Pinocchio (70th Anniversary Edition) Review

One of Walt Disney’s finest productions is given a revelation of a release. Few cartoons marketed as child-friendly are this frightening or unabashedly sincere.

After viewing a luminous new transfer of Pinocchio, the first released for home viewing since 1999, I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps the much-maligned “Disney Vault” gets an undeserved bad rap. There’s a valid argument for keeping these animated classics in circulation at all times to allow for constant consumer access. I recognise that, and I’ve mostly thought Disney to be stingy for restricting how long the studio’s most beloved films could be purchased. The practice also encourages unofficial, or bootlegged, copies to be cranked out and bought by the desperate or unsuspecting. Admittedly, it’s an imperfect policy, but where the Disney Vault idea excels is at drumming up excitement over movies that are decades old and already seen by the majority of home entertainment enthusiasts. Watching Pinocchio on this 70th Anniversary Edition simultaneously felt like a fresh experience and a welcome revisiting of a classic. Most everyone is familiar with Pinocchio, its characters and songs like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but this new high definition version truly maintains the timelessness that Disney seems so intent on protecting with the Vault. Pinocchio doesn’t play like it’s 69 or 70 years old. For me and many others, Pinocchio has always existed and it’s never aged.

Some of this is to the credit of the wonderful and rich animation which exhibits far more character than the comparatively shallow work we’ve witnessed the past few decades. These very first feature length animated productions look like works of art while the medium now has all the depth of a slick lithograph. Even the reemergence of Disney animation in the 1990s couldn’t compete visually with the earlier features. The less said about the sassy and soulless contemporary cartoons the better. There are particular scenes in Pinocchio which get the most attention like the Monstro the Whale finale, but the sheer detail of Geppetto’s work space or the perfect mood struck by the Pleasure Island exteriors is (still) extraordinary. All the hand drawn charm lacking from computer animation is perfectly intact on Pinocchio. Just as the careful and deliberate craftsmanship shown by Geppetto has dried up with modernity’s cheaper and faster methods, so too has the art of feature animation lost much of its warmth. The sincerity found in Pinocchio, and especially in the title character, is refreshing. There’s an unironic straightforwardness that seems to be missing in modern animation.

To be fair, it wasn’t like there were films of Pinocchio‘s calibre dropping from the sky with any frequency even back in 1940 when the picture was first released. This was Walt Disney’s second full-length production, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and he had minimal competition in that market. He also wasn’t dependent on the whims of the littlest of popcorn munchers. The supplements for this release mention more than once that Disney never meant for his films to be aimed solely at children. They were and are for general audiences, with Pinocchio possibly the most mature and adult of any of the classic Disney films. As anyone who watched wide-eyed as a child will be unlikely to forget, children transform into jackasses before our very eyes. Pinocchio and his new friend Lampwick smoke cigars, drink beer and play pool until the former sprouts large ears and a tail and the latter, in a frightening scene, changes into a donkey while a terrified Pinocchio bears witness.

The movie’s episodic format allows for increasingly bold and harsh sequences that nonetheless progress naturally as Pinocchio has his innocence tested en route to becoming a real boy. From “When You Wish Upon a Star” and the Blue Fairy to the poor young boy/donkey crying he wants his mommy is quite the journey. Kept inside the 88 minutes of runtime, light and dark bounce off each other to always keep things interesting in addition to being beautifully rendered. The film reminds us of the depths of temptation, the necessity of conscience and the redemptive powers of a second chance. It’s Disney’s most realistic fantasy, but also the one that particularly trumpets the range of humanity, from the cruel to the mere greedy all the way to the kind and the innocent. There are only about eight characters who speak and each one is remarkably different in both motive and demeanor. The extreme kindness of the Blue Fairy is counteracted by quiet, corrupt evil exemplified by the Coachman. Others like Lampwick and even hobo turned conscience Jiminy Cricket provide the in-between shading.

Situated as the alien innocent at all times is our wooden hero Pinocchio. The vocal performance from Dickie Jones is really the embodiment of endearing purity. The character in Collodi’s original story was apparently something of a brat, but Walt Disney made the wise decision to transform him into a sympathetic blank canvas. It seems that the Blue Fairy entrusts Jiminy to look after Pinocchio precisely because the puppet has no grasp of reality. Since the film is so steeped in elements of fantasy, his surprises and entrances to each new world of temptation are very much the viewer’s also. We then relate entirely to the disorientation Pinocchio faces. This allows for a much more natural bridging of the gap between our known reality and the animated world created in the film. We align ourselves with the character because of how sympathetic he’s portrayed, even in the smoking and drinking portion. You can’t blame Pinocchio for his actions since he literally has a head made out of wood.

It’s not just the characterisation of Pinocchio or the animation or any one thing at all that makes Pinocchio such an enduring and exceptional film. There’s a sense of creative energy, of the animators pushing as far as they could while Walt was carefully managing the production. The notion of this film being the ultimate representation of what the studio could achieve is certainly open and ripe for debate. I’m not going to place a star on this or that Disney film as being the best, but there’s an easy lack of hesitation in putting Pinocchio in the upper tier.

The Discs

The Pinocchio 70th Anniversary 2-Disc Platinum Edition Blu-ray actually comes 69 years after the film’s original theatrical release and includes 3 discs. Go figure. The extra disc is the first DVD from the simultaneous standard definition version (and the source of these screen captures). This is quite the smart move by the Disney people as it both encourages Blu-ray purchases (at a higher price point than the DVD) for those not yet equipped with a player, and also lets parents have an extra DVD copy for their children’s rooms, where even the earliest adopters probably haven’t installed the necessaries for Blu-ray. Disney also included a DVD with its Blu-ray release of Sleeping Beauty last fall, but the disc is actually inside the slightly thicker than normal case this time.

When it comes to examining digital transfers of the classic Disney features, reviewers have a losing proposition. These releases are so popular and so scrutinised that someone out there will, undoubtedly, be displeased with the image quality. Six weeks before Pinocchio‘s release a viewer who attended a screening of the new restoration posted a review at complaining about how the colour palette was significantly altered. Internet forums have raged with back-and-forths ever since. Some people are generally reluctant to accept a different look to a film than what they’ve been accustomed to viewing. Deciphering what’s “right” and “wrong” with Disney’s animated catalog has become increasingly difficult, especially when we’re debating a movie that opened in cinemas in 1940. This restoration does notably look changed from the previous DVD release, which was heavy on the reds, yellows and oranges, but the result seems to be an obvious and drastic improvement. Colours and shades here are very mood-appropriate, and they at least look accurately reproduced.

All things, opinions and realities considered, I see the colours as dazzling. There’s a retention of the handcrafted nature of the film’s production while still utilising the best of modern restoration technology. The drybrush work on Figaro sparkles with charm, a reminder that human hands were involved. It’s really an impressive balance of updating the movie for high definition without placing too slick of a coating on it. The Blu-ray transfer is almost equally on target. I wonder what a little extra grain might have looked like because nearly all of it’s been scrubbed away. The picture looks very smooth and clean, completely absent any damage. I thought I saw some swirling noise in Honest John’s fur, but it might’ve just been an effect of the drybrush technique.

Discussion of Pinocchio‘s presentation wouldn’t be complete without some mention of this new Disney View trick that fills in the empty space on either side of the 1.33:1 image with mostly appropriate artwork by Toby Bluth. It’s set up as an alternative to the typical black void, and you have to access it through the main menu portion instead of simply selecting “Play Movie” at the first opportunity. There are some slightly jarring transitions and when the camera moves the still-frozen sides can be distracting, but I think it works on the whole. The chosen images are generally appealing and consistent with the film’s backgrounds. They also seem dimmed to avoid catching the eye too strongly. It’s definitely an interesting idea, though one ideally limited to animation, and it sort of makes the film seem like it’s situated inside a storybook.

More updating comes with the Blu-ray audio options. An English 7.1 DTS-HD track is the default and packs the room with songs, dialogue and various sounds. The mix is full and excellent overall. A “Restored Original Theatrical Soundtrack” is thankfully included as well. The two-channel mono audio dials the songs and music down to more modest levels. Dialogue sounds natural and clear. A strange consistency in both tracks, leading one to question the veracity of words like “restored” and “original,” is the omission of bits of Jiminy’s dialogue during “Give a Little Whistle.” There’s a “Right!” that is no longer in the audio and Michael Mackenzie’s Land of Whimsy site also reports a missing “Look out, Pinoke!” in the same song. Both of these were apparently on the earlier Gold Collection DVD release. These are small discrepancies, but odd ones nonetheless.

Subtitles for the feature are only available in English for the hearing impaired. While there are no dubs on the film, the bonus material has French and Spanish tracks available as well as subtitles in all three languages. Disc two even offers the choice of English, Spanish, French and Portuguese for its menu operations. The DVD audio options are more flexible and allow for the English mono and 5.1 “Disney Enhanced Home Theater” mixes in English, French and Spanish.

The Supplements

Disc one includes a commentary by Leonard Maltin, Eric Goldberg and J.B. Kaufman. It’s a highly listenable track with all three men providing some good points. Sprinkled throughout are clips from animators like Ward Kimball, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. It’s not surprising that some of the information is repeated from the excellent making-of documentary found on disc two, but there’s enough solid conversation to keep fans interested. The commentary can also be played using Cine-Explore, which lets video of the commentators and various other clips play in a picture-in-picture display. Another option for trivia buffs is the “Pinocchio’s Matter of Facts” track, where a rectangle box with fun facts pops up throughout the film.

The remaining bonus features on this disc are typical Disney filler. The Music & More section has an awful video (3:25) of “When You Wish Upon a Star” performed by teenager of the week Meaghan Jette Martin. There’s also the Disney Song Selection feature which lets you jump to the songs found in the film, with the added option of viewing the lyrics on the screen. The songs included are: “When You Wish Upon a Star” (2:02), “Little Wooden Head” (2:11), “Give a Little Whistle” (1:38), “Hi-Deedle-Dee-Dee” (1:29), and “I’ve Got No Strings” (2:55). In the Games & Activities section, you can access the “Matter of Facts” feature or play the Pinocchio Knows Trivia Challenge. A collection of Sneak Peeks finish off the extras, with looks at upcoming Blu-ray releases including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bolt, and Monsters, Inc., as well as the next Pixar feature Up.

Navigation on the second disc divides the extras into Games & Activities and Backstage Disney. The former has a handful of interactive games. Pinocchio’s Puzzles seems best suited to younger children as it just involves selecting puzzle pieces based on shape. Pleasure Island Carnival Games has four different, carnival-inspired activities to try your hand at, and completing all four triggers some sort of prize. I’m not sure exactly what it is because I struggled to master the third game.

The best and most worthwhile supplements in the set can be found in the Backstage Disney area. Leading things off, “No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio” (56:04) is an essential watch and the apex of these extras. It’s as laudatory as one might expect, but there’s a very tidy assortment of information, from the origins of the story to the voices, the animators, the songs and score, and so on, to be found in the piece. If you’re not crazy about wading through all the fluff, just watch this making-of documentary and you’ll be set.

Billed as Deleted Scenes (10:36), some sketches and storyboards illuminate a pair of sequences that were nixed prior to the full animation process. An explanatory introduction (1:00) is followed by fragments from “The Story of the Grandfather Tree” (3:20) and more elaborate sketches of the “In the Belly of the Whale” (4:15) scenes that were abandoned. A rough alternate ending (2:00) is also here.

Neat in idea but a bit flat in execution, “The Sweatbox” (6:24) looks at Walt Disney’s practice of using a small screening room to view his animators’ work. Walt would critique what he saw as the artists nervously listened and a secretary transcribed the events. The featurette has one particular transcript concerning Pinocchio being read from while a weird reenactment plays.

Live Action Reference Footage (9:58) shows rare, black and white video from the Disney archives that was used by animators to draw various characters in the film. The Pinocchio Art Galleries include some of the fruits of that labour, with numerous images from the production. There are storyboards and sketches galore of Visual Development, Gustaf Tenggren Art, Character Design, Maquettes & Models, Backgrounds & Layouts, Storyboard Art, Production Pictures, and Live-Action Reference. No advertising art is included in these vast galleries, but a Publicity category further down the menu has three separate trailers. The original 1940 trailer (2:00) is here, as well as 1984 and 1992 re-release versions (1:30 each).

On the opposite end of that “When You Wish Upon a Star” abomination from disc one, a 1947 recording of “Honest John,” which was an unused song from the movie, is played while just a vintage advertisement for the track is shown on the screen. Another nod to nostalgia and days gone past can be found in the “Geppettos Then and Now” (10:57) piece. It looks at a handful of toymakers from around the world, everyone from a British man who specialises in wooden toys to a Czech lady who makes puppets. It’s enjoyable enough to forgive Disney’s shameless spotlighting of interactive Wall-E products.

All the video extras except the Pinocchio trailers are in HD.

Final Thoughts

Given the sheer magnitude of Pinocchio‘s accomplishment in terms of the film and this particular release, I can’t see any reason to withhold a healthy recommendation. It could be seven, eight, nine years at least before Disney reissues the film and there’s really no need to go so long without a trip to Pleasure Island. The added DVD included with this Blu-ray version makes it the likely best choice even for those who have the tiniest of inklings to upgrade their home entertainment systems.

clydefro jones

Updated: Mar 17, 2009

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