Friday, 10 April 2009


“Whew, what they can’t do these days.” – Jiminy Cricket on the top menu of this Blu-Ray.

The Film:

I was recently given, as a gift, a pile of old magazines. Seems an odd gift, you might think, but I love rifling through old magazines and papers, looking at the ads, reading the articles, seeing the world from a different perspective. One article, from The Sunday Times Magazine November 22 1970, written by Tony Osman, looks forward to a near-future world without cinemas (something that did very-nearly come to pass in Britain in the late seventies) and asks where, then, people will see films: “ … the signs are that they may soon be able to amuse themselves with recorded programmes – the visual equivalent of LPs … A handful of companies think there may be a future in such programmes … Each of the systems will at least provide a cassette of recorded material and some way of ‘projecting’ it.”

Wow. How science-fictional that must have seemed … and how accurate history has proven it to be. Within fifteen years the VHS video-cassette had taken-over the cinema-going world, fifteen years after that the tape was supplanted by the disc and now, ten more years on, we have Blu-Ray and high-def digital video projectors.

I only mention this to put the year 1970 in context. Seen from the perspective of people who are used to watching films on demand on everything from a 52 inch plasma to a 2 inch iPod, 1970 must appear as The Dark Ages. Well, it was.

It was also the year I first saw Pinocchio.

I was five. This was my first ever trip to the cinema. Back then, in the early seventies, TVs were mostly black and white and Disney films never played on them. I would have seen clips on Disney Time and seen photos in my Donald & Mickey comic, but this would be my first chance to see the real deal. As well as being my first big-screen experience, this was almost certainly my first feature-length cartoon and definitely the first moving images I’d seen in colour.

Quite a momentous movie for me, then.

So it was only fitting that this be the first Disney disc I buy in the shiny-new domestic-big-screen format: Blu Ray.

This release has been given the meaningless appellation Platinum Edition but it is actually, more importantly, ‘The 70th Anniversary Edition’. A message cast forward through time from the world of 1940 to the world of today. If 1970 is The Dark Ages then 1940, well, that’s The Time of Legends. But, look a little closer: As Jiminy says, when he’s talking directly to the viewer in the early scenes “I bet a lot of you folks don’t believe in dreams come true …” For the first audiences to see this film, that was more than likely true. They were still emerging from the Recession against which all others are still measured and they looked across the water to see the rest of the world being consumed by the black clouds of a war that was getting ever-nearer; damn right they’d forgotten how to dream. That’s what they needed movies for. Seen in that context … is 1940 really so vastly different from 2009?

Something that definitely isn’t different … whether this film is unspooling in a glorious 1940s Picture Palace, a ramshackle 1970s flea-pit or at home on a flat-screen with 7.1 doo-hickeys … is the power of the story, the enchanting nature of the characters and the unparalleled artistic vision of the genius behind it … that is eternal!

Jesus, I sound like I’m trying to write a quote for the back of the box. Okay, so lets just say that I have a real soft spot for this movie, and move on.

It’s lovely to hear the sound sharp enough to cut glass and picture so clear you can see your reflection in it. In this new high-def presentation you can really appreciate the incredible attention to detail that had become the Disney hallmark. I’m thinking particularly about the range of clocks Geppetto has constructed, each of which has its own personality and tells its own story; but further, I’m impressed by the way that every story element, however insignificant, has been thought through and considered in relation to every other element around it. I noticed this particularly in the casting of shadows, someone had to sit down and work out where shadows would fall, how they would change from moment to moment and then animate them, by hand.

The film begins with some delicious scene and tone setting, played out very largely in mime, which continues for fully fifteen minutes before The Blue Fairy comes down and animates Pinocchio. Fifteen minutes? I seriously wonder if today’s children would have the patience to wait fifteen minutes for the story to get going … and whether or not today’s film-makers would have the nerve to make them wait.

And the colours … oh, the colours … a subdued autumnal palette lit, very much as the world was in the days before electric light, by waxy splashes of flickering yellow, all thrown into context by the vivid red of Pinocchio’s shorts, or the cool powder-blue of Jiminy’s top hat.

Then there are the gorgeous Multi-Plane tracking shots, leading us through the beautifully realised water-colour world, over roofs, through arches, in and out of shadow … all of which seems so much more elegant than the desperate ‘look-at-me-look-at-me’ gimmicks of pointing sharp objects at the viewer in the recent crop of 3D movies.

I don’t know if it’s a product of the greater clarity or my middle-aged cynicism that led to my noticing that the Honest John / J. Worthington Foulfellow sequence (“An actor’s life for me”) is artistically les accomplished than the scenes that surround it. The artwork is less fussy, less detailed, and the characters themselves – especially John’s side-kick Gideon – are quite derivative of the slapstick Marx Brothers type comedies of the period. Gideon is, of course, simply a re-working of Dopey, right down to the same dull smirk. They are animated in a style more befitting the more-anarchic shorts … indeed, some of their elasticated stunts foreshadow the work of Tex Avery.

Once we are introduced to Stromboli’s theatre, the dramatic colour palette and attention to detail returns. I remember, as a five year old, being completely mystified by all the cosmopolitan dancing puppets with their ethnic dances and strange foreign words. But then kids are accustomed to not understanding stuff. In this, my innocence mirrored Pinocchio’s own.

My first experience of pathetic fallacy will have been the lightning flashes which punctuate Pinoch’s realisation that he is a prisoner, symbolising his shock and panic at being locked into a cage and driven away from the loving arms of his father, who trudges despondently past, drenched and down-hearted in the equally symbolic torrential downpour.

This is, at heart, a very basic morality play. A simple treatise on the “Do do this, don’t do that” and “You’ve had your fun, now you’ve got to pay for it” theme, all perfectly presented to slide into the subconscious of any child. Hey, it worked on me, I never ran off to join the circus, after all. Admittedly, the worst excesses of Carlo Collodi’s novel have been smoothed away in a process that would become known, dismissively, as Disneyfication, but the images of the badly-behaved children at Pleasure Island turning into jack-asses and being herded into slave ships by amorphous humanoid blobs is plenty disturbing, thank-you very much.

A key part of the morality play, and something I have missed on previous viewings, is Jiminy’s sarcasm … he describes a conscience as “That still, small voice that nobody listens to” then, later, when Pinoch is part of Stromboli’s troupe “Wouldn’t hurt you to take orders from your conscience … if you had one”.

Cut to the sequence which lived in my imagination for decades: Monstro the Whale. Remember, I’d never seen a film on the big screen before, so I’d never seen anything in my life as vast as that cruel, frowning behemoth, bursting forth from the water, massive maw wide open, casting ocean and rocks before it in a single-minded drive to devour little Pinoch and his dad. Tiny Jiminy, contrasted in size to that vast, shiny, implacable eye-ball and those mountainous teeth. Imagine, if you can, how big a screen would have to have been to cater for an auditorium with 5,000 seats (that’s about ten times the seats in your average multiplex auditorium today), then imagine that screen filled with the fiercest, most terrifying creature my little five-year old brain could imagine. Needless to add, I didn’t run off to join the navy either.

As an adult I can take from this film a message which I would have been completely unaware of as a child, but no doubt just as susceptible to. It is simply that a child is like a puppet, completely dependant on the kindness of the adults standing over him holding the strings. Out in the world, Pinoch finds no kind adults, just greed, mendacity and abuse. Well, welcome to the world, kid. Of course a related, if slightly skewed, interpretation might say that the achievement of redemption and the reward of being transformed from wood to flesh … is to make Pinoch inherently less interesting. So, the reward for conspicuous good behaviour, is to disappear into ordinariness.

The Discs:

Okay, so let’s wade into a suitably rich stew of extras on this three-disc Blu-Ray and DVD set.

Firstly, let’s deal with the whole DVD question. Why have they included a DVD in with the Blu-Ray? What’s the point? Unless it’s so you can buy the big flash hi-def version for yourself and give the standard-def version to your kids so they’ll leave yours alone … Other than that, I’m at a loss. Everything we’ll discuss on Disc One of the Blu-Ray is here on the DVD, except the Pinocchio Knows game. I suppose, from the perspective of the completist, it’s interesting that the menus are different here.

So, on to:

Disc One:

Firstly you have to wade through no fewer than seven trailers to get to the main menu. I really feel that this is an insult to the purchaser, who should enjoy the privilege of getting to the film as soon as possible, especially since these same trailers are accessible through a sub-menu anyway. And, unlike many a DVD, you can’t just skip these and go straight to the menu.

Once you get to the ‘Total Menu’ you can choose to listen to a knowledgeable if slightly-too-reverential audio-commentary, featuring various animation experts and archival quotes from the film’s makers, all chaired by Disney’s pet crit, Leonard Maltin. This is never less than interesting and, thankfully, doesn’t simply reproduce the information presented elsewhere.

An additional feature allows you to jump to your favourite song, complete with karaoke lyrics, or you can watch an eyeball-meltingly-awful R&B rendition of Wish Upon A Star by Disney Channel clone Meaghan Jette Martin.

You can also watch the film with pop-up Matter of Facts trivia … but I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to spoil their view of the film with large orange signs popping up every few seconds telling them things any eight-year-old already knows.

Speaking of eight-year-olds, there is the Pinocchio Knows Trivia Challenge, which skips to clips from the film then asks you questions about it. I suppose the pop-up trivia could be considered preparation for this game.

Oh, and don’t forget the Sneak Peeks menu, where those trailers wait to be enjoyed yet again, if being forced to watch them once every time you put the disc in the player is insufficient for you.

Disc Two:

Now we get to the real treasure, the features that lift this edition right up there as among the best and most exhaustive I’ve seen in a long time, comparable, indeed to the Region 1 DVD release of Disney’s own 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea!

Firstly, for the kids: A couple more games. Pinocchio’s Puzzles is a simple jigsaw game for younger kids which features a most credible impersonation of Cliff Edwards’ Jiminy Cricket voice. Then there is the Pleasure Island Carnival, a suite of more demanding games for older, more game-savvy patrons.

I must note, at this point, that some of the features take an extraordinarily long time to load-up on my Sony machine but, if the warning screen at the beginning of the disc is anything to go by, this is considered normal. It’s almost as if the disc technology has already out-distanced the player technology.

Anyway, now to the features that make this old movie lag’s heart beat just that little bit faster …

Backstage Disney:

No Strings Attacked. 56 mins. The inevitable making-of documentary. Even at this duration it hurtles through the three-year production of the film. As pure information it is interesting and enlightening but comes across as a rather charmless piece of work; I’d have loved to have seen what a film-maker like Laurent Bouzereau could have done with this archive footage and this story. Still, at least it successfully avoids repeating the information contained in the commentary.

Deleted Scenes. 10.30 mins. All the deleted scenes are presented in story-board form only as none of them made is as far as actually being animated. The box of this release proudly trumpets that this disc includes an alternate ending. Well, technically, it does, but they are nothing more than a series of rough sketches which were obviously briefly discussed then discarded.

The Sweatbox. 6.30 mins. This highlights the day-to-day process of working with Walt Disney, shooting the story-boards, temp-voicing the dialogue the projecting the lot to Disney and the other animators for feedback. Ideas would be brain-stormed while a stenographer would struggle to write every word down. This was how Walt stamped his fingerprints on every frame of the films which bore his name. It’s a process which latterly John Lasseter has reproduced and which has, no doubt, had a definitive effect on the high quality of the product of Pixar. This little snap-shot of the Process is so fascinating, it could have done being longer. I’d love to know more.

Live Action Reference Material. 10.00 mins. Again, an absolutely fascinating look at The Process. This highlights the way Disney would have actors, in costumes, in sets, working with props, all based on the animator’s designs, all being filmed so that the animators would have real images to work from. Like roto-scoping and the multi-plane camera, this process was one of Disney’s industrial secrets, an idea which no one else in the business had developed. In principal, there is very little difference in this technique being used 70 years ago and the digital mo-cap technique employed by film-makers like Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson today. This riveting little feature is a text-book illustration of how far ahead of the game Disney was and how, even today, you can’t really improve on the best.

Production Illustrations. Hundreds of them. Sketches, designs, photos of reference material (including articulated puppets which Disney had built). These are really easy to navigate but, if your attention wanders given the exhaustive nature of the collection, this feature is actually quite difficult to escape from.

Trailers. From the original 1940 release and the 1984 and 1992 re-releases (sadly, not the 1970 release I saw). This an interesting demonstration of how the trailer-makers’ art has changed from one of tempting and teasing to one of delivering all the best bits in a bite-size form.

Honest John. This is a recording o the official merchandising – the spin-off record, sung by The Fox, containing such gorgeous lines as “He’s so crooked he’d pick his own pocket”. The fact that this track, which doesn’t feature in the film, was released clearly shows how they underestimated the value of Wish Upon A Star!

Geppettoes Then and Now. 10.00 mins. An odd little documentary-ette which starts off as a think-piece about traditional toy-makers, then quickly turns into an advert for Disney’s own Wall E toy line. So, the disc ends with a reminder to us about what the modern Disney Corporation has turned into … a very slick machine for selling merchandise. Still, with the back-catalogue of phenomenal movies they have at their disposal, even if they do only see them as commodities to flog, if they keep packaging them this well I, for one, will happily be flogged-to.

Directed by: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Stars: Dickie Jones (Pinocchio), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy), Christian Rub (Geppetto).
Cert U
Dur: 88 mins


Sunday, 5 April 2009


Comebacks are big news these days. Some actors, like Julia Roberts for example, have hardly been away long enough to warrant calling their latest work a ‘comeback’. In the case of Jean-Claude Van Damme, he never even went away … we just stopped paying attention to him.

He’s been churning out straight-to-DVD films on a fairly consistent basis since he fell off the big screens round about the time of Maximum Risk (1996) As with Bruce Campbell’s My Name is Bruce (with which this film would make an entertaining double-feature) this is a B Movie Legend having a pre-emptive pop at his own work.

The film weaves together two narrative threads, one in the present tense and one in the past tense leading up to the present. In the flash-backs we see JCVD’s career on the rocks. He has lost custody of his young daughter and loses a film job to his arch nemesis, Steven Seagal. His misery is palpable and one feels the genuine heart-felt nature of this self-critique (well, until a spot of research reveals that ole J-C doesn’t have a daughter, just an adult son).

Against this rather glum background, he stops off at village post-office to draw out some money, is turned down by the teller and gets himself caught up in a heist. The police descend on the post-office, hotly pursued by the media, keen to cover the story of the disenfranchised movie-star who has gone off his rocker and taken hostages.

These early scenes, where we’re not sure quite what is going on, are deftly, teasingly handled and make the film most engaging. I don’t think it’s too shocking a spoiler to reveal that J-C isn’t really the bank-robber, but rather a hostage as well, one who his captors treat rather like a performing seal, getting him to perform his kicking-a-cigarette-out-of-your-mouth trick for their amusement. Throughout these scenes, J-C is passive, restrained, almost submissive … he is so depressed by where his life has taken him he doesn’t even have the will to fight two bad-guys whose collective intelligence is slightly lower than that of a sponge.

The lighting is cold and sullen, the music mournful and bluesy, the humour bitter. Essentially this multi-millionaire world-famous movie-star is asking we poor working stiffs to feel sorry for him. Well, at least he does have the common decency to parody his image and his own work but, as when Schwarzenegger did this with The Last Action Hero (1993) one feels compelled to wonder what his actual fans make of this “Sorry I’ve been taking your money and turning out such shit films all these years” confessional.

This movie is shot through with a knowing post-modern sense of self-analysis … never-more-so than in the much-talked-about soliloquy, where he turns to the camera and addresses the viewer directly, pouring his heart out in jumbled, incoherent, half-finished thoughts that were clearly un(der)rehearsed. This is a cry from the heart, with him bemoaning his betrayal of the simple, pure principals of his Martial Art, judging his achievements as being hollow and discussing the confusion he feels in just being himself. He is, in other words, having his mid-life crisis on screen.

Well, I wish he’d had it earlier because this is the most entertaining I’ve seen he being since Hard Target (1993) This is not a film in which he stars, it’s a film in which he acts. Despite all the doubt on show, he obviously knew what he wanted – and he got it – a chance to make his peace with himself and prove that he doesn’t have to keep making and re-making the same unambitious plodding action fodder.

The question is: where will his career go from here? Is this just an aberration before returning to the comfort, and guaranteed income of B-movies, or will he pursue this far-more experimental, far-more-interesting, doubtless far-less-lucrative path?

Myself, I hope it’s the latter, but a glance at IMDB suggests that his next film will be Universal Soldier 3 … Ah well. His comeback was nice while it lasted.
Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme & loads of other people of whom you’ve never heard.
Dur: 97 mins

Cert: 15