flirty. It makes me wonder whether they were planning on featuring them together even more, Tom and Jerry style, and, if so, why the decided against it.

Finally, here is a Pinocchioddity. This is a fan-made trailer for a mid-sixties cartoon feature called Pinocchio in Outer Space. In it, Pinocchio and his pal Nurtle the alien turtle (!) battle Astro the intergalactic whale (!). It actually would seem right at home in Tomorrowland and looks like a campy hoot.

There goes our second DATE Night! I hope that there was nothing stuck in my teeth and that I didn't sweat too much. You are mighty attractive, if I do say so myself, and it mad me a tad nervous. What was your take on Pinocchio? Was I too harsh or is the film as much of a beautiful disaster as I find it to be? Is that Kelly Clarkson song stuck in your head now? It probably is, since we're friends. Shout at me if you have opinions or have a Pinocchio niblet to share with the class!

Next week, we get to have a DATE Night with Fantasia. Get ready to go all classical up in here, cuz it's gonna be that kind of party.

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