Virtues of 'Pinocchio' are as vivid today as they were in 1940

June 26, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In 1940, not only the screen was square. So was America.

Thus it's something of an astonishment to discover what degree of savvy lurks in the more than 50-year-old and newly-restored "Pinocchio."

This wonderful little movie seems as prescient as "Network" in some of its acute observations about the ways of youth. The leading man may be a trifle wooden and he may be lost in some painterly Mitteleuropean version of an Italian alpine village as envisioned by nine old white men in an air-conditioned studio in Burbank, California, the year before Pearl Harbor, but the temptations he fell prey to are as vivid as today.

Sleek street-corner talkers gull the lad with promises of nirvana and he's lost. He wants it all, now. He responds to his situation not with honesty but with lies and fabrications; nothing, of course, is his fault, it's all been enacted upon him. He's presented with an image of the city, with fast living, endless pleasures, the thrill of violence and drugs, and before long he's lost his soul; he's become an animal (literally: a donkey).

And then he can only pull himself out of it through sheer strength of will and commitment to the values of self and family.

What's fascinating in all this, I suppose, is the edge the Disney artists bring to the fable. This is ironic because the word "Disney" has almost entered the language as a generic adjective meaning prettied-up, sugary, dishonest. It just isn't so. The Disney opus as a whole, and particularly those projects that dear old Uncle Walt took a close interest in (such as "Pinocchio"), have a vivid sense of the edge to them.

In one of the weirdest strokes, hell is conceived as a psychopathic theme park. Years before there was a Disneyland, there was Pleasure Island, a surrealistic funland of coarse, adolescent pleasures that specialized in turning boys into asses and dooming them forever. The Pleasure Island sequences rank with Frank Capra's nightmare version of Bedford Falls gone bad in "It's a Wonderful Life" as the most intimidating in all '40s cinema.

The famous inside-the-whale sequence is also surprisingly scary. may play hob with the realities of marine biology and it may be defiantly politically incorrect to declare a huge marine mammal evil by the sheer force of his size (the animal seems conceived as a giant, psychotic oil tanker, vast and empty) but when the beast gets his dander up, the ocean quivers in terror and poor Pinoch is dwarfed.

The restoration, needless to say, is absolutely first rate: colors are bright and clear, and the soundtrack penetrating and vibrant. The piece only shows its age in a few minor ways: that first set-up scene, in Gepetto's workshop, seems to take forever, and viewers used to the faster pace of modern movies may get bored. And the image of the Blue Fairy, Pinocchio's mentor, clearly reflects the beauty-ideal of the late '30s; she's a kind of a Carol Lombard figure, and seems completely ancient.

'Pinocchio'

Animated feature.

Produced by Walt Disney.

Released by the Disney Studio.

Rated G.

****

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