Thursday, July 24, 2014

Pinocchio (1940)

Supervising Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske


In late 1937 the little cartoon studio, Walt Disney Productions, put animation on the map as a mainstream cinematic art with the release of the first full length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The question was now what would be Disney’s follow up to the cartoon that legitimized animation? After two years Disney would release an adaptation of the Carlo Collodi novel about a wooden puppet come to life as their second feature film, further flexing the muscles of the animation studio that appeared to prefect the art bringing life to drawings on the big screen.

Pinocchio is an animated fairytale about a wooden puppet who yearns to become a real boy, but must learn honesty and bravery before his wish can come true. An elderly toy maker, Geppetto, wishes upon a star that his little puppet can be a real boy and in fairytale style a blue fairy grants his wish by breathing life into his newest creation, named Pinocchio. However, Pinocchio must learn important lessons before he can become an actual boy. With no moral barometer Jiminy, a well-spoken and well minded cricket, is appointed as Pinocchio’s conscience by the fairy, but Pinocchio still finds himself into messy situations. Pinocchio is first sold to a greedy puppet showman, and upon escaping is quickly lured into yet another trap with other young boys to act like jackasses, in turn literally transforming them into donkeys to be sold as goods. Pinocchio, only turned partially into a donkey, and Jiminy get away, but upon returning home discover Geppetto has gone looking for Pinocchio finding him swallowed by a whale. Pinocchio bravely ventures out and saves his father from the monstrous creature. By proving himself as unselfish and brave Pinocchio is granted life as a real boy much to the delight of Geppetto and Jiminy, who too is rewarded by the Blue Fairy.

What stands out from this motion picture is how beautiful the animation is. Artfully constructed with the most skilled of animators this Technicolor feature does what live action films could not do with cameras. The audiences are given a beautifully different perspective on storytelling as the camera glides above and through the old world village town that is home to Pinocchio and Geppetto. Having painstakingly worked to assemble Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs years prior, the Disney artists appear more sure of themselves and go above what was seen in the previous feature film. A grand step up, this picture can take one’s breath away again in a visually stunning story captured in cell-drawn animation with the likes never seen before.

Walt Disney was never one to dream of sequels. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs hit theaters and smashed box office records, becoming a runaway success that transformed the Walt Disney Studio, Walt was immediately asked by adoring fans and critics when he would do another “Snow White.” As stated back when his short The Three Little Pigs become a phenomenonearlier in the 1930s “you can’t top pigs with pigs,” meaning Walt knew that he could not go beyond what he built by doing the same thing.

An ever forward-thinking man Walt Disney immediately looked for other stories to tell as his next feature length film, and when he was handed an English translation of the Carlo Collodi novel by one of his animators, he knew he had the basis of something good.

The Collodi novel consisted of many episodic stories about the little wooden boy which was meant to serve as moral tales to teach young girls and boys lessons, but it was far from an innocent tale as we see in this Disney adaptation. Pinocchio in the book was a mischievous character looking for and causing trouble, often learning lessons through painful and torturous means. Disney and his team needed a character that was more sympathetic and reimagined the Pinocchio character as the ultimate form of innocence with no prior knowledge of judgment. This made the character of Pinocchio softer creating compassion from the audience. The animators would also round out the original illustrations of an angular puppet, making him very boy-like, almost making you forget he was a wooden puppet in the first place.

With Pinocchio being almost too innocent he needed a companion character to help lead him to the ultimate lessons as a moral guide. The story writers found inspiration from a very short lived character in the book of a cricket. In the original story the cricket was simply killed mischievously by Pinocchio with a mallet who came back as a ghost to haunt the wooden boy. Here in the film Jiminy, who would be heavily anthropomorphized, becoming the moral guide to our journey with Pinocchio. He is the character through whose eyes we experience the story with all its frustrations, wonderment, and joy we experience. Donned with the name of Jiminy Cricket, the little character would become a popular character written occasionally in future short projects for the company.

By the time Pinocchio went into production the Disney animators were veterans of the long process that dominated the studio over the several years with the project of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. For great lengths of time the animators worked tirelessly on processes to perfect the look and feel Walt Disney wanted for that feature, and now with all that knowledge and know-how they was able to come into a second feature with unparalleled experience.

The use of the multi-plane camera, the animation device that allowed multiple layers of animation cells to move independently with the camera creating the illusion of depth seen in live action pictures, is utilized to a far greater extent. With this form of animation some of the most breath-taking and artistic establishing shots on film were created. Animation allowed anything the imagination could think of to be presented in the film, and it is only animation that allows the magic of the Blue Fairy to come across with such awe and wonder.

In casting Pinocchio Disney decided to break its prior mold and here cast voices that were of known talents. This is most true of the voice for Jiminy Cricket who serves as the voice of reason in the film as actor, performer, and sing/songwriter Cliff Edwards was casted. Edwards had had a appearing on screen for over a decade as mainly minor roles. His talents would lead him to Tin Pan Alley as he would  penned the famous tune “Singin’ in the Rain.” His voice would be synonymous with Pinocchio most notably for his recording of the film’s primary song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Which would go beyond just defining this film to define the entire studio.

The role of Pinocchio was given its innocence by the performance of a real young boy and not a grown adult mimicking a child’s voice with the casting of Dickie Jones. Jones at eleven years old when he recorded the dialogue gives the character the childish energy that makes the performance most authentic as a naive youth learning the way of the world for the first time. Audiences could have seen Dickie Jones in his role from the 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington as he plays Senate page in the Capital chambers as he was beginning to go beyond bit roles.

Disney animators would continue to resort to rotoscpoing, the process of filming an actor and tracing their movements to animate characters, when it came to their adult characters to inspire life-like movements. However, in most cases, the animators would only use the rotoscoping as a guide and less as a crutch as they did in Snow White. This gave animators more control over the character performance allowing many characters to appear more vibrant. The one case where a character was clearly rotoscoped from a filmed model was the role of the Blue Fairy who was modeled and voiced by Evelyn Venable. Venable was a small name actress with some studio experience, once playing the mother of Shirley Temple in The Little Colonel. Her performance provided the characterization of the Fairy that the animators needed for the role, but her career would not be long for the industry.

Although the production of Pinocchio was a much anticipated follow-up feature for Disney, and they out did themselves in a sense of quality and presentation, the feature was a financial failure. Due to the outbreak of war in Europe many overseas markets were cut off for American movies, crippling their box office numbers. Disney cared greatly about quality, not cutting corners on production cost, but when financial numbers returned they could not cover the cost of the picture due to missing revenue that would have come from Europe, the land that inspired the story. With two other productions in production at the Disney studio already, Fantasia and Bambi, poor returns hit the studio hard. It was not until after World War II with re-releases that the studio would see overseas revenue and considerable profits for the feature, almost a decade after production began.

Despite poorer numbers critics praised the picture. The film won Disney his first two feature film category Academy Awards with prizes for Best Score and Best Song with the timeless tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Cliff Edwards’ recording of “When You Wish Upon a Star” would be so adored by audiences and the studio that it would become the official theme for the studio, becoming synonymous with Disney and family friendly entertainment.

As the decades would role on the legacy of Pinocchio grew as contemporary critics were able to look back on this feature as a pinnacle of hand-drawn animation. Complete with wonderful characters, camera movement, animated effects, story, and overall highly technical animation, animation of this quality would not see equaled for decades afterwards. Due to WWII, the cost of production versus returns, and Walt Disney refocusing his personal efforts towards other projects, including theme parks, world’s fair, and urban planning, Walt Disney would leave his animators with more control of the animated projects instead being watched over by the perfectionist the man Walt Disney was. Because of this animation would not be seen at quite this height in execution ever again.

Through the years Pinocchio would receive numerous praise and accolades. It would be named to many top film lists, including #2 on the American Film Institute’s top animated features, #38 on their most inspirational films list, as well as naming “When You Wish Upon a Star” as the #7 song of all time in American cinema. In 1994 the picture was elected to the National Film Registry cementing it as a national treasure of the cinematic arts in American history.

Pinocchio stands as one of many animated features to be hailed as classics in the Walt Disney library of feature films. Although the feature can be overlooked or be a story easily forgotten by audiences, its images and music are undeniable timeless. It would be near impossible for any film fan to think of Walt Disney Studios and not have the melody of “When You Wish Upon a Star” playing in the back of their mind as the two are forever intertwined. It is difficult to believe that Disney animation might have peaked so early as many beloved classics would follow in the decades to come, but it is Pinocchio that is seen by film historians as the best traditionally hand-drawn animated feature film. Pinocchio remains a large jewel in the Disney crown for its milestone in animation.

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