In 1937, Walt Disney proved early naysayers wrong when his "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," the first feature-length animated film produced in America, exceeded expectations to become a phenomenal box office success. Eager to demonstrate that this was no fluke, Disney immediately began preparation for a second animated feature. A number of stories were considered and worked on, with "Bambi" (ultimately released in 1942) the original choice for the sophomore effort, but after two years of production, it was "Pinocchio" that hit movie theaters in 1940. A commercial disappointment in its time, due in part to the lack of a wide European release during World War II, the film nonetheless earned critical acclaim and over the years came to be considered by many to be Disney's finest cinematic achievement, animated or live-action.
Based on the serialized Carlo Collodi story of the early 1880s, "Pinocchio" tells the well-known tale of an enchanted marionette (voice of Dickie Jones) who desires to be a real boy. In order to realize this dream, he must prove himself worthy by following the straight and narrow path and resisting temptation, a task the suggestible lad finds consistently difficult as temptations are thrown his way. Accompanied by friend and appointed conscience Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), Pinocchio endures a series of misadventures that culminates in the quest to rescue his creator and father Geppetto (Christian Rub) from the belly of a whale.
Although animated feature filmmaking was still in its infancy in 1940, "Pinocchio" contains none of the primitive techniques or dated storytelling of rival animation studios of the era (such as the Fleischer studio). When viewed today, it is difficult to believe this was only the second animated feature for Disney, as the visual effects, characterization, and narrative reach a level of sophistication that is miles ahead of the studio's animated shorts of the early to mid 1930s. The world of "Pinocchio" was brought to vivid life through then-innovative multiplane effects, giving the film's small Italian village a perceivable depth. The film is rich with visual detail, offering something new with every viewing. While "Snow White" was criticized for the flatness of its romantic leads compared to the lively supporting characters and frightening villainess, this film perfectly balances the goodness of Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket with the wickedness of the villains without sacrificing personality or individuality, an accomplishment due equally to the animation and the excellent vocal performances.
But while all of these elements continue to make "Pinocchio" an enjoyable viewing experience, what truly distinguishes it among the many brilliantly animated Disney features and contributes to its endurance is the film's dark subtext. Collodi's original story, which initially was not intended for children and only written as such at the insistence of his editor, was characterized by a strong emphasis on violence, punishment, and death. As envisioned by the author, Pinocchio is a stubborn and often unlikeable character whose misfortunes are largely the result of his own willful defiance of authority. Disney's character, on the other hand, is well-intentioned but naïve, always trying to be good but allowing his childish trust of strangers to get the best of him. But Pinocchio's inherent goodness—not to mention that of Geppetto and the kindly Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable)—only emphasizes how cruel the outside world can be, especially toward children.
Every character Pinocchio encounters outside of his home is corrupt in some way, beginning with the sly fox Honest John (Walter Catlett) and his feline cohort Gideon. While these two are deceitful, they are also clumsy fools who merely serve as pawns for far more sinister villains. The horror escalates as we are introduced to Stromboli (Charles Judels), the wicked puppeteer who sees Pinocchio as a potential goldmine but has no qualms about using him for firewood once he gets too old to perform. Evil incarnate turns up in the form of a coachman (Judels again) who transports delinquent boys to an island carnival known as Pleasure Island, where after being loosed to cause as much destruction as they please, the unsuspecting children are transformed into donkeys and sold into captivity. The now infamous scene of Pinocchio's friend Lampwick (Frankie Darro) morphing into a donkey remains one of the most genuinely frightening moments in all of Disney, and the entire Pleasure Island sequence is overcast with an unnerving sense of despair as it becomes increasingly clear that the boys have essentially sold their souls for a fleeting bit of pleasure.
The dark forces are not limited to human characters, however. Nature itself, in the form of Monstro the Whale, proves to be the final threat on Pinocchio and Geppetto's happiness. Charging with supernatural speed through the ocean and leaping hundreds of feet into the air in pursuit of his prey, Monstro is indeed more monster than animal, stopping at nothing to devour poor Pinocchio. As with Pinocchio's escape from the human villains elsewhere in the film, his daring rescue of Geppetto still leaves a bitter taste, as the whale remains living and waiting for another victim.
That Pinocchio ultimately does become a real boy does not negate the fact that none of the villains are brought to justice or suffer for their evil ways. Happiness for the main characters is only achieved when they remain within the safety of their comfortable home and family setting. Outside, youngsters will still be lured to the hungry jaws of human and animal predators. "Pinocchio" is above all a cautionary story of the dangers that lurk beyond the comforting arms of the family. While the overriding fairy tale premise is based around the optimistic idea of wishing on a star, the movie finally implies that good will not triumph over evil but rather that evil is an omnipresent force that preys upon those who cannot recognize it. It is a testament to the film's sophisticated construction that in spite of this bleak point of view, one may still walk away from it with a sense of reaffirmation and joy.
"Pinocchio" is the second classic animated film from the Walt Disney Studio (after "Sleeping Beauty") to make its way to Blu-ray, and the results are just stunning. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio but enhanced for 16x9 TVs with black bars on the right and left sides, the film is breathtaking to behold. I pulled out my 1999 DVD edition of the film as well as my 1986 (!) VHS tape to compare, and the transfer on this Blu-ray release looks like an entirely different film. The new 1080p high-definition transfer possesses a clarity that defies the movie's 70-year age, free of scratches, grain, and any visible blemish. The complete lack of grain on a film from 1940 may perturb some viewers, but for some reason the effect seems more acceptable on animated films than it is on live action. Colors are vibrant and rich, and they exhibit a wider array of hues than either of the previous editions. Where the old DVD featured backgrounds that were predominately monochromatic, the new transfer reveals combinations of yellow, green, and red throughout that were not visible before. The clarity of the transfer also brings out the texture of the hand-painted artwork, with grain visible in the background paintings and dry-brush marks evident on some characters, notably Figaro the Cat. Black levels are pitch, contrast is excellent, and there is not a thing to complain about as far as improvement. "Pinocchio" has without question never looked better.
Audio on this new edition has both its high points and low points, but I'll start with the positive. The good thing is that it sounds fantastic. Presented in a DTS 7.1 Master Audio track, the audio is clear and smooth. There are expected limitations with the surround as the source material is very old, but there is no hiss or distortion at all and the track sounds as though it could have been recorded yesterday. The climactic escape from Monstro packs quite a punch in this revamped master. A restored mono soundtrack has been included for purists, but here is where it gets tricky: this does not seem to be the original soundtrack. Shortly after the release of this Blu-ray disc, online bloggers and forum posters raised concerns about a couple of lines that seem to be missing from the "Give a Little Whistle" number (two off-screen remarks by Jiminy Cricket). After checking my older DVD and VHS copies, I can confirm that the lines are in fact missing on both tracks of the new edition, suggesting that there was some manipulation of the original soundtrack beyond simply cleaning it up. I have no doubt that the loss of these lines must have been a mistake, but while it is not a severe issue, it deserves mentioning. English subtitles are provided.
Buena Vista's Platinum Edition of "Pinocchio" is a two-disc set that is loaded with special features. Disc 1 offers a "Cine-Explore" feature with a Picture-in-Picture commentary track featuring film critic Leonard Maltin, animator Eric Goldberg, and film historian J. B. Kaufman. All self-proclaimed Disney animation buffs, the trio offers a wealth of historical and technical information as well as their own loving views on the movie. They keep the discussion constantly moving with no gaps or long pauses, interspersing it with archival interviews with some of the film's animators. The Picture-in-Picture mode allows us to see these interviews as well as archival photos, storyboards, behind-the-scenes footage, and other fascinating items related to the discussion. This is an extremely informative and entertaining viewing experience for those keen on learning more about the film. Viewers also have the option of listening to an audio-only version of this commentary as the movie plays.
For those who prefer their movies to fill an entire 16x9 screen, the Blu-ray allows you to play the movie in "Disney View," which expands the picture by filling the sides of the screen with custom border paintings by Toby Bluth. While generally nonintrusive, I found these paintings to be somewhat distracting from the main feature, but I could see how some may enjoy these.
Also on Disc 1 is a music video featuring Disney Channel teen star Meaghan Jette Martin singing a pop rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star." This is strictly for the pre-teen crowd.
A Disney Song Selection gives viewers the ability to jump right to their favorite songs in the movie with lyrics on the screen. You can also play the film in its entirety with the lyrics onscreen.
Disc 1 is rounded off by a games and activity section. "Pinocchio's Matter of Facts" is an optional trivia track that can be viewed during the film with pop-up bubbles. There is also a trivia game that is designed for multi- and single-player mode with varying time limits and two levels of difficulty.
Disc 2 begins with a few more games. First, there is "Pinocchio's Puzzles," which offers a series of digital jigsaw puzzles. Next, "Pleasure Island Carnival Games" features four different games—three based on hand-eye coordination and one guessing game.
The highlight of this disc is the Backstage Disney feature, "No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio." Running 56 minutes, this documentary features new and archival interviews with Disney animators, historians, critics, and artists discussing the film's production and legacy. Loaded with archival footage and storyboards, this is an excellent supplement that provides an in-depth look at the classical Disney animation process and the creative minds behind it. Along with the commentary track on Disc 1, this feature is well worth the price of this Blu-ray disc.
Three deleted scenes that were storyboarded but never animated have been reconstructed from the existing storyboards. A narrator explains them and reads the dialogue that was originally written for them. One of the scenes is an alternate ending, a rather rushed one that was thankfully discarded in favor of the one that was ultimately used.
"The Sweatbox" is a six-minute featurette on Walt Disney's practice of screening storyboards and animated dailies with his crew. Because he had the grand notion to hire a stenographer to type out transcripts of what was said during these sweatbox screenings, we are able to hear direct quotes from some of the discussions on "Pinocchio."
Up next are 10 minutes of live-action reference footage for Jiminy Cricket. It was a common practice then—and still is today, for that matter—to have models dress as the characters from animated films and move around a set as the character in order to give the animators an idea of how the movements and behavior should be captured in their drawings. In this footage, we see two different men enacting Jiminy Cricket's entrance and first look at Geppetto's house.
A collection of still galleries provides almost 600 behind-the-scenes photos, storyboards, character designs, backgrounds, and other artwork. This is followed by three theatrical trailers from the original 1940 release and the 1984 and 1992 rereleases.
"Honest John," a song that was written for the movie but ultimately unused is included in a vintage 1947 recording. Lasting three minutes, it's a cute song but sounds very dated and unlike any other songs in the film, making its deletion a wise choice.
"Geppettos Then and Now" is an 11-minute featurette on some contemporary toymakers from around the world who specialize in making wooden toys and puppets.
Finally, there are some extra options for those with BD-Live capabilities, including the opportunity to chat with friends while viewing the film.
Like the Blu-ray edition of "Sleeping Beauty," "Pinocchio" also comes with Disc 1 of the standard DVD edition for those who may still be holding out on buying a Blu-ray player but are seriously considering it. Bonus material on the DVD includes the music video, song selection, audio-only commentary, and the "Pinocchio's Matter of Facts" track. The DVD, oddly enough, contains several audio options that are not available on the Blu-ray disc. In addition to English 5.1 and mono tracks, there are also French and Spanish 5.1 tracks. French and Spanish subtitles are also provided, in addition to English closed-captions. There are even English, French, and Spanish subtitles for the commentary track (a practice I always endorse) and alternate Spanish and French translations for the trivia track.
It is obvious that this Platinum Edition of "Pinocchio" is a special treat for Disney fans, providing lots of entertaining activities for children and informative retrospective features for adults. The Blu-ray presentation and restoration have breathed new life into the film, making it look brand new 70 years after it first hit theaters. While the issues concerning the missing lines on the soundtrack are a bit disappointing, this is still a tremendous release that provides the ultimate viewing experience of a treasured and sophisticated film.