Pinocchio - Beautiful and Terrifying

Walt Disney
Duration: 88min
Category: family
Available: On DVD
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For all that Iíve read on the studio, I canít recall why this Carlo Collodi fable made its way into the planning stages in the first place. Disney was fresh-off success from Snow White, what drove him here?

For anyone who has read Collodiís novel, you would know that it often errs on the side of tedium, repetition, and monotony. There are however those wonderful old-school cautionary pieces of childrenís tale that donít remain intact in Disneyís film Ė most notably, the killing of the cricket.

In Collodiís tale, itís one of the first things that the spiteful wooden boy does. He takes a shoe and crushes the little harbinger of sensible warnings against the wall. The cricket is then freed by dramatic convention to wander beside the boy as a ghost Ė still delivering warnings, and plaguing him with everybodyís favourite word: guilt Ė the chains Pinnochio is forging in life, and so on.

But letís cut to the chase. Pinocchio as a Disney film is also very fascinated with guilt. Pinocchio is unapologetic, itís gorgeous to look at (if you do so closely), and itís unsettling as hell. I would be hard-pressed to think of a film that has been more mislabeled or misunderstood than this one, and thatís a shame because it is a masterpiece.
Pinocchio is not an easy story to approach. Just ask Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Roberto Benigni. Disney though, got it just right. Yes, it has the prerequisite Disney staples: the cute animal sidekicks, the missing parent, and the ballad. But, where it matters, Disney seemed to just kind of go for it with this one. The film seems completely unconcerned with making parents happy, or movie-going children for that matter. I canít imagine my little nephews watching this without having nightmares for weeks. Itís a dark story about dark doings, and itís a true kick to watch as an adult.

Artistically speaking, Pinocchio leaves all other hand-drawn animation in its wake. One of the things that I appreciate most about Disney animation from that era is the attention to set direction detail. Itís the same thing that makes the theme parks work in terms of their architecture. The forced perspective carved columns, doors, and shutters that draw your eye towards Fantasyland came directly from Gepettoís workshop. Itís perhaps a fascination with the small - the detailed toys, clocks and chairs that litter the shop of an old man that wants to, but canít be a father that gives the art its lasting appeal. Youíll see it in a rooftop shingle, in the texture of chalk on a worn corner pocket of a pool table. In a sense, itís throw-away. Itís art for nobody, save for the enjoyment of its creator. If you can appreciate that, then youíre understanding why Pinocchio succeeds in the ways that it does.

Consider the scene in which Pinocchio is locked in a cage aboard Stromboliís traveling puppet show caravan. The amount of work that went into what amounts to maybe 10 seconds of screen time is simply staggering: Pinocchio sits in a suspended bird cage, while lifeless puppets in the foreground and background swing independently with the movement of the cart. Rain falls Ė lightning flashes out the window. In all, there could be 30 individual pieces, each articulated at multiple points, each reacting to the gravity, wetness, and darkness of the situation. It may not seem like much, and you may have to look hard to see the effect, but a team of artists cared enough to go that distance. It makes that caravan ride to hell a little more real, and a lot more beautiful, albeit in a very sinister way.

But, as beautiful as it is to look at, Pinocchio is not included on many lists of Disney favourites. Itís easy to see why. Yes, there are moments that smack you with a sledgehammer of symbolism Ė the Rough House on Pleasure Island, the chase of Monstro the whale to name two. But there is also time for subtlety. Early on, we see three moments of warning: A cuckoo clock activating a spanking mother and a crying child, another of stein-raising drunkards with a hiccupping clown when the clock strikes 12, and most carefully placed Ė Figaro, the cat, having enough of Gepettoís games with the new puppet heís just put a face on. Figaro swings resentfully at the marionette strings, tangling and up-ending himself Ė a petty little act of revenge. ďYou see what happensÖĒ Gepetto warns, ignorant of his own contribution to the moment.

Finally, for all those who doubt, Pinocchio will make your hair stand on end. Watch it with the lights out. Wait for the moment when The Coachman appears, watch the reaction of Foulfellow and Gideon when they hear what theyíve taken part in, and watch the sick smile appear across the Coachmenís face when heís got a carriage full of unsuspecting youth. Heís the devil, and his disguise is very thin.

Pinocchio, at its heart, is about a boy who earns life. Itís been done before and since, but it has rarely if ever been done with this degree of care and attention. Donít expect a rollicking good time, and donít expect a DVD to babysit your kids. Do however expect Disney art on the level of Miyazaki. Thatís something to consider. I know youíre getting used to the magic that is Pixar, but before the studio returns to classic hand-drawn fairytales this December with The Princess & the Frog, take a step back Ė nearly 70 years ago now, to the art form as artists, not box-office, intended.

Review By: Dave Gagnier

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