Real name: Carl Padgham
Review Star Average: 2.25/4
Keyframe's Managing Editor, animation critic and researcher (and former videogame critic). I'm stingy with my stars, so don’t expect a lot of high scores from me, a profile has to really work to earn its balls of fire facsimiles.
Presently, I review animation based on how they bear up to the peers in their respective categories - features-to-features, DTVs-to-DTVs, etc - rather than try to unfairly compare a high budget feature film with a low budget direct-to-video. Call it a category concession if you will.
I hope to never let nostalgia affect my reviews, but then nobody’s perfect. My favourite animated cartoons tend to fall between the original "Golden Era" and the late 80s to early 90s. My interest in animation goes back years. I enjoy playing video games but tend to find their animated adaptations range from awful to okay - I could say a similar thing to game adaptations of many animation licences.
While I may prefer traditional animation to CGI, I can watch almost anything and think that the story and characters are more important to a film, etc, than the medium of animation used in it.
For what it's worth, I have Asperger's Syndrome, a form of high functioning autism.
My Star to 10 scale ratio:
4.0 stars = 9-10 - Superb: One of the best films you could hope to see in your lifetime - insofar as I'm concerned, a rare gem in animation achievement.
3.5 stars = 8-9 - Great: That film that entertains all the way through, and never truly flounders, but is still missing the spark that seperates the great from the epic.
3.0 stars = 7-8 - Good: A film, etc, that is good, but not great, something you'd watch again, but might not go hunting down the Blu-ray or DVD - at full price - for.
2.5 stars = 5-6 - Mediocre: Straight down the middle, while it's watchable, you won't call it actually good per sé. On the flip side, neither is it actually bad.
2.0 stars = 3-4 - Poor: Not so bad as you cannot get through it, but you might not care to watch it again anytime soon, or remember anything about it immediately after it finishes.
1.5 stars = 2-3 - Terrible: Maybe there some redeeming factors, but they are few and far in a overwise horrid production.
1.0 stars = 1-2 - Abysmal: Practically unwatchable sludge. or as close to it as makes no odds.
Animation, Drawing, writing, reading (animal novels, fantasy, sci-fi, animation history), videogames, and radio comedies. Not necessarily in that exact order.
Animation that I love:
Theatrical Shorts, Animaniacs, Astro Boy (all versions), Count Duckula, Lilo & Stitch, WALL•E...
Set a considerable time after the second film, 3 finally gets to the answer to the question that the first two films kept asking, what was going to happen when Andy grew up. Well here, Andy is grown, at least old enough to go to college, and it’s heavily implied that the toys that are left, and there aren’t many, haven't been played with for a long time. A series of events cause the majority of the toys to think they're being thrown away, the exception, of course, is Woody, who bears witness to the events from outside and tries to convict the others of the reality of the circumstances, to no avail (just how many times can the others disbelieve him after what they’ve all been through).
Buzz, Jessie and company find themselves in Sunny Day Care, and while things certainly look rosy, they soon discover how dangerous small kids can be and that the other toy inhabitants are not as benign as they first appear. To say any more would be to spoil the film, but expect plenty of twist and turns along the generous runtime.
Toy Story 3 is a mature film in the proper, literary sense of the word, rather than the general usage of the word Hollywood uses to evoke pictures of muscle bound action heroes, spilling blood all over; which is of course the least mature kind of filmic entertainment going. Indeed, Toy Story 3 is a sombre film, at times more funereal than fun, but immensely captivating nonetheless. That said, there’s also plenty of fun in abundance and while emotions run high, Pixar’s writers and directors are smart at the whole pacing thing, the film is impeccable with its flow, and always knows when to give viewers respite in-between the more demanding scenes.
It even manages to throw a curve ball with what I thought was an actually well used Deus ex Machina† becoming one of the best in-jokes in the entire movie which also followed on one of the franchises longest running gags – not to mention debts.
And yes, there are the in-jokes aplenty, some for those who have seen the prior two films, which I’d imagine is most people, and there’s in-jokes for the more hardcore animation nut, like the appearances of A113, 95‡ and the Pizza Planet delivery van.
Talking about how good the animation and sound design is in a pixar film feels like a complete irrelevancy; Pixar hold the crown for brilliance in both fields and Toy Story 3 shows that that is unlikely to change. It is interesting to compare this film to the previous entries. Textures and subsequent details have improved since the second, and the toys now look better than ever, Lots-Hugging-Bear’s fur and deformation as he moves around is astounding and in general Toy Story 3 is crammed to the brim with excellence.
Pixar’s ideas on how to use 3D in film run parallel to my own; used to create an illusion of depth running away from the canvas/screen; Pixar are below the idiocy of using 3D as a cheap gimmick that insists on trying to poke things into viewer’s eyes - or at least the screen. The end result is a 3D effect that is both subtle and understated, which makes it all the more believable.
Toy Story 3 is the best film of the trilogy, both in terms of it technical prowess and its deep, engaging story. It is an immense achievement considering the competition and although it benefits greatly from you having prior knowledge of the events of the first two films; Toy Story 3 also stands up happily on its own terms.
*How videogame series’ that a different kettle of fish.
† Generally one of my least favourite get-out-of-jail-free-cards in writing that writers try to get away with.
‡ The year the first Toy Story was released; also seen as Lightning’s race number in Cars, for the same reason.
WALL•E is one of those rarities…
I must admit that I was skeptical of the film by what little I saw of it - trailers,* TV spots, etc - before I brought the DVD (I brought the film on blu-ray as soon as it appeared on the format), a matter not helped with WALL•E himself reminding me a little too much of Johnny-5 from eighties film Short Circuit. Still with Pixar’s heritage of film-making behind it, I grabbed the DVD shortly after its release, put the disc in my computer tray, turned the lights out and pressed “start movie” and waited for the obligatory company logos to play their course.
Howadays I know better than to trust the trailers of Pixar's films.
The first thing you hear is Michael Crawford’s wonderful voice singing “Out There”† from the sixties film Hello Dolly, to a beautiful field of stars. It's a heck of a way to start an animated sci-fi movie, a song about how there is always somewhere you can go in our beautiful world, in a grass is always greener sort of way. It also fits in with the atmosphere of WALL•E, the juxtaposition between it and the rather wretched world we see on-screen here works.
Taking about the music brings me to the rest of WALL•E’s sound, or at least one facet of it. While the film does have dialogue, for the first half-hour it might as well be a silent movie, WALL•E and E.V.E. speak their names and a few other words like “directive”, other than that the two really just make ‘robot’ sounds.
As such these two robots have to emote in the most primal way possible, through actual character animation, such a rarity in today’s market of overly talkative films I was almost starting to think that it was a lost art (a sad state of affairs in what is predominately a visual medium). Body language is the order of the day here, and as someone who can animate as well as an animation fan, it’s welcomed with opened arms. And so well done is the character animation, that mere minutes into the movie I felt more for WALL•E than I have for many a fictional character - animated or otherwise - in a long while.
WALL•E himself is voiced, if that’s the right word, by Ben Burtt, who originally worked for LucasFilm’s sound effects department, starting off creating the effects for Star Wars, including the legendary sounds of the Lightsaber; as well as providing the voices of some of the droids (like the one that gets tortured in Jabba’s palace next to R2-D2). As a sound engineer, rather than a more traditional actor, he is perfect in the roll of, well a robot.
These two robots have managed to do what most robots tend to do in sci-fi, break their programming, or enough of it to develop quirks and personalities. WALL•E has taken up a hobby in the form of collecting any interesting knickknacks he finds, and it is charming to view his childlike fascination with what to us would be boring everyday items; it is also easy to emote with the care he treats his collection with. Even when we first meet E.V.E. we find that she isn’t fully committed to her job (or directive), having a jolly little joyride around the local area as soon as the ship that brings her to Earth is out of sight, it provides us with just enough knowledge that she seems to have a chance to see eye-to-eye with WALL•E.
Going back to the plot. WALL•E was one of a number of WALL•E class robots meant to clean up the Earth, now covered in untold tons of rubbish, while humans spend the meantime on gigantic starships waiting to return. Only something drastically wrong has happened and WALL•E is apparently the only one who still functions, cannibalising other defunct WALL•E robots to survive. The opening scenes are almost like a fly-on-the-wall documentary, as we follow a typical day in the robot's life, it gives us a sense of the sheer isolation the robot has faced for the last few centuries.
And from the get-go it is obvious that he’s been doing this a very, very long time, as some trash is piled as high as the skyscrapers they stand next to. As the camera follows WALL•E we pass hypermarkets, banks, fast-food joints, all owned by a company called BnL, who apparently also managed to own the world’s government and set up the plans for the evacuation of the planet.
The opening also has the worse, most corny line in the movie, when the president of BnL – played by a live-action actor thanks to ILM – states that “…space is the final FUN-tier”, although it’s intentionally bad like a shamelessly bad catchphrase of an advertisement, so it couldn’t really be said to not serve its purpose.
Of course there’s the obvious parallel between WALL•E and the story of Noah’s Ark, with E.V.E. being the dove and all, but it’s the barebones of the story rather than the film having an overt agenda; besides its just kind of read that humanity would send out probe droids to find out if life had returned to their home-world in the far future. And yes, while there is an environmental message strung across the film, the way it's presented though, helps to deliver without being overbearing. As it stands the film is a romance first, with the message being of tertiary importance to the plot and overarching meaning. If anything the film is more trying to say that we shouldn't follow things blindly, whether they be corporations (ironic maybe considering), governments or the A.I., except maybe our hearts.
The plot itself is straightforward and to the point, rather than overtly convoluted and needlessly twisty, not that it doesn’t have twists of its own, rather it works them into the narrative in a way that makes you believe that it couldn’t have happened any other way, it all makes logical sense. The simplicity of the film’s story aids it in another way, it is more or less impossible not to follow what is going on even though the pace of the film is for the most part extremely quick. Actually the pace is fine, really fine, the fast bits move fast and the more relaxed parts move at a more leisurely pace; but the pacing itself is so well thought out that I couldn’t believe that ninety minutes had past the first viewing. Sometimes I have complained about regular-length films that seem to go on forever, here the film just doesn’t feel long enough… it’s remarkable.
POTENTIAL SPOILERS (highlight to read)
The usual problem with a straightforward plot which speeds along at a fair pace is that plot holes can start to develop, and yes there are a few. One minor one is how the Axiom has survived and fed its populace over the centuries, although a throwaway line during a scene tells us that there is a food regeneration program installed. However that is a minor issue when compared to the following, what happened to the rest of the BnL fleet; in the adverts we see at the beginning multiple ships are seen leaving the Earth along with the Axiom, and are never heard from or mentioned again. Just what happened to them (possible sequel-fodder maybe).
On a different note, the environmental message never delves into the planet needing the humans to protect them beyond the captain's speech to that effect. One of the last shots in the film showing that plenty of plant life is starting to grow without the interference of humans. We need the planet more than it needs us after-all.
Then of course there’s the usual issue with Pixar’s – and most CG I’s – “humans”, whose appearance I have a tendency to simply ignore because it’s a heck of a lot better than the film – and the studios – going down the treacherous road of uncanny valley. Here, the appearance of the human's is worked into the story in a clever way that allows you to buy into them as decedents of humans that have spent a few too many generations in space.
However, when a film is as much fun, brilliantly realised and as heart-warming as WALL•E is, it is hard to let minor issues bug you; and they don’t. It like riding a themed rollercoaster and noticing that one or two of the ride’s animatronics are broken, it doesn’t detract from the actual core ride. Calling WALL•E out on its flaws is almost nitpicking; the film enjoyment factor just transcends it.
Full of shine and full of sparkle. Certainly is. I happy to call it one of my favourite movies, and not just animated ones.
*One thing in my defense, the quality of Pixar's trailers have always tended to be inversely proportioned to that of the films and I should have known better than to trust WALL•E's ones.
†The actual title of the song is “Put on your Sunday Clothes”, the words 'out there' are just the first two words in it.
Jay Sherman, the main character of The Critic series, is one critic to whom being critical of the work of others comes oh so naturally, and to whom these seemingly never ending blockbusters are detestable wastes of film. And he’s quite happy to tell the audience that these films stink. That is what audience he has, as Jay’s program, Coming Attractions (methinks a homage on Siskel and Ebert’s old show: Sneak Previews), isn’t a great ratings winning and - as one episode shows - screen test audiences rate him below Hitler in lovability.
And so his boss, Duke Phillips, a blowhard Southerner who built his media empire up from its humble beginnings of a chicken fast food takeaway, comes up with numerous ways to get Jay’s ratings up. None of these particularly come close to Jay liking them and often add to his frustration and annoyance. Not that they are many that are sympathetic with Jay’s plight, his divorced wife resolutely hates his guts and his adoptive mother, as well as his make-up lady generally show indifference. He does find some support in his son Marty and Aussie actor friend Jeremy Hawke, the later of which stars in a series of films that are a mixture of the Crocodile Dundee movies and James Bond. His father behaves a little bit, shall we say eccentrically, apparently due to a stroke, though this is denied by Jay’s mother and in flashbacks we see that he has somewhat always had this tendency, on and off.
For the record, Jay definitely doesn’t hate films, on one episode he goes on a tirade about the changes that his boss has done to several classic movies (Casablanca being the most predominate), when he gives them happier endings. In another he writes down a list of his favourite films to pitch for a positive segment for his show. After Duke asks that it “…ain’t full of foreign films…” that no-one’s heard off Jay cuts the shortlist down to one: Citizen Kane, which his boss has never heard off.
The series is a little slower paced than The Simpsons at its peak; but it is a more thoughtful and cerebral affair with its foot a bit more inside reality than Matt Groening’s little world. Comedy is provided with some of the sharpest satire and parodies of Hollywood’s 'finest', in particular Arnold Schwarzenegger and a stuck in advertising Orson Welles. The rest is in the sharp writing, strong characters who are either interesting or likeable, sometimes both, fantastic voice acting, interesting character designs that are as well animated as anything else in the animated sitcom genre.
The Critic was, and still is, a wonderful show that sadly got cancelled by virtually every network that aired it. Maybe it was perhaps too smart to survive the market, or maybe too cynical. In one way, it did return, as a miniseries of web shorts, which are themselves great pieces of entertainment, but this having to downsize when it could have been so much more is a forlorn end to what was otherwise one of the true greats of television.
These days, a studio would’ve had a good chance of following a film as successful as Snow White up with a hastily assembled sequel* – direct or spiritual – to cash in on the prior film’s popularity. Walt Disney was one who did things differently, though in fairness the studio always had several projects on the unfinished pile that were in several states of completeness, including ideas for stories based on other fairy-tales, to those based on books like Alice in Wonder – a story that had long interested Disney – and Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series (suggested to Disney by Burroughs himself).†
Bambi was originally scheduled to be the follow-up to Snow White, but Disney didn’t think his team up to that task just yet – the film would have to wait. In it stead, we got Pinocchio.
Carlo Collodi’s children’s story about a living and rather bratty, mean-spirited, almost antagonistic puppet was a strange choice for a film, let alone as the follow-up to Snow White. The original story was a dark, bleak piece by any standards. Within the world of the text, Pinocchio has had his feet burnt off, is beaten, thrown in prison, turned into a donkey – that the buyer attempts to drown – and comes close to being incinerated alive in the fires of Stomboli the puppet master. Indeed, the original ending of the story saw Pinocchio hanged on a tree, supposedly dead. Collodi was asked by his editor to keep the popular character alive and ret-coned the story, introducing the Fairy With the Azure Hair and the notion of behaving in the hope of becoming a real boy.
Though he gets better, it is somewhat hard to root for the wooden marionette in the novel, he’s obnoxious, sometime callous and is the initiator of his own misfortune more often than not (and given the numerous villain he comes across, that’s no mean feat).
Certainly, the puppet as writ would be a difficult character for Walt Disney to accommodate into a feature film. Indeed things evidently didn’t go smoothly, as Disney decided, five months into production, to restart the project.
Yes, the whole film was redesigned from top to bottom whilst in the middle of production. Walt feeling that the film, insofar as he was concerned, had a few distinct problems. The first problem was Pinocchio himself, now much of a puppet should he be, how much he should be his own enemy. The solution was to make him a babe in the woods, so to speak, as unaware of the makeup of the world as you might expect from something – or someone – simply dropped into it.
Another thing Disney felt the film needed was an audience surrogate, or at the very least an anchoring point. Enter Jiminy Cricket. The cricket was a minor character in the original version of the book, who warns Pinocchio that his wicked ways would come back to haunt him. The puppet not wanting to hear this, throws a heavy iron hammer at the insect, killing the bug dead. In the retcon, the cricket reappears as an associate of the fairy, giving her an account of the puppets actions and indeed acting as a dark lecturer to the marionette.
The design for the cricket was assigned to Ward Kimball, partly as compensation for an entire scene from Snow White that Ward had animated being axed‡. Ward worked his way through dozens of designs, inspired by the grasshopper in the Silly Symphony The Grasshopper and the Ant, but found that he couldn’t make him appealing enough. Ward finally designed a little human-like creature with an egg-shaped head. Walt liked the design and noted that the audience would accept that he is “a cricket because we say he’s a cricket” a note on the concept of suspension of disbelief.
In many ways Pinocchio is the polar opposite to the work that preceded it. Whereas Snow White was a wash of hope with a tinge of darkness in the vein of the evil Queen, Pinocchio is a cloak of darkness with the slightest glimmer that things will work out in the end for the title character. It goes by the mantra of creating interesting, likeable characters and then putting them in the most terrible of dangers. In that it succeeds immensely. The stakes are higher than before, the principles are outnumbered by the antagonists and the narrative is deeper.
Although the story does cut an immense amount of the original story (this is a film after all and the novel was quite long), the most iconic parts are at least still present and correct. Pleasure Island is as nightmarish a place as intended, its secret evil underlining the fun to be had there, and yes, the transformation of Lampwick sequence was always intended to be frightening (I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the initial animation was rejected for not being scary enough).
Disney’s adaptation leaves quite a bit of original’s cruelty intact, certainly enough to be potentially frightening to some of its audience. Yet it is also a lighter affair in comparison to the novel, with an injection of some much needed light humour to break up the darkness which does wonders to bring it away from the original story’s almost relentless bleakness.
Of course at the start of the film, Pinocchio really is just a marionette puppet, which allows for some fun animation with Geppetto and Figaro – which also shows off Disney’s seemingly lack of fondness for cats, as Figaro is promptly booted by a Geppetto powered Pinocchio. While a puppet he moves mechanically, his eyes blankly staring into nothing, devoid of focus. It serves as a contrast between the lifeless and inanimate puppet, to the animation and spirit of Pinocchio the little wooden boy (to borrow from the Fox’s vernacular).
It is important that we buy into the puppet being alive from the very start the Blue Fairy makes it so. The first thing to change is indeed the eyes, going from vacant (with white surrounding the irises), the puppet blinks them into focus, where they stay for the majority of the film, never staring blankly at any other point in the picture. It’s actually an old animation trick, or more a quirk, as an animated character’s pupils always tend to move to the edge of the eyes in a way that in real life would make someone look painfully cross-eyed.
Another film that the film’s makers had to keep tabs on, is Pinocchio’s personality, while’s he not the obnoxious character from the book, he is hopelessly gullible and naive to the point where, in lesser hands, he could’ve become intolerable. Yet he never crosses the line towards becoming saccharine, instead the animation sells you and makes you feel sorry for the cruelty he endures, even when it’s the result of his own doing.
Part of this is due to the juxtaposition between the absolute innocence of Pinocchio and that of the dark and cruel world that he exists in (besides the safety of Geppetto ‘s house). When Pinocchio makes bad decisions, they come back to hit him hard and with little mercy, dragging the puppet down to earth with a crash and shoving him into outright misery. That he is a puppet – and is able to survive things no flesh and blood character could – just means that he can be thrown around even more violently by the other characters.
Pinocchio is a waif, an innocent aboard, even more so than the studio prior main character; Pinocchio probably wouldn’t survive very long on his own, without his conscience. While he’s easily led astray and doomed to suffer as a consequence of his own actions, he does strive to be good, even if he has little to work with in terms of past experience. He’s just been dumped into this world and is dealing with the deck life’s given him. His act of heroism at the end is brought about by the love of his father, the only human in the film to be genuinely nice to him and to who he knows that he has let down.
Said father, Geppetto, is more of a foppish oaf and comedy relief than a wise human, a man of foibles and stupidity just like any other. The only reason we know of his kindness in the movie, is because we are told he is kind to others, indirectly by the Blue Fairy. To be fair, the man does seem to have his heart in the right place, as flawed as he may be, at least when he’s not being overly mean to his pet cat.
Figaro and Cleo are also used to lighten the otherwise dark mood of the film. Cleo really isn’t much of a character, a small fish who dances around and flutters her eyes, her presence probably wouldn’t go missed if she wasn’t there. Figaro a spoiled little kitten, was apparently based on his animation director’s nephew mixed with cat behaviors. Initially jealous of Pinocchio, the cat quickly learns that the living puppet is a lot nicer under his own conviction that when Geppetto was controlling him. Figaro is also used by his master, Geppetto, forced into having to open the window and subjected to a bit of animal abuse ranging from physical to the depriving of food. Starting a strange tendency in Disney films to look at felines with a dim point of view.
Though Jiminy Cricket was thrown into the film at a rather late stage in its development, he certainly helps to keep the film from diving too deep into bleakness. A cricket of contemporary – circa 1940 – times with anachronistic colloquialisms to match. Jiminy starts of the proceedings, acting as the opening narrator, as if he’s going over his memoirs.
The cricket carries much of the narrative weight of the movie, as both its narrator (technically, we are viewing the film through his recollection of events) and an anchor of reason. While for the most part a likable character, he sometimes comes across as being more interested in himself than that of his appointed charge. At least while he’s not ogling the ladies, which he does constantly, pretty much all of which range from clockworks ornaments, to French marionettes doing the Can-Can.
He even flirts with the Blue Fairy at every opportunity were he think he can get away with it, even bartering with her about his reward before he’s even started the job (to be fair she flirts and teases him right back).
His small size gave the animation plenty of headaches when drawing him as a tiny figure against even Pinocchio, but it also allowed plenty of great opportunities to play with scale, which they do with relish. He’s a jolly little fellow, but he also has the temper on him, walking out on Pinocchio when he succumbs to temptation and threatening to knock Lampwick’s – a kid ten times his size – block off after being insulted by him.
The Blue Fairy is the only female character in the film with a speaking part. As part omnipresent goddess and at others a caring maternal figure, she is there to give Pinocchio the gift of life and to decide his ultimate fate. She is smart and canny, getting Jiminy to volunteer the position of Pinocchio’s conscience and later she teaches the puppet a lesson by making his nose grow when he tells her lies (which is the way I read the scene in both the film and book). Yet, as she says, she cannot help Pinocchio is he doesn’t prove worthy.
The villains start with one J. Worthington Foulfellow, the fox who, laughable calls himself Honest John. Like his animal form might suggest, he is a trickster. In the original story the fox tricks Pinocchio into burying his coins to grow a money tree, with the intend of stealing the money whilst the puppet waits for the tree to grow. The film version is also out to con Pinocchio in order to make a quick buck or two.
The fox’s demeanour is that of faux-sophistication, from the strive in his step suggesting a higher opinion of himself than he deserves, to the way he holds his cigar, with his pinky outstretched, as if he’s at some form of elaborate tea party. He also attempts to come across as a higher class than his raggedy clothes would suggest. Using a gentlemanly voice he convinces others of his honesty; his act only faltering when his outward calm is flustered (momentary when he tries to spell Pinocchio’s name, or when trying to get his head unstuck from his hat and most visibly when the Coachman reveals the extent of his plans,).
His cat friend Gideon, is a figure of comedy, his criminal tendencies seemingly borne more due to his association with his fox friend that any genuine animosity of his own accord. Although saying that his preferred methods for dealing with any and all trouble is to smash it with his mallet – which he uses seemingly without much provocation.
Gideon was originally going to be voiced by Mel Blanc, but the decision was made later on to make him a pantomime character, perhaps to capitalize on Dopey’s popularity. Strangely, or perhaps not, it has a similar effect, it’s hard to feel as if Gideon’s actions are wholly his own, or a result of the company he keeps.
While the fox and the cat are played as relatively harmless, in spite of their actions and deeds putting Pinocchio in extreme danger, Stromboli and the Coachman are more closer to that of actually dangerous villains.
Stromboli is a raging volcano of emotions (appropriate, given the name), animated with immense energy by Bill Tyler. A showman by trade, Stromboli is as flamboyant as he is volatile and he certainly volatile, close to exploding at a moment’s notice. He is the only character in the film to treat Pinocchio as if he was a piece of mere property; which insofar as Stromboli is concerned, the puppet might as well be (the fox treats by comparison, only treats Pinocchio as a mark for his schemes). When Pinocchio mentions leaving to see his father, Stromboli laughs at the concept of a puppet with a father, before violently throwing the puppet into the cage.
The coachman though, is just a being of malevolence from the darkness of animated nightmares. A notion not helped when his face contorts to look more devil-like when he assures the Fox and Cat that the child stupid enough to be lured to Pleasure Island “never come back as boys!”.
He is a demon and a predator of disobedient children, bringing a very adult fear to the movie with his introduction. That he otherwise talks in such a business-like manner only underwrites the horrific ramifications of his “work”.
The last obstacle, Monstro the Whale, for all his size and power, is really nothing more just a force of nature, albeit one with a mean temper. Drawn as an immense sea animal, his only goal is to eat and live. The animators were told to visualize him as a moving three story building, and were given oil-painted models of him to study (the oil-paint acting as a guide to how light would reflect on him). His bulk lends a fitting climax to the film, as an unrelenting foe that cannot be reasoned with.
Alongside the villains is the notion that not one of them receives any kind of punishment for their terrible actions whatsoever, drills the kind of world this is (all the punishment is reserved for the titular puppet – and well the other boys). One can see the fox and cat going off to con other gullible people of their money, Monstro continuing to ravish the oceans and yes, the coachman plying his trade collecting children to turn into donkey to sell to the salt mines without fear of being caught.
The animation in Pinocchio shows a level of commitment that the company would strive for in their next few films before the fiscal rug was pulled out from under them. Dense and filled with loving details. An early scene shows off numerous clocks, each one fully rendered and with an interesting – if sometimes morbid – way of striking the hours. Full size, working models of each toy in Geppetto’s workshop had a real-life counterpart for the animators to study. The level of detail is held out throughout the film’s runtime.
Look indeed at the progression of Pinocchio as he sings in the puppet show, going from nervousness brought from stage fright to quickly getting into the scene. A perfect example of acting through pure character animation, which also works to contrast him against the lifeless marionettes he’s performing with.
There are many prospective shots during the runtime. The camera hangs high in the rooftops, looking down on the fox, the cat and Pinocchio during the “An Actor’s Life for Me” number one scene as it pans across and then later flips to Jiminy’s point-of-view as he catches the group up. The ease of which they seem to work only belies the difficulty the animator must have had in their execution.
There are some moments of the film are that wonderfully realised and were, at the time, unsurpassed in terms of the level of detail involved. Like the morning after the first night, where the camera pans through the rooftops of the city. Were we see numerous townsfolk going about their daily lives; an elaborate piece of work. Created with the multi-plane camera, the sense of depth is staggering. You could say the scene has little to do with the movie, and you could even call it irrelevant. In many ways, yes, the scene is throwaway, but it just helps to set up the world that Pinocchio is a part of, it is there to give a sense of scale.
The multi-plane gets used throughout the film, bringing its impressive field of depth to the film to give an almost live-action feel to the proceedings. Of course the device was expensive, with the aforementioned town scene cost around $45,000 on its own. Yet the sense of place it provided must have been a revelation in 1940, in the days before Disney’s CAPS and even Xerox.
The cage that Stromboli locks Pinocchio in moves constantly with the motion of the wagon, with Pinocchio reacting to the movements of the cage in turn. A live action cage was shot moving, with the resulting footage rotoscoped – traced -over; the traces where then given to the animators to draw in Pinocchio trapped inside the cage, being flung around whilst acting. The result is layers of animation playing off of each other in a manner that hadn’t been achieved before and is staggering to contemplate these days, in a world where such a sequence would he aided by computer assistance. The wagons that Stromboli rides are also rotoscoped models, which goes someway to explaining how weird they look, but are just as passable.
The Blue Fairy was also rotoscoped, bringing with her aspects of the uncanny valley. Yet even here, it is somewhat passable. The Blue Fairy is an ethereal creature, meant to be somewhat unreal, and so a dip in the valley is not necessarily a problem. The pastoral glowing effect that surrounds her, as well as her slight transparency also aid in the illusion.
The water effects in the later part of the film, both above and under the sea, are still as powerful and effective today as they were back when first aired in theaters. All done by hand, no short-cuts here, the power of the seas, and of Monstro’s violent “handbrake” turns dish out the artistry of Disney’s effects animators. Arguably, this is still more impressive than even some of the latest that computer technology has ever offered.
Yes the film feel unrelentingly dark and bleak, but the result is a strong and impactful picture that has stood the test of time with remarkable success. If you ignore some of the “modern” words coming from Jiminy’s mouth the film looks like it could have come from any time. Amazing animation, a strong narrative and a strong cast of characters all help to make Pinocchio a memorable experience from beginning to end. To some extend, it is the sum of the projects that preceded it, the final exam after the revision that was Snow White. It’s not a masterpiece, sure, it can be a hard film for some to get through, for the very same reason that make it great. Yet great films are those ones that force you to think through them about something.
Pinocchio is ultimately a film about hope. Hope that something can happen in a cruel and uncaring world. Even if that hope is born of something as simple as wishing on a star.
*To be fair Hollywood at the time saw sequels as somewhat beneath them, a notion that changed completely up about the release of The Godfather Part II.
†Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation would have to wait until 1999.
Back then of course, the Disney animators were the ones nobody could touch let alone beat: as they were highly trained in their techniques and with larger budgets than any other studio. Walt had set up art classes to train his boys since the days before Snow White. Live models (human, plant and animal) to scan and sketch, lessons designed to teach the artists about reality and to draw out that reality of motion onto the drawing board. These life drawing and motion studying classes are in effect the life-blood of this level of quality animation. No amount of polygons or high definition special effects can match the simplicity of an artist with a pencil; especially a Disney one in the height of what is referred to as the corporations Golden Age.
The Silly Symphonies also provided a immensely important training ground for this film, which is essentially the final product of that entire body of work; At times watching Bambi is like watching a moving painting, a true piece of art. The Silly Symphonies like The Old Mill where the dress rehearsal to this: the main act. Kept back over the years to allow for it’s blossoming while the simpler Dumbo and brasher Pinocchio sped past it in the production line.
Bambi was one of the first (not the first) of the major Disney films to put it supervising animators in charge of entire scenes rather than individual characters; the result is a cohesiveness of motion that is unlike almost anything that ever came before or arguably since. As such everything is scene becomes a logical progression to what has occurred before, any problems that may have become raised using this method are evaporated by the film’s length and the aging of the characters.
I spent a good part of my childhood going to a place called Knole Park, a beautiful part of South East England that has wild deer running freely, so use to the human visitors that they where quite content with us alien interlopers being amongst them; in spite of the fact that the park was once a deer hunting reserve (actually anyone bringing a picnic would find these wonderful creatures more were determined than Yogi Bear to get their share). Their graceful movements and sheer muscular power are hard to ignore when they are two feet away, with nothing between you and them.
I don’t think this film was as appreciated as much as it is today back that day when it was released; it certainly didn’t make much money on its initial release. mind you with the world going on a vital part of the market cut of (i.e. the whole of Europe), there was very little a film of this costly nature could.
Lupercal mentions the fact that it would take eight years for Disney to make another one story film. Yet this was really a result of the war and the effects it had on the available markets more than any creative leanings. Disney decided to postpone ‘true’ features for fiscal reasons, he was running a business after all. The films made from multiple shorts piled together were cheaper to make compared to a straight feature; since they didn’t required anywhere near as much pre-production.
There’s no getting away from the fact that Bambi is a work of art, from the lust backgrounds, gently airbrushed to perfection; to the little details of the motion of animal movement. Yet that is only part of the picture the ‘Slice of Life’ story it tells has plenty of merit in itself. From Bambi’s first days in the forest, learning the difference between bird and butterflies, though not between flowers and skunk (For the record the skunk adopts the name after Bambi mistakenly calls him one). The glories of the open meadow that hides nothing, a beautiful place that can be deadly; and the death of Bambi mum there marks the first real tear-jerker in Disney’s run; something that would become a tradition.
Disney knew how to mix music and animation together seamlessly, April Showers is one of the most iconic songs to come out the Disney cannon. There is little dialogue in the film, but that is something that Bambi has in common with the two films that preceded it. Apart for that similarity the first films that Walt made until the war are very different from each other, yet this one has stood the test of time and will probably do so indefinitely.
In a very true sense this is one Classic animated film that has held up to time; one which others and I hold up to judge other films by…
Additional: I recently watched the latest release of this on my DVD copy (for the purpose of this review of course), the difference is that I watched the film with the cutlets of the meetings Disney had when planning the film out on. How many other classic Disney films would, or will get this treatment? In a roundabout way it’s as if the film has been given a DVD commentary by Disney himself, insightful and fascinating to listen to; a marvellous part of a great edition.