Is it possible that in 2009, animated feature films may finally be catching up to Pinocchio? Walt Disney’s classic adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s dark, moralistic fable about a puppet who leans there’s more to being “a real boy” than playing all day is one of those rare movies that doesn’t just feel ahead of its time, but out of time. Was there ever a world in which a story about a talking puppet waited 15 minutes to bring the title character to life? Were there ever parents comfortable with taking their children to a movie that showed the nightmarish consequences of misbehavior? Pinocchio was considered a box-office disappointment when it was released in 1940, but it’s remained a staple of the Disney library, and over the decades, only a few feature-length cartoons have come along that trust a young audience’s ability to handle such a relaxed pace and a grim message. Many of the Studio Ghibli films, like Pinocchio, follow natural rhythms and dream-logic, and recently, Wall-E’s lengthy wordless opening and Coraline’s genuine sense of menace have followed Pinocchio’s lead. But it’s a tough movie to match, because its sensibilities are so evenly split between the old world and the new.
Pinocchio is now available on Blu-ray, which reveals the movie’s painterly layers. During the long opening sequence in Geppetto’s workshop, the image has a shading and depth that makes the room and the people in it look like illustrations from an 19th-century European storybook, and when the Blue Fairy arrives to awaken Pinocchio, the contrast between her ethereal form and his gangly cartooniness is something of a revelation. From the crowded puppet theater where Pinocchio is shanghaied into service to the massive interior of Monstro The Whale, this edition of Pinocchio tells as much of its story with its visual texture and design as it does with words and music. And like Disney’s innovative Bambi DVD a few years back, the Blu-ray Pinocchio comes with a picture-in-picture commentary track, in which a panel of animation experts talk about the movie while sharing early sketches, promotional materials, and notes from the original story meetings.
What the Blu-ray features mainly confirm is how hands-on Walt Disney himself was with this movie. He softened the story’s hard edges with comic relief, and encouraged sentimental songs like “When You Wish Upon A Star,” but Pinocchio retains a hard punch. Disney remained committed to making his lead character sympathetic, while still putting him through the wringer. It’s as though Disney were trying to recapture how he felt as a boy, sweating through some simplistic-but-thrilling Punch & Judy show. And darned if Pinocchio doesn’t achieve the same effect, practically compelling audiences to yell at the screen with every bad choice that the impulsive puppet makes. For all its Jiminy Cricket optimism, Pinocchio is a potent illustration of how people can only improve because they’re so lousy to begin with.
Key features: An informative, appreciative hourlong look back, plus interactive games and that wonky commentary track.