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An Animation Showcase: From Celluloid to CGI | The 75th Anniversary Screening of Pinocchio

The 75th Anniversary Screening of Pinocchio
The 75th Anniversary Screening of Pinocchio presented by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was held at the beginning of this month in the The Academy Lighthouse Theater, NYC. The screening was fairly packed event filled with chiefly adult attendees. Oscar solemnly stood screen right, guarding the room.

The Academy Lighthouse Theater, NYC
The Academy Lighthouse Theater, NYC
Film Historian J.B. Kaufman offered an entertaining and informative introduction to the film. His presentation included projected sketches by Milt Kahl (Pinocchio animation) and Fred Moore (Geppetto animation).  In addition to focusing on the artwork and animation of the film, J.B. Kaufman spoke about the layers of effects in the movie including the multiplane camera wherein sections of layered background artwork was moved past the camera at different speeds. These camera dolly moves were created with levels of large heavy painted backgrounds. Disney won a special achievement Oscar in 1938 for the technology.

One of the advantages of seeing this historic work of art on the big screen is that you get to see the execution of it’s gorgeous details presented larger than life. You really notice the coloring in the characters. "The Blend" was created and patented by Mary Louise Weiser using a type of waxy crayon that allowed for color modeling and color transition (ex. the Jiminy Cricket blush). We take this kind of effect for granted in the current age of digital technology when artists can add shading and gradients with a few well placed clicks. "The Blend" technique was achieved here by adding pigment by hand, directly to each cell!

There is so much beautiful artwork in this film. A small sample of work by the Swedish-American illustrator Gustaf Tenggren was projected on screen during the introduction presentation and in the lobby a number of original photos and posters rested on easels for viewing.

Walt Disney
The backgrounds, visual effects, character design, and animation of Pinocchio create the "visual luxury" of the production which still holds up today. These elements combined with wonderful voice acting, musical numbers, and fun writing make the film a "magnificent achievement in the art of animation."

The introduction concluded with a raffle for copies of J.B Kaufman's book, "Pinocchio The Making of the Disney Epic".

"The Adventures of Pinocchio", the original story of Pinocchio, was written in 1880 by Italian author Carlo Collodi. Intended as a serial, the first half was written in 1881 and 1882. The work was later completed as a book for children in February 1883. Disney’s version is a simplified and adapted rendition. Disney created a much more likable "little wooden head". The original Pinocchio is a "blockhead". He is mischievous and self-centered. He does a good deal of public whining while his repeated poor choices result in his own escalated pain and suffering. There  is much suffering, and jail time. Pinocchio, Gepetto, the Blue Fairy (the blue haired fairy), Jiminy Cricket (the talking cricket), Honest John (the sly fox), Gideon (the cat), Stromboli (Mangiafuoco), the Coachman, the Red Lobster Inn (the Inn of the Red Crawfish), Lampwick (Candlewick), Pleasure Island (the land of boobies), Monstro (the Terrible Dogfish) were all re purposed from the Collodi's original series.

The sound of a harp rolled in as the lights dimmed the title sequence began. The audience applauded. The voice of Cliff Edwards  as Jiminy Cricket begins, “when you wish upon a star. . . . "  His voice is high, soft, and comforting and it carries you into the movie where Jiminy (animated by Ward Kimball) is reclining shelf above a large book. It is the story of Pinocchio.

As Jiminy talks directly to you,  his sunny disposition breaking the fourth wall, you are hooked. "Pretty, huh?" asks Jiminy. Yes, it's beautiful. It’s all just lovely.

From an animation perspective, acting choices in key poses are, of course,  great. (A few of my favorite body mechanics moments are Cleo closing the window, the “I’ve got no strings” dance in Stromboli’s side show, and Gepetto fishing in the rush of waves inside Monstoro’s belly.) The comedic value of these choices working in tandem with masterful drawings gives Jiminy weight in his movement and clarity in the key frames. There is an attitude and rhythm to this walk. Jiminy pulls over the handle of the candle holder to fasten down a page of the book. He is resourceful and handy. The cricket moves a little faster than anyone else. His leaps are perfectly arcing and weightless until he becomes anthropomorphized. Suddenly he is scrambling and humanized and weighty like everyone else. Warming his derrière by a coal snatched from the fire be narrates,  "As I stood there warm. . . warming myself. . . . " (The audience tittered.) He’s entertaining. He’s believable. He’s a talking cricket.

Throughout the movie you see the multiplane camera at work. It seems to zoom into and pan through the pages of the book into the "quaint little village" and it is a beautiful effect.

The weight and beauty in these characters is really something else. Dancing, Figaro, Geppetto, Cleo, and the little wooden puppet along move the way they are supposed to. The little wooden puppet clops along on his strings, Cleo swirls around her bowl, Geppetto is light on his feet, and Cleo is a cat. 

The film holds up perfectly. The audience responded to elements throughout. There were laughs, gasps, chuckles and a few moments of isolated commentary from some of the kids. I know I was choked up a few times. There are really funny moments throughout the film, lots of jokes. The musical numbers are wonderful. The movie has moments of terror, too. Ed Hooks, in his Acting for Animators workshop, says “don’t be afraid to scare children.” Pinocchio, though the storyline is far removed from the  elements of puppet torture in original story, gets pretty scary. When Lampwick turns into a jackass his last human scream is "Mama!" before he is taken over by donkey bellows and his final transmogrification is complete. The shadow transformation by flickering lamplight is straight from a horror movie. Monstro the Whale is frightening and huge. The seagulls, fish, Monstro, and his and area of the ocean are drawn in a contrasting realistic style. The sounds associated with Montro start in low boiling rumbles and escalate into train engine sounds reminiscent of a tornado. The rushing water throws and crushes. These scenes are scary and action packed.

At the finale of the movie the audience applauded, again. Most of the conversations I heard consisted of people processing their reactions, “I would go to Pleasure Island”, “I can’t remember the last time I watched this movie” and “I’ve never seen this film, it was wonderful!”

There have been other renditions of Pinocchio. “Disney is developing a live-action version of “Pinocchio” with Peter Hedges on board to write the story loosely based on the studio’s 1940 animated movie.” [Variety, April 18, 2015, Dave McNary]

I hope Disney takes the Blue Fairy’s advice and is guided by conscience. In the mean time, go and watch the Disney original!

Pinocchio is available on DVD/Blu-ray at amazon.com and amazon UK. 'Pinocchio The Making of The Disney Epic' by J B Kaufman' is available now.

Yvonne Grzenkowicz