29 October 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: BRING A LITTLE JOY TO EVERY HEART

It seems like just about every prominent fairy tale was at least briefly considered to be the follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, even before it was clear that the Disney Studios would survive that film's anticipated box office failure. Of course, when Snow White instead proved to be one of the great hits of its age, a second Disney animated feature went from being a pipe dream to a dead certain necessity, and as it turned out, their second work would not be adapted from a fairy tale at all, but from an Italian children's novel published in the 1890s, Carlo Collodi's Le avventure di Pinocchio. It is said that the studio passed on by such tales as The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty because the story men couldn't figure out what to do with them, which makes no sense given what Collodi's book gave them to work with: it's bizarrely European and incredibly nightmarish. But glad we all are that they figured out how to whip this surreal story of an animate puppet careening through one grotesque scenario after another into something much friendly and more straightforward (and I'm going to assume, as I did with Snow White, that I don't actually have to enlighten you as to the details of that story), for their Pinocchio is one of the crown jewels of American cinema, and arguably (at least, it's the argument I'd make) the most beautiful animated movie in history.

It's telling, I think, that the two most visually rich Disney features ever made both came out in 1940; it implies to me that however proud Walt was of what he and his animators had achieved with Snow White, he had concerns that the medium wasn't being taken as seriously as other visual art forms. Clearly, I cannot prove such a thing, but it remains the case that every time I watch Pinocchio, I am always struck as though for the first time by how obviously painted it is. Part of this is due to the change made from watercolor backgrounds, used in Snow White, to gouache and oil paintings (this would be the technology used on all subsequent hand-drawn Disney features, save one). The result is less soft and warm, but provides for a greater range of representation, one exploited her to the fullest.

In this film more than any other, the backgrounds contradict themselves between the illusion of depth, augmented by unquestionably the most sophisticated and lovely multiplane camera work in any Disney film, and the reality of flatness. Unlike any of the studio's other films, the backgrounds in Pinocchio reveal the texture of the paper they've been painted on, making the physical fact of the art important in a way that it rarely or never is elsewhere. Even in the character animation, brushstrokes are plainly visible in a way that is usually avoided with great care. It's seen everywhere there are soft feathering effects: most easily noted on the tufts of hair on either side of the cat Figaro's whiskers, but also on the Blue Fairy's wings and hair, and on the feather atop Pinocchio's hat. Unlike any other Disney feature, save perhaps for some of the sequences in the same year's Fantasia or a handful of the Silly Symphonies, Pinocchio feels like a moving painting, and a particularly rich painting at that.

At times, the movie almost feels like it's just showing off what technically perfect animation looks like; particularly in the Monstro chase at the end, when the whale, a collage of hashed lines that almost looks like a pencil drawing, plows through the finest water ever animated, by hand or by computer; eerily realistic movement and splashes, but the appearance of the liquid itself (it's "skin" if you will) is rather more impressionistic. Water like that could only ever exist in animation, and thank God that it does, because it is one of the most beautiful things in cinema.

There is also the character design, none of it especially realistic in the manner of Snow White, Prince Charming, or the Queen (except the Blue Fairy; and she is painted in such an experimental way as to leave realism far behind), but none of it necessarily cartoony at all. What has always impressed me most about the characters in Pinocchio, visually speaking, is their relative mass: Figaro is clearly a little bundle of fluff, Pinocchio himself is obviously much lighter than a human boy of the same size, the magnificently animated villain Stromboli is one of the most fleshy characters in any Disney film. And so forth. A great deal of attention and time went into the design and animation - the occasional stiffness and jerkiness present in Snow White is gone almost completely (there is only one moment in the whole of Pinocchio where I detect a flaw in the animation: it's when Jiminy Cricket falls into the hole in the pool table), replaced by the most fluid, accurate character movement in any hand-drawn animated film I can name.

For all its technical accomplishment and breathtaking beauty, it is nonetheless a fact that Pinocchio lost a great deal of money on its first release, and it took many years for it to achieve the classic stature given to many of Disney's films automatically; and though I don't personally understand why, I have some suspicions. For one thing, the plot of the film is unusually episodic, never a particularly good way to tell a story with any kind of graceful flow. It's also ungodly terrifying, almost capricious in its cruelty: for the sin of being innocent and trusting, Pinocchio is thrown in a cage, threatened with a huge axe, and turned into a donkey - hell, we don't even have to go so far as the plot, just the design of Pleasure Island is terrifying to look at. It's a dark film by Disney's standards, all around, and I imagine that this has done no good to its reputation with audiences.

But the counter-argument to that is Pinocchio's essential sweetness: it's there in the good characters, ranging from Pinocchio himself (one of the most guileless and appealing of all Disney heroes), to the impossible cute Figaro, and especially to Jiminy Cricket, who anchors the film and is, I think, the primary reason that Pinocchio remains much less otherworldly than many of Disney's "storybook" movies, not only because of his modernism, but because he constantly pulls the audience into the storytelling, erasing the "once upon a time" distancing effect - though it takes place in a European never-where, it also feels more immediate than any of the princess stories.

The film also boasts one of the best musical soundtracks in Disney's history: not least among the songs being "When You Wish Upon a Star", which has of course become an anthem of the Walt Disney Company itself in the years since the film's release. For that reason alone, it seems odd that the film had such a chilly reception for a large chunk of its history; many a film was advertised based on the success of its songs, and very often those songs were nowhere near as good as Leigh Harline and Ned Washington's five brilliant little compositions.

But we know better these days, right? Pinocchio has become enshrined at the top of virtually every ranking of great animated films, great films of the 1940s, et cetera, helped out no doubt by Disney's frightening ability to drum up interest for any and all of their products by the judicious application of marketing. But marketing can't conjure up artistry from thin air, and I think that has more to do with the film's eventual rescue than anything: beauty will out, and Pinocchio is as beautiful as any color film has any right to be. The fact that it's a genuinely touching coming-of-age story and playful musical comedy-adventure besides that is really just the cherry on top.

7 comments:

NicksFlickPicks said...

Lovely! I'm a huge fan of this film, and you've helped me understand why. How do you know so much about animation? Practical experience? Reading? I learned a lot just by reading this entry.

Tim said...

A bit of reading, a bit of just trusting the evidence of my own eyes, and no practical experience whatsoever - I'm an atrocious artist.

Mostly, I have to thank the experience of attending lectures at a small animation art gallery that no longer exists. About once every three months, they'd get a Disney vet (usually) from the Golden Age to talk about their art, and it was wholly amazing.

The best way to learn more about the way the Disney studio worked, I've found, are the books by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. They're a bit hagiographic, but still pretty detailed. It's fair to say that most of what I'm writing in this series up until the '70s that seems wise and knowing is mostly regurgitated from something those two wrote.

javi75 said...

I watched this on blu-ray yesterday.

It is said that the studio passed on by such tales as The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty because the story men couldn't figure out what to do with them

On the blu-ray extras they say Bambi was going to be the second feature, but the story men couldn't figure out what to do with it, and Walt felt that Pinocchio was a story they did know how to do.

Even in the character animation, brushstrokes are plainly visible in a way that is usually avoided with great care. It's seen everywhere there are soft feathering effects: most easily noted on the tufts of hair on either side of the cat Figaro's whiskers, but also on the Blue Fairy's wings and hair, and on the feather atop Pinocchio's hat.

I don't agree with your explanation. There's no intended change in the style of character coloring, in my opinion, it's just that for Pinocchio they had a bigger budget thanks to the success of Snow White, and this allowed to be more perfectionist and sophisticated. Basic painting of the characters is like in any other feature. You don't see more brush-strokes on Pinocchio's shirt than you do on Snow White's skirt. The obvious brush-strokes you detail, they used just on those selected cases, as a way to show reflections on hair and stuff liek that, and I think they're more like a special effect that they couldn't do before, but would have done if possible.

I agree with everything else you say, possibly the darkest Disney ever.

Tim said...

I certainly didn't mean to imply that the character animation is lousy with obvious brush marks; that's clearly not the case.

But I still think that those effects (and it sound like we mostly agree on the use of the technique, just not the language to describe it) speak to a willingness to show the physical fact of painting in a way that no other Disney feature I can think of reveals. And that's really what I was driving at; the film shows off the artwork, so to speak, much more than typical for the studio.

Rick said...

Pinocchio is a brilliant film. The scene where he sees the boy turned into a donkey is one of the most terrifying scenes I've seen in any film, not less an animated film. Why people still think this is strictly for small children is beyond me. "When You Wish Upon a Star" is truly one of the most beautiful songs ever written for film, right up there with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow". Why do songs that evoke longing the most lovely to hear?

Vianney said...

So, water in animation: Pinocchio, or Ponyo?

David Greenwood said...

Vianney, you said exactly what I was thinking! I haven't seen Pinocchio since I was a little kid but Ponyo, whatever it's other failings, was a freakin' tour de force of water animation. Though I think that my love of it may have more to do with Miyazaki's fantastical imagery (fish swimming down a flooded street, that octopus ambling across the patio) than the quality of the water animation, which I suspect Disney may have done better. I really need to see Pinocchio again. Maybe someday Disney will put it on Netflix >_<.