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Only an ogre doesn’t love Jiminy Cricket, the wisecracking conscience of Hollywood’s most famous wooden boy. He’s cute and even sings the classic “When You Wish Upon A Star.”
But if Walt Disney had stuck to the original plot of the “Pinocchio” story – first created as an Italian newspaper serial in 1883 – our beloved Jiminy would have been smashed with a hammer early on, his erstwhile puppet pal tired of being told what to do.
In the bonus features of the 70th anniversary DVD and Blu-ray editions of the classic film, out Tuesday, we learn that Jiminy and Pinocchio both went through major transformations before Walt Disney considered them charismatic enough to anchor a film.
“[Pinocchio] was brash, he was cocky and kind of unlikable – he was a troublemaker,” says veteran animator Frank Thomas in an interview from 1983. “Walt didn’t like that as he was shaping up.”
And whereas author Carlo Collodi only gave the talking cricket – il grillo parlante – a handful of scenes in his original story, Disney decided to give him nearly as much screen time as the piney hero himself.
“Walt had felt there was not enough warmth, not enough friendship, no love in the story, really,” Thomas recalls. “So that’s where he used Jiminy Cricket. He ended up being the heart of the story instead of being squashed with a mallet.”
With Disney animators riding high on the blockbuster success of 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the iconic pairing of Pinocchio and Jiminy opened the door for the studio to create what many consider its animation masterwork. The production set a standard for traditional cel-based animation.
Chief among the breakthroughs – which included sophisticated motion-capture techniques and an unusual multi-plane camera – was the film’s depiction of water, both in windswept waves crashing around Monstro the whale and in the funhouse-mirror effects created during Pinocchio’s time in the water. One animator spent an entire year focusing only on those effects and we get to see his multi-layered sketches, which have all the detail and complexity that CG animators use today.
“The effects at that time were so beautifully done,” animation director Eric Larsen said in 1983. “We still look back at it as one of the most perfect, technically, pictures we ever made.”
But technical dexterity without great characters doesn’t mean much. And the animators excelled with this cast. Just as they gave all seven dwarfs in “Snow White” distinct personalities, every player in “Pinochio,” from huffy housecat Figaro to leering fox Honest John, is memorable.
That’s partly due to Disney’s “sweatbox” manner of brainstorming ideas. In a small screening room, the boss and his animators would watch reels of the movie as it progressed from storyboards to line drawings to finished product. Along the way, Disney would offer his notes and prompt the animators for feedback. All the comments were taken down by a stenographer and distributed later to keep everyone working to improve the project.
The sweatbox, we can assume, is where Disney jettisoned the storyboard of an alternate ending. In the film, Pinocchio drowns after escaping Monstro’s belly, only to be revived and turned into a real boy by the blue fairy in Geppetto’s workshop. The other conclusion had Geppetto drown and Pinocchio mourn over his body on the beach before the blue fairy intervenes, bringing the woodcarver back to life and transforming Pinocchio at the same time.
While “Pinocchio” represented the pinnacle of the Disney animation team’s work, it was also the only time legendary cartoon voice actor Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck) worked on a Disney film. He played Gideon, Honest John’s nefarious feline accomplice, but after he’d recorded his part, filmmakers decided to make Gideon mute.
The only remnants of Blanc’s performance are a few spirited hiccups, a reminder that during his best years, Walt Disney’s editorial instincts were ruthless but unparalleled, spurring his team to create the finest canon of traditionally animated films in history.
WHO WOODEN WANT TO SEE IT?