”Pinocchio,” the movie and tie-ins
Striving to figure out how to infuse Beauty and the Beast with impassioned vitality, the late lyricist Howard Ashman kept replaying tapes of Disney’s 1940 animated feature Pinocchio, currently back in movie theaters. The film, Ashman told collaborators, is peerless, because it conveys a powerful emotion in every sequence, from Geppetto’s joy at discovering that his wooden boy can walk, to Pinocchio’s terror of making a literal jackass of himself.
Among all of Disney’s endangered-tot stories, including Cinderella and 101 Dalmatians, only Pinocchio plucks the heartstrings with such incomparable resonance. Why? One reason is that this movie consistently sprinkles adorable comedy relief (has there ever been a more endearing sidekick than guardian Jiminy Cricket?) over scenes of malice, dismay, and outright horror. Moreover, at its heart Pinocchio really isn’t the reassuring coo most Disney cartoons are; it says to children, Watch out — the world’s a menacing place. The puritanical plot line abhors, yet relentlessly delves into, kids’ attraction to doing bad, as poor sinner Pinoke lets himself fall into the clutches of one evil figure after another — a charlatan-actor fox, an abusive puppeteer, a sinister donkey-broker — then finally finds redemption by saving his dad from a monstrous whale. In fact, it would be wise to set aside some post-movie family time to answer kids’ inevitable questions about it all. For instance: What’s a conscience? How does Pinocchio drown and come alive again? What’s so wicked about being an actor?
Pinocchio manages to stir these kinds of Big Thoughts in children by creating the most believable, visually detailed world to be found in any Disney cartoon feature. In shots such as a stunning, unbroken glide that leads us through Pinocchio’s village, Disney’s ”multiplane” animation system — an innovation that proved too costly to use much in subsequent features — lets the camera travel down through layer upon layer of drawings, conjuring a thrillingly dimensional town. But it’s not just sheer technical dexterity that makes Pinocchio lucid: It’s the way shots are used to help us understand characters in strictly nonverbal ways. When we first meet narrator Jiminy, for instance, a shot from his point of view brings us hopping over to Geppetto’s shop, instantly conveying the cricket’s energetic curiosity. When Pinocchio grows nauseous from smoking too many cigars on sinister Pleasure Island, we watch through the puppet’s own watery, weaving eyes as Jiminy scolds him.
These and scores of other brilliantly evocative touches make Pinocchio seem even more ingenious compared with two new book-and-audiocassette versions of the movie. The Pinocchio Deluxe Read-Along with Pop-Ups and the Pinocchio Read-Along Collection — the latter includes a way-cool, digital-face wristwatch with a holographic image of Pinocchio — share the exact same text: a colorless, stripped-down plot summary shorn of all the incidental details so crucial to the movie’s charm.
Worse, each package’s 15-minute story cassette includes only two of the movie’s songs and almost none of its intricate background scoring, which keeps repeating, echoing and combining the main melodies in different keys to set different moods. It’s worth returning to the movie over and over just to marvel at the scene-setting skill of composers Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, and Ned Washington — though their work can be heard more clearly in a new CD-and-tape release, the Pinocchio Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. Using newly discovered master tapes, this album presents the film’s songs (except, for some reason, Geppetto’s ode ”Little Woodenhead”), as well as most of the underscoring, without the distractions of dialogue and sound effects. Tracks like ”Jackass Frenzy,” the frightening trumpet piece that accompanies Pinocchio’s partial transformation into a donkey, and ”Desolation Theme,” heard when Geppetto is starving in Monstro’s belly, aren’t suitable for bedtime lullabies, but grown- ups, at least, can savor a dark, wise richness the Disney canon achieved only in this singular masterwork.
Pop-Up Read-Along: C+