"Pinocchio" probably owes much of its extraordinary vividness and beauty to a unique set of historical circumstances. At the time the film went into full production in 1938 the Disney studio could afford lavish elaboration and refinement of the animation techniques that had proved successul with "Snow White." By the time "Pinocchio" was released in February 1940, the studio was confronted by new economic pressures militating against such exquisite development of animation for its own sake.
Walt Disney had staked the future of his company on "Snow White," whose costs rose to a heavily mortgaged and potentially disastrous $1.7 million before its premiere in December 1937. The overwhelming popularity of "Snow White"-it grossed $8.5 million during its first release-got Disney out of hock and put him in an expansive mood. He went with plans to build a new studio while authorizing production of three additional animated features-"Pinocchio," "Bambi" and "Fantasia."
Among its more conspicuous advantages "Pinocchio" benefited from extensive use of the multiplane camera that had been developed for "Snow White" but used only sparingly. One of the earliest sequences in "Pinocchio" demonstrates the camera's marvelous capacity for adding mobility and depth-of-field to animated composition.
After completing the singing of "When You Wish Upon a Star," begun during the credits, Jiminy Cricket (both spoken and sung by the incomparable Cliff Edwards) introduces himself and begins the story of his adventures with Pinocchio by opening a book with the film's title to a full-page illustration of a quaint European town on a starlit night. The camera enters the illustration and then triumphantly extends it, gliding gracefully over rooftops and between buildings. It comes to rest at street level and, subjectively mimicking Jiminy's movements, hops toward the only lighted window in town-the shop inhabited by the old woodcarver Geppetto, who puts the finishing touches on a boyish wooden puppet destined to be brought to life that night by the influence of fairy magic.
There's a palpable sense of excitement and exultation about the way the film moves. It's as if the animators couldn't resist showing off their new flexibility and dexterity. One of the animation directors, Woolie Reitherman, recalls that, "Because of the success of 'Snow White,' we went overboard trying to make 'Pinocchio' the best cartoon feature ever made.
"We experimented with new techniques, embellished the artwork with tremendous time-consuming detail and modeled the characters to give them roundness and dimension. We even threw out a lot of costly animation, which is something we can't afford to do today . . . The camera boys were so creative with their angles and use of a dozen planes for a 3-D effect, they ran up a bill $25,000 for a half-minute shot . . . Walt eventually had to blow the whistle and try to conserve on the spending."
Reitherman estimates that the picture would cost about 10 times its original budget of $2.6 million if duplicated today. Moreover, its richness of detail and color probably could'nt be duplicated, owing to streamlined production methods and the diminished palette of Technicolor.
"Pinocchio" enjoys perhaps the most compact and exciting scenario ever distilled for a Disney feature. Pinocchio is no sooner animated and assigned Jiminy as a conscience than his inexperience leads him into one perilous situation after another. He escapes enslavement by the puppet theater tyrant Stromboli only to end up flirting with further enslavement at the boobytrapped amusement park. Pleasure Island, where self-indulgent boys are transformed into donkeys and shipped to the salt mines.
The attractions at Pleasure Island have sinister, witty allure that is certainly not duplicated at Disneyland or Disney World. Escaping this hedonist trap in the nick of time, Pinocchio and Jiminy must set out ot rescue Geppetto, who has been lost at sea while trying to find Pinocchio and now languishes deep in the belly of the leviathan Monstro, who was evidently vividly recalled by Steven Spielberg when he was making "Jaws," just as he recalled "When You Wish Upon a Star" and the appearance of the Blue Fairy when he was making "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
"Pinocchio" is animated by more than superior modeling and draftsmanship. There's a perky sense of humor behind the fantastic situations and frightening scrapes themselves. The villainous coachman to Pleasure Island seems fairly droll when he points out, "Give a bad boy enough rope and he'll soon make a jackass of himself." On the other had so does the virtuous Blue Fairy when she points out the embarrassing consequences of Pinocchio's falsehoods: "A lie keeps on growing and growing until it's as plain as the nose on your face."
Some of the most fluid effects with the multiplane camera are concentrated in the scenes depicting Pinocchio's encounters with the scheming fox called J. Worthington Foulfellow and his dumbell crony, Gideon the cat. The camera tracks or duplicates the effect of crane shots with a suppleness that live-action directors like Rene Clair or Vincente Minnelli might envy.
The movie itself achieves a heady, bravura richness of detail and boldness of movement. Made at a peculiarly buoyant moment in the history of the Disney studio, it seems to preserve the Disney style at a peak of confidence, inventiveness and even prodigality. Arguably the greatest animated feature Disney ever made, "Pinocchio" should be an indisposable adornment to this holiday season for dedicated moviegoers. It may also heop to place the "achievements" of recent animated features like "Watership Down" and "Lord of the Rings in proper, permanently subordinate perspective.