Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Walt Disney, part II: There are no strings on me


As a lavishly-mounted exercise in how, through magic and hard work, something unliving becomes alive, you could call Pinocchio the very essence of animation.  You could, that is, if you liked it a lot more than I do.

Directed by Bill Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske
With Dickie Jones (Pinocchio), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket), Christian Rub (Gepetto), Frankie Dorro (Lampwick), Walter Catlett ("Honest" John Worthington Foulfellow), Mel Blanc (Gideon the Cat's hiccups), Charles Judels (Stromboli), and Evelyn Venable (the Blue Fairy)

I've tried with Pinocchio, and obviously I respect it; I couldn't conceivably not respect it.  I understand what people mean when they call it Disney's greatest achievement, or (as they sometimes do) even animation's greatest achievement.  I still think they're wrong—even if Pinocchio can compete with any cartoon you cared to throw at it, at least on its chosen level of technical finesse.  But what was the result of all that painstaking effort?  Much worth praising, yes.  But also the definitive version of an ugly and irresponsible fable, turned into one of the most emotionally inert films in the Disney canon, and a viewing experience that is not too unlike Gepetto's own collection of clockworks—expertly handcrafted, difficult to explain, and, often enough, kind of annoying.

In the afterglow of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs' unprecedented profitability, anything that was possible seemed within Walt Disney's reach.  Owing to his character as a great artistic soul who was also a terrible businessman, Walt naturally set out upon several impossible things, and almost drove his studio into the ground despite having the modern-day equivalent of about half a billion dollars in reserve.  The least-impossible thing Walt settled on was Pinocchio.  This meant skipping over several other prospects, for, after Snow White, a half-dozen or more ideas swirled: an adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which Walt had wanted to do even before he'd committed to Snow White, but which nobody would manage to massage into a filmable story for another decade (if then); Reynard the Fox, based on the French folktale, but only ever realized in a more English form; maybe strangest of all, Penguin Island, about a blind missionary who baptizes an island full of great auks, thinking them curious natives, before they can go extinct on him.

It is not surprising that some of these never got made; it's more surprising that Pinnochio was the one that recommended itself to be made now, jumping ahead of Bambi (not the last delay it would suffer), thanks to a team of storymen who'd banged together just enough of a plot to make a movie out of it.  Well.  You know.


In fact, despite its priority, production on Pinocchio was still a mess.  Rework was rampant: as likely should've been more obvious than it apparently was, Walt never had much intention of adapting Carlo Collodi's cruelty-tinged tale of the wooden boy who yearned to be real with complete fidelity.

Because there was resistance to sanding off The Adventures of Pinocchio's sharper edges, and it took an intervention to get some of the animators to see it Walt's way.  Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, for reasons I'm sure made good sense to them, were positively wedded to the inhuman rigidity of Pinocchio's construction; it fell to Milt Kahl, who effectively took over the character, to produce something Walt felt comfortable putting on a screen, and hence the Pinocchio we got, a "wooden" boy whose apple-cheeked face is pretty clearly a face, except for the nose.  Honestly, I can see Thomas and Johnston's side of it: Pinocchio's Pinocchio is a puppet mostly in the sense of his noticeably jointed limbs, no longer the uncannier thing seen in earlier illustrations.  Thus was attained a cuter, more marketable, and (perhaps) more bearable character, albeit at the expense of Pinocchio's victory, without much visual differentiation between the wooden boy he was and the flesh he becomes.

Much the same thing happened with "Jiminy" Cricket—an expanded role for a character that Collodi's Pinocchio smashed with a hammer (told you it was cruel)—who was placed under the supervision of Ward Kimball, awarded the character as compensation for Walt's arguably-crummy treatment of him on Snow White.  (Walt had removed a scene that Kimball had more-or-less fully animated, an offense ranking low on any list of "mean things Walt Disney did to his employees.")  Kimball went through an interminable series of drafts on Jiminy, at last arriving at the conclusion that he probably should've come to immediately: Walt didn't want a gross cricket as the narrator and co-protagonist of his film.  So Kimball gave him a little green man, with four limbs, a spine, and a head shaped like an egg; and this, I guess, was suitable.

It was therefore not the story that caused the most trouble, though by the same token it was, perhaps, the story that got the least repairs, reducing the scope of Collodi's episodic work mainly by reducing the number of Collodi's vignettes from "endless" to "three," and, to the storymen's credit, intensifying their separate urgency.  But the lack of coherence this implies defines the final film at least as much as the herculean, sometimes sisyphean efforts of the designers and animators in the face of Walt's dissatisfaction.

Indeed, Walt wasn't all that pleased with the story, either, sending instructions to make Pinocchio blander and more innocent, in accord with his shift from Collodi's creepy pine golem to Kahl's more pleasant, more-notionally-wooden boy.  Even then, it seems that only once the possibilities of the final sequence were pointed out did a real enthusiasm reawaken in Walt, and this was what powered Pinocchio's production through to its conclusion.

Sounds likely, anyway.

But before we get there, there's still the story as it stood, once animation began in earnest (in fact, animation began before the story was done, and not all of it was usable).  You surely know it; but best to be complete, especially since almost all of my objections arise from the story that begins when we arrive one night upon the puppetmaker and tinkerer, Gepetto, who has just finished his latest piece, the marionette he christens Pinocchio.

Speaking confidentially to his kitten Figaro, his oddly sexy fish Cleo, and (more significantly) to a bright wishing star in the sky, he wishes that his Pinocchio were a real boy.  A certain arthropodal trespasser, Jiminy Cricket, is present to witness this; and he is the only one still awake when the Blue Fairy, in recognition of the life of kindness which this aging, obsessive bachelor who sleeps with a gun under his pillow has apparently lived, arrives to grant his wish.  She gives Pinocchio life, and offers Jiminy the job of his "concscience," which the gryllidian hobo takes, because he's attracted to and easily swayed by humanoid women, and because it comes with a nicer set of clothes.

Too good for them now, Jiminy?

The Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio that if he can prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish, he can indeed be a real boy.  She leaves, and soon, Gepetto is startled awake.  Astonished but happy, the family has a little birthday celebration before settling back in to sleep.

The next day, Gepetto sends his twelve hour old son off to school, and, as far as this film's concerned, he never makes it there, since in short order he's waylaid by a pair of conmen, Honest John the Fox and Gideon the Cat, who quickly seduce the boy into agreeing to become an actor, which Pinocchio does, in the sense he's trotted out on stage by the traveling showman Stromboli before Stromboli locks him in a birdcage.  Pinocchio escapes, with Jiminy's moral support (I shan't say "help"), but, almost as soon as he gets out, he's snatched right up again, by the exact same criminals, who sell him to a sinister coachman who regularly delivers a cargo of disobedient boys to a so-called "Pleasure Island," an allegory for Walt's own later passion for entrapping children within amusement parks.  As such, it turns out to be a magical snare that Pinocchio and Jiminy barely manage to flee, with Pinocchio only slightly donkeyfied in the process.  Finally arriving home, the pair discover that Gepetto has gone to sea, to search for Pinocchio there for some reason—because wood floats?—but his mission was cut short when his boat was swallowed by the great whale, Monstro.  At this provocation, twenty minutes before the end, our film's main characters at last conceive to do anything.

And, man, it really is something, but until this point Pinocchio is a shaggy story that, when you get down to it, is basically about a child being trafficked, and then blaming him for it.  In fairness, that lines up with Collodi's intentions, and not much of the nastiness ever did get ironed out of Pinocchio, though the main wrinkle there, Pinocchio himself, always presented something of a double-bind: on one hand, this Pinocchio in no way deserves slavery and body horror, because he's basically good, merely innocent to the point of stupidity (a very nice beat in his "birthday" scene is when he lights his hand on fire, because it's "pretty"); on the other, Pinocchio is despicably stupid, so you're left with the contempt for ol' Pinoke that Collodi presumably intended you to have, except in Disney's version, it comes with the queasy feeling that you, too, are judging the victim.  Easier, then, to just disengage.  Especially when you're also faced with as much nonsense as this movie indulges in.

For example, why not just steal actual donkeys?  I feel like this plan has unnecessary steps.

But, really, that's just imaginative fabulism, albeit Victorian in its horrifying morality; mostly, I enjoy its nerve.  It's the atonal nonsense that I hate: Honest John and Gideon, for starters, whose mere existence raises questions about the world you're not supposed to ask, and who do not represent, in this iteration, any fabulistic overlay upon dark forces the way Stromboli and the coachman do, at least not nearly as much as they represent a transparent excuse for garbage vaudeville.  Watching a bipedal fox get stuck in his own hat and his bipedal cat sidekick pull an enormous mallet out of the hammerspace in his coat in order to pound him out is only a distraction (as are, in their milder ways, Jiminy's anachronistic, modernist asides), and when the crippling thing about Pinocchio was always going to be the start-and-stop momentum of its "story," distractions aren't likely to help.

Pinocchio gets by, however, despite questionable comic relief, a fundamentally-broken structure, and characters who are purely reactive even in comparison to the useless heroes of Snow White (consider that Pinocchio and Jiminy's single greatest accomplishment prior to the end of the film is being successfully pathetic, enough so that the omnipotent Blue Fairy arrives to free them via a spritz of effects animation and condescension).  The methods by which Pinocchio gets by, of course, are by being (at least) fascinatingly weird—and, more importantly, by being really, really cool to gawk at, because damned if its proponents aren't (mostly) right about how gorgeous it is.  If I'm being honest, though, it gets by most of all because I know how it ends.

Now, the whole film is well-built: Albert Hurter and Gustaf Tenggren's design work (to oversimplify, Hurter did the interior details, Tenggren the exteriors) already accomplishes much of what Pinocchio needs to do before any people enter the frame, their efforts brought to life by the background painters in gouache and oil that leaves just enough of the artifice of its creation visible to constantly remind you of Pinocchio's storybook origins, though it be an especially immaculate storybook, and one which we get to explore in unprecedented depth by way of some staggeringly complex multiplane camerawork.  (Much of Pinocchio's reputation rests on its multiplane work, and it is indeed quite fine, sometimes announcing itself loudly—the push-in onto Gepetto's village—and sometimes deceptively quietly—they say it's hard to notice the technical prowess of marshaling multiple planes of animation, plus lightning, plus rain, when you're worried Pinocchio's going to die in Stromboli's caravan, but I wasn't worried, so notice it I did—and Pinocchio absolutely provides the kind of thrill that only old movies can, when you're baffled by how they could've possibly managed it.)  But a stage does need its players, and Pinocchio's Germanic-feeling Italian village (Tyrol, perhaps) is populated by some equally well-crafted characters.

Not, for example, Honest John and Gideon.

Figaro the kitten, though, is purely and simply wonderful.  True, he's a character who appears to have been conceived by people who have never met a cat, but he was drawn by people who knew cats well, and while his animation is bent to some dubious ends (I don't know many cats that fold their arms across their chests in resignation), Figaro transitions seamlessly, even magically between "realistic cat" and "lightly-anthropomorphized cartoon caricature."  Figaro represents a very specialized triumph for Disney's painters, too, in the way little painted strokes form his whiskers and his fur; and while I don't believe they ever tried this again with a feline, it's a shame they didn't.  Meanwhile, the traced, translucent Blue Fairy (whose powers represent the only onscreen work which abstract animator Oskar Fischinger ever did for Disney, despite him being hired for another movie altogether) is always a lovely flash of supernatural hyperrealism.

Our titular marionette has his good points, too: Kahl and the other animators, despite everything, while surrendering some of his wooden complexion, retained his wooden soul. Pinocchio is a relatively careful creation, his movements rarely betraying themselves as having more weight than the pile of sticks he is—though, when they do, it's in big and obvious ways, particularly when we find him walking underwater.  The scene gestures toward the principle of buoyancy (Pinoke ties a rock around his donkey's tail), but mostly so that nobody could accuse Kahl and company of not knowing what that principle was, while nevertheless refusing to actually integrate it into the action, since the rock tied to Pinocchio's tail should be the only thing about him that sinks, and it is painfully plain that it is not.

The flawless cartoon turns out to have a flaw nobody mentions.  Surprise!

But Pinocchio is also the recipient of the only real showstopper in this musical.  It's worth pointing out, I suppose, that Pinocchio has some pretty okay songs, including the latterday corporate theme of "When You Wish Upon a Star," but none are as catchy, let alone as fun to watch, as "I've Got No Strings"—but then, "I've Got No Strings" is a tour de force of choreographed character animation featuring the added challenge of most of its characters being inanimate puppets, who have to be (and are) successfully contrasted with Pinocchio's own innate life force.

There are also folks who like Stromboli.  Well, I like Stromboli's wagon.

None of this would countervail against Pinocchio's lumpy story, but Pinocchio hasn't even started its real spectacle yet, and to the extent I think Pinocchio is a great or even good movie, it is almost entirely down to it being a really great movie about a boy getting swallowed by a whale to save his dad which, for some reason, seems to have many other, unnecessary parts first.  I've alluded to the undersea journey to Monstro, which is colorful and beautiful even if it doesn't work as a physics lesson.  But the battle with Monstro?  That's when Pinocchio flattens you.

Monstro itself is as unique a work as they come, his finely-painted appearance obviously a hellish effort to get right—but it pays off.  Animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, whose best work tended toward the monumental, it's said that Bill Tytla was removed because he'd have taken it too far, making Monstro too scary.  Tytla would get his revenge, I suppose, but, in this context, I have no idea what that means: under Reitherman, Monstro is already nothing less than a terrifying background painting come to life, in other words, the world itself turning upon poor Pinocchio, taking on the form of power, speed, and chaos incarnate to smite our ill-fated moron.  Famously, Monstro is attended by the most advanced effects animation in film history up to this point, his godlike stature underlined, inestimably so, by the backbreaking efforts made (notably by Sandy Strother, who spent a tedious-but-rewarding year as Pinocchio's professional water-drawer) to detail, in expressionist fervor, every crashing wave he creates in his drive to avenge himself upon the dinner that's escaped.

The only problem, even in theory, is that they hadn't invented widescreen yet, though (get this) Walt was trying.

So let's close by discussing the film's unsuccessful first run, a story perpetuated, I suspect, mostly to persuade you that you must be smarter and more sophisticated than your stupid forebears, who refused Walt's holy gift.  Sure, it was unsuccessful, but it's not so much that contemporary audiences categorically rejected it as they were merely a lot less into it than they were Snow White, which frankly oughtn't have shocked anyone; and if Pinocchio had cost what Snow White did, instead of twice as much (or even if Pinocchio simply hadn't been released into the teeth of the Nazi conquest of Europe), it would've made money.  Of course, due to force of branding, and Disney's never-say-die attitude, Pinocchio ultimately became extremely profitable by way of re-releases; eventually, we were all bullied into agreeing it was a classic.  I don't know: respect it though I might, that respect has never become wholehearted affection, and I doubt it ever shall.

Besides, I reserve the balance of my respect and affection for the other feature Disney did in 1940.  I mentioned that Walt had, in the first flush of success, tasked his studio with the impossible.  That, of course, was hyperbole.  But only barely: for at the same exact time the studio was spending more money than any movie should've cost on Pinocchio, they were doing the exact same thing on another, even more ambitious project, and if the result was that Walt broke his studio against the vault of heaven—and it was—I'm still glad he tried.

Score: 6/10

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