In some odd way, it seems almost wrong to be able to own Walt Disney's "Pinocchio," the way it seemed almost wrong to be able to own "Gone With the Wind," released on videocassette by MGM earlier this year. As with that film, the arrival of "Pinocchio" in stores this week constitutes the fall of another barrier in the steady advance of video nouveau. Cultural milestones occur in the living room now.
"Pinocchio," a wonder of wonders when you were 8 years old, seems eerily less wondrous when you can hold it in your hands and plop it into a machine. But then when its image appears on the screen and the pictures jog old memories and the cricket begins to sing falsetto, the eeriness evaporates and the schmaltzy Disney spell is cast.
Walt Disney Home Entertainment is shipping thousands of copies of Disney's 1940 animated feature to video dealers throughout the country for sale, or rental, beginning Tuesday, marking the first time Disney has released one of its primo animated features for home VCR use. "Alice in Wonderland," "Dumbo" and "Robin Hood" have previously been available, but though these films have their appeal, they don't have the walloping sentimental status of "Pinocchio." This great movie is part of the childhood memory of every generation since the first one to have seen it, back at the dawn of the last world war.
One obvious question is, if "Pinocchio" is out, can "Bambi" be far behind? Disney spokesmen are mum about what other most-golden oldies may be released and when. Company policy had always been to withhold them from sale to TV or home video so they could be released to theaters every seven years. Even when Disney had a weekly network TV show, the classics were glimpsed only in fleeting clips. But a new management took over Disney this year. New managements always like to make lots of money quickly.
It would seem inevitable that "Bambi," "Snow White," "Peter Pan," "Lady and the Tramp," "Cinderella" and "Fantasia" will someday be sold for home viewing. But Richard Fried, director of marketing, says sternly that "there are no plans" to release any of these titles at this time. "The decision to release 'Pinocchio' was based on that title and that title alone," Fried says.
Still, he concedes, "I'd be silly to say 'never.' " Until this year, Disney maintained that none of its most beloved titles (15 animated features the company officially categorizes as "The Classics") would ever be released on cassette. "Things change," Fried says by way of explanation for the about-face. "It's a different business than it was two years ago when that decision was made."
It's a different business, all right. An immensely bigger one, or "rather huge," as Fried puts it. Results of recently released surveys and forecasts tell the story. There should be 25 million home VCRs in use by the end of this year, giving home video nearly the penetration rate of cable TV and thus virtual "mass medium" standing. Revenues generated by cassette sales and rentals are expected to hit $3.3 billion in 1985 and total $5 billion by 1988.
In addition, the ratio of cassettes bought to cassettes rented will increase, industry forecasts say, from a mere 1.4 percent of total cassette transactions to 25 percent by 1990.
As evidence of the business' bigness, Disney has made "Pinocchio" the object of the first national network TV spot advertising campaign built around a single home video title, sinking $1 million into the TV ad budget for the cassette.
Disney expects to sell more than 100,000 copies of "Pinocchio" in Beta and VHS formats, mostly to dealers who will rent them over and over. Disney has put a premium retail price of $79.95 on "Pinocchio's" head, making it attractive only to the more determined collectors. Lest anyone think Disney has forsaken its policy of defensive paranoia where its inventory of cartoon classics is concerned, review copies of the "Pinocchio" tape had "Property of W.D.T.N.T" superimposed on every single frame of the film to prevent piracy. WDTNT stands for Walt Disney Telecommunications and Non-Theatrical Co.
Earlier this summer, Disney Home Video released another seven titles in its "Limited Gold Edition" series of cartoon shorts. Some 610,000 copies of the first seven titles in the series were sold last year. Like those, the new set will be available at a bargain $29.95 each, making them more attractive for purchase by individual consumers.
Of the seven generally lackluster new collections, the best are probably "Donald's Bee Pictures" and "An Officer and a Duck," the latter comprising six titles from the first half of the '40s when Donald Duck dutifully enlisted, or was drafted (depending on the particular cartoon), into the armed services. He spends a lot of time peeling potatoes, the rest battling with a burly sergeant. There are no Japanese or German ethnic caricatures in the six titles on the tape.
Other titles in "Limited II" include "How the Best Was Won," ostensibly a collection of award winners but actually a hapless mishmash dominated by undistinguished nominees. In fact, something like "Funny Little Bunnies" could arguably be considered Disney cuddliness at its worst, while "Three Orphan Kittens" includes an offensively stereotyped black maid as well as a Topsy doll that brays "Mammy!"
"Pinocchio" certainly stands out from this crowd. The film has been released seven times theatrically since it was first produced, the last being last Christmas, when it grossed, according to Disney, an additional $24 million. On cassette, it seems as patently, potently magical as ever, though the smaller the TV screen, the more it is diminished. Cartoons transfer with greater fidelity to TV's limited resolution standards, however, and the aspect ratio -- the proportional height and width dimensions -- of a film like "Pinocchio" is much closer to that of a standard TV screen than are modern-day wide-screen films. You lose less image and get a higher fidelity picture.
The story of a marionette who comes to life and eventually, after considerable traumatic travail, is turned into a real little boy has an inescapable emotional pull. And yet the Disney artists repeatedly snatch the story from stickiness, often with the wisecracks of conscience Jiminy Cricket, who never chirps once in the whole film. Instead he urbanely narrates the story, his voice supplied by Cliff (Ukelele Ike) Edwards.
This cricket not only wears a top hat and carries an umbrella, he even has toes. He became so popular that he was revived in the '50s for instructional Disney films on TV, and the tune he sings at the open and close of "Pinocchio" was the original closing theme for the "Disneyland" TV show. "When You Wish Upon a Star" is the only Oscar-winning song ever to have been introduced by a bug.
"Pinocchio" begins in an unnamed "quaint little village" near mountains presumably Alpish, and the first 20 minutes of the picture -- rather audaciously for an animated film -- take place inside the cabin of Geppetto, an elderly but spry clockmaker who looks a little like Walter Cronkite. His family consists of Figaro, a sardonic kitten, and Cleo, a flirtatious, perhaps even nymphomaniacal, goldfish. Into this lonely life some light must, or at least does, shine, when a blue fairy materializes in the night and brings Geppetto's new wooden puppet to life.
Within the confines of the small home, the Disney artists created an exquisitely realized antic universe that is emblematic of their imaginative genius. One can't help noticing the elegance of the details -- the artfully realized glow from a burning lump of coal, or the inventively designed clocks and music boxes in Geppetto's gingerbready collection.
Pinocchio, in his lederhosen and with an apple and a book in his arms, leaves for school the next morning and is waylaid by the dishonest Honest John and his scraggly cat accomplice, who in a later scene dunks his smoke rings in beer and eats them. The nasty fox, who was voiced by character actor Walter Catlett (the befuddled jailer in "Bringing Up Baby"), sells Pinocchio to the greedy puppeteer Stromboli for his traveling road show. To Pinocchio, Stromboli bellows, "I will poosh you in de public eye."
Escaping from this confinement with the generous intervention of the blue fairy ("I'd rather be smart than be an actor," Pinocchio says in retrospect), Pinocchio is next shanghaied by a vile and bulbous coachman, a cross-caricature of Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Laughton, and soon alights at the scene of the film's most frightening sequence for children, Pleasure Island. Here little boys overindulge in foul pleasures (candy, cigars and drawing graffiti on the Mona Lisa) and are turned into donkeys that will be shipped off in crates conveniently labeled "Sold to the Salt Mines."
The sequence, which includes Pinocchio's pal Lampwick, a Mickey Rooney look-alike, turning into a donkey even as he cries out "Mama!," is outdone by the finale, a violent tussle with Monstro the whale, who has swallowed not only Geppetto but his pet cat and fish as well. Along the road to this splashily phantasmagorical showdown, Pinocchio undergoes the famous nose-growing scene, in which every lie lengthens his schnoz until it sprouts leaves and a bird's nest.
He learns his lessons with great difficulty but they stick. The stage is set for a euphorically happy ending and a reprise of "When You Wish Upon a Star," a song that evokes such fond memories in Steven Spielberg that he had John Williams weave it into the score for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Enjoyable as it is on a multitude of levels, "Pinocchio" can be savored for its salubrious influence on our greatest modern movie maker as well. When Spielberg tries to whip up some of that old sheer enchantment, it is his own childhood encounter with "Pinocchio" that he strives to recreate.
"Fate is kind," sings a chorus accompanying Cricket. "It brings to those who love the sweet fulfilment of their secret longings." This release of "Pinocchio" is sweet fulfilment itself. Or bittersweet fulfilment at the very least.
With a new management installed at Disney, and many of the original animators and artists having died out, there is cause to worry about the safekeeping of one of the most treasurable inventories in all of Hollywood.
In that respect, the release of "Pinocchio" on videotape can be seen as a bad sign, an indication that bottom lining will overcome the Disney empire. While Walt was nothing if not frugal, he was also a gambler. He bet everything he had on "Snow White," did it again on "Fantasia," and did it yet again years later on Disneyland. In a film clip of opening festivities at the world's best-known amusement park, being shown this weekend as part of an "Entertainment This Week" Disney salute, Unca Walt is seen on camera saying, "To all who come to this happy place, welcome!"
He was a businessman but he was a kid at heart. As movie companies pass into second generations, sometimes into the domain of vast, callous corporations, there is every danger that the entrepreneurial daring of founding fathers will be forgotten. "Pinocchio" is about dreams coming true in more ways than one. This year Disney will release its 25th animated film, "The Black Cauldron," which was produced at a cost of $25 million with the latest in laser and computer technology. Yet it is unlikely to match the achievement and the experience of "Pinocchio." Imagine -- 45 years old and still state-of-the-art.