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2-Disc Platinum
70th Anniversary Edition
Savant Blu-ray Review

Disney Home Video
1940 / Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 88 min. / Street Date March 10, 2009 / 35.99
Starring (voices) Dickie Jones, Cliff Edwards, Mel Blanc, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro, Christian Rub, Evelyn Venable.
Original Music Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, Ned Washington
Written by Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia from the story by Carlo Collodi
Produced by Walt Disney
Sequence Directors Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts
Directed by Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This one is worth it. It's worth sitting through the promos and trailers and a PC second-hand smoking notice to see Disney's new Blu-ray of Pinocchio light up the screen like a blast from the Blue Fairy's wand. Listen to When You Wish Upon a Star in the right frame of mind, and you'll experience chills of recognition from deep within. Disney's appeal to "the child in all of us" isn't marketing hype -- the best of his entertainments pull us right back to our childhood memories. We "fifties kids" considered Disney product on a different plane, as if it were made by other than human hands ... when "Buena Vista" came up the world looked brighter and more colorful than normal. Children of the next older generation, the ones who saw Snow White and Pinocchio first-run, must have thought that sheer magic was pouring off the movie screen.

For his second major animated feature, Walt Disney decided that the popular story of Pinocchio had more than enough interest and variety to justify three or four solid years of work. Collodi's fable about a wooden marionette's desire to become "a real, live boy" has plenty of adventure, jeopardy and warmth. Disney's story experts surrounded Pinocchio -- an odd wooden creature that's only half-human -- with a gallery of unforgettable supporting characters. Our approval rating for Jiminy Cricket was off the charts. When he showed up hosting educational short subjects in our junior high school classes, we cheered. Who didn't like Jiminy Cricket? The movie's influence became even more obvious in film school, when we saw early Buster Keaton MGM talkies featuring a smart-aleck ukulele comic named Cliff Edwards. At a certain point it clicked that his was the voice (and to some degree, the personality) of Jiminy Cricket, and the shock of recognition put a chill up my spine. Steven Spielberg was, I suppose, reaching for the same effect in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, co-opting Disney's glow of human warmth.

Pinocchio can be discussed as a technological wonder, as it's still a marvel after seven decades of filmic advances. The beautiful illusions and amazingly precise multi-plane animation work are amazing, especially if one has an appreciation of the tools available in 1939; the disc extras are invaluable for setting all of this innovation in perspective. But even more impressive is what Disney's story sensibility reveals about the animator-artist-visionary at this stage of his career. By the 1950s Walt was feeding an enormous entertainment empire, which pulled his full attention from animation and for the most part kept his shows well within the outlines of family entertainment. By the 60s his productions were often charming but almost always toothless, in the "safe", Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval sense. But Disney's pre-war work, when his animation brilliance was exploding in unexpected directions, is something else. His imagination is less restrained and his sense of drama reaches into unknown territory. Not surprisingly, his movies were notorious for frightening impressionable small fry.

If Disney thought something was worth doing, it was worth doing to an extreme. Snow White's touches of Gothic menace are more expressive than most the decade's horror output. Dumbo and Bambi includes scenes of heart-wrenching injustice and trauma to beloved family members. Dumbo can't have been examined closely by advisory groups, as its wonderful non-PC message for America's youth is, "If ya wanna fly, ya gotta get high." In Dumbo's case a barrel of booze suffices, but the Pink Elephant sequence suggests even stronger stimulants!

The original Adventures of Pinocchio story is a strange brew of magic and jumbled Bible sermons, all dramatized by the Marquis de Sade. The little marionette that wants to be a boy starts life not as an innocent but as a fool tainted with some kind of Original Sin. Pinoke has no natural defense against the world and little guidance from his sweet but clueless creator, Geppetto. "The Talking Cricket" tries to advise Pinocchio and gets killed for his efforts; he comes back as a ghost later in the story. Geppetto is accused of abusing the wooden boy but does his best to send him to school. Lacking a moral compass, the puppet is easily fleeced by the Fox and the Cat, a pair of ruffian con men. "The Fairy with the Turquoise Hair" offers the wooden boy assistance, but Pinocchio's gullibility gets him into more fights and scrapes with the law.

Disney's version softens this cruel and punitive moral tale but retains a lot of its edgy content. The delightful, catchy songs alternate with scenes of Pinocchio being victimized and exploited. Much worse, Pinocchio seems incapable of remembering a promise or holding to a course of action. The Fox & Cat easily turn his head with dreams of show biz. Most grown-ups can remember the weird guilty feeling when one first got the bone-headed idea to purposely disobey one's parents. Pinocchio conveys that icky feeling of Sunday School disapproval. Little kids experimenting with lies are so easily caught that the analogy of a nose that grows is uncomfortably accurate! Pinocchio's travails go much farther, almost to the definition of a curse. Getting along in the world has a creepy "damned if you do and damned if you don't" quality.

Disney has a field day with the Pleasure Island sequence, making us feel guilty for the SIN of having a good time. The original moral is that "boys who disobey their parents turn into donkeys", the kind of bedtime advice/threat that's been used for centuries to instill moral values. The giant fun park for smoking and drinking (but no sex) is the Evil Twin of the Disneyland Theme Park, and a trap for evil men to harvest slave labor. The charmingly incorrigible Lampwick seems modeled on Mickey Rooney in Boys Town. As in H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau, we see Lampwick transformed into a braying donkey before our very eyes. Boys are converted by the carload into long-eared, terrified dray animals, and a goodly percentage of them seem more duped than delinquent: "I want my mama!" Pinocchio escapes with only ears and a tail, but the message is clear: step off the straight and narrow, and you'll be damned, doomed and donkey-fied. (Even worse, it sends the message that down-trodden working classes did something wrong to deserve their fate.)

Pinocchio's got the blessing of the Blue Fairy, a real looker who offers general inspiration but little in the way of practical advice. She lets him learn the same hard-knock lessons Adam & Eve must have experienced leaving the Garden of Eden. Curiously, when Pinocchio eventually graduates to real boy status, we still worry for him. Everyone has survived, Geppetto's shop is restored and Jiminy's got a Golden Medal, but we really can't say how much Pinocchio has matured. It's still a scary, treacherous world out there.

Pinocchio is 100% magic, and I daresay, a telling psychological profile of the personality of Walt Disney, a Kansas boy who clearly learned a lot of hard lessons when he went into business and found out how the world really works. On our latest viewing, I couldn't help but wonder at the selectivity of grace in Pinocchio's world. As much as he suffers, Pinoke is singled out for special treatment; nobody else seems to be protected by a personal fairy guardian. I imagined a sort of Sullivan's Travels alternate ending, where we'd see curtains closing over the "The End" title, and pull back to reveal a theater-full of sad donkeys watching the movie. Some nasty Cossack yells "Show's over! Back to the salt mines!", and the donkeys -- the "forgotten victims" of Pinocchio, trudge back to work!

Disney's Blu-ray release of Pinocchio is already getting generally high marks from those concerned with the studio's tendency toward revisionism. With the current crowd of Internet watchdogs, "generally high marks" is good news. From what I could see, for all practical purposes, this edition presents no problems whatsoever. I watched it with a friend more knowledgeable than I about image enhancement and "creative" digital repainting. I also have fairly sharp memories of viewing original nitrate prints, admittedly from thirty years ago. This Pinocchio has minimized original animation flaws -- reflections off cells, dirt, specks -- but has retained the painted dimensionality of objects. We saw traces of original brushstrokes in some shots of Geppetto, indicating that Disney's people didn't simply shotgun the show with a 'paint by numbers' fill-in computer program.

Detail, especially in the backgrounds, is greatly improved both through the higher HD resolution and by a more sensitive scan. The image is probably less grainy than the nitrate IB Tech prints I saw, and the darker scenes may look a little brighter than I remember, but I don't believe any wholesale re-lighting or reassignment of color values is happening (cough, Peter Pan cough, cough). The grain and colors are of course much different (improved) from the theatrical prints of the last thirty years, most of which were presumably made from Eastmancolor composite negatives and couldn't possibly look this rich.

Disney Blu-ray has also made some welcome improvements to its menu structure, which it now calls a "Cine-Explore Experience". The disc does begin with a number of irritating promos, but they are easily skipped with the remote, with no deceptive "Disney Fast Play" trap. The anti-second hand smoke promo, for my money, is an acceptable way for corporate attorneys to "allow" a Disney family film to be released with its abundant scenes of smoking, drinking, etc., intact.

The feature and key extras are spread out over two Blu-ray Discs. The feature is accompanied by a good commentary with Leonard Maltin and animation experts J.B. Kaufman & Eric Goldberg. They point out the contributions of many unsung talents and provide details on people like Evelyn Venable, who provided the voice for The Blue Fairy, and Marge Champion, who was the rotoscope model. The menus are easy to access, a vast improvement over the old "Disney Treasures" stage animation, and light years beyond MGM's annoying new Bond menus. Content items spell out in clearly defined levels, making it easy to find one's way back to the root menu. As one highlights a choice, a text blurb appears to tell us what we're getting into if we push the "ok" button.

I didn't check out all the extras, as there were just too many. Every level offers games, something that grandchildren might like. I wonder if any kids are still "innocent" enough to be afraid to go near the "Pleasure Island Carnival Games". A feature viewing option adds subtitles only to the movie's songs, creating an instant sing-along version. The making-of docu No Strings Attached digs deep into the Disney vaults for hard documentation on the development of the story. We even hear various experts debate the film's mildly controversial content.

I went straight for the deleted scenes, which consist of nicely edited storyboard ideas, including an alternate ending. One scene about Geppetto and Figaro starving in the belly of the whale is far too derivative of Chaplin in The Gold Rush; good call to drop it. A music video is also on the contents list.

A third disc is included, a DVD copy of the feature. It's there presumably to win over the loyal non-early adopter Disney loyalists who don't have Blu-ray players yet. They can watch the new restoration on regular DVD knowing they won't have to put up with a double-dip repurchase down the line. Be cautioned that most of the extras are present only on the Blu-ray version, but just the same, this highly desirable new Pinocchio would seem to have a very consumer-friendly attitude.

Packaging is a slightly fatter Keep case with three discs inside; flyers for a contest and other products are included. A layout called "Awaken Your Senses" touts the disc's sophisticated BD-Live features -- Movie Chat, Movie Mail, Movie Challenge and Movie Rewards Live. I'd be curious to know how many viewers are accessing these functions. I'm personally not comfortable hooking my Blu-ray player up to the Internet ... marketing propaganda has too many ways to invade my humble home as it is.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Pinocchio Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent +
Video: Excellent +
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Many, including a full DVD copy of the film as well.
Packaging: Three discs in Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2009

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
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