When it comes to adapting classic fairy tales, folk tales and children’s literature there’s a certain burden in knowing you’re not likely the first or the last interpretation that will hit the screen. One has to weigh how true to the original to stick, whether to modernize the setting, if it’s wise to borrow from other adaptations and so on. And then there’s always that nagging half-hope, half-doubt: will this be the definitive version? The one everyone remembers?
Disney has certainly had no end of success winning that debate in the popular conscious. They’ve made highly-praised animated adaptations that have often stood the test of time even when working from source material that had seen plenty of previous versions like “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Aladdin.” I’m considering all of these films for potential Iceberg Arena comparisons, since I think some of the rarer alternatives are just as good or outright better, but that’s not quite what I’m up to in this post.
No, today’s focus is on a film that Disney did first, and I think best: “Pinocchio” (1940). Comparing it to any other version (Roberto Benigni’s unbearable live-action adaptation anyone?) would just not be fair without issuing handicaps. I considered featuring only sci-fi adaptations of the 1883 novel including the disastrous CG “P3K: Pinocchio the Robot” (Malcolm McDowell, if you're ever that hard up for money again, please come to me) and the love-it-or-hate-it epic “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence.” Finally I decided to stick to refreshingly shameless animated unofficial sequels to the 1940 Disney classic.
Both films include the device of Pinocchio returning to his wooden puppet form for irresponsible misbehavior (Pinocchio in Outer Space) and taking his freedom for granted (Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night) respectively, only to go on a series of adventures to earn his humanity once again.
Pinocchio in Outer Space:
The film begins with a overdramatic ostentatious documentary-style intro about the possibilities of space, propelled by the type of unqualified optimism towards science that marked the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, complete with a bold declaration that the following story is a reconstruction of what would actually happen if a puppet boy traveled into space. This transitions into an animated sequence where the Blue Fairy and her crotchety mother – who is knitting on a pastoral plot of the Milky Way – are disturbed by the rockets and satellites that are whizzing by.
We eventually get around to the actual story, wherein Geppetto’s workshop is suffering hard times due to its low-tech toy-line (kids want rocket ships). Pinocchio, wooden once again, sees a news report about Monstro (oops, I meant Astro), a space-faring whale that is terrorizing interplanetary traffic. With only a quarter to his name, he decides to pursue the bounty on Astro in the hopes of saving Geppetto’s shop and becoming a hero worthy of being a real boy.
Not far from his home he runs into the wily fox and his feline sidekick, just as in the original. They convince him to buy a pamphlet on hypnosis written by Professor B. A. Fraud, reasoning that he can use this power to ensnare Astro. Soon after leaving his dubious pals, Pinocchio is almost crushed by a spaceship piloted by Nurtle, an alien Twurtle (not to be confused with their terrestrial cousins, turtles) who looks a lot like Jose Carioca and serves as the Jiminy Cricket surrogate.
Pinocchio and Nurtle set off for Mars where they are attacked by gigantic sand crabs and take shelter near the nuclear reactors of a derelict alien metropolis. They find laboratory setups for giantizing a whole host of desert creatures and an underground aquifer where they speculate Astro was raised before mutating and turning on his masters. However, before they can find any real answers a sandstorm nearly buries them alive and they escape mere moments before the city goes nuclear. They have little time to celebrate their escape before Astro appears, leading to a climax where Pinocchio learns that there’s more to hypnosis than shouting “You are a statue. You are a statue” over and over again.
What’s great about the plot of “Pinocchio in Outer Space” is that it seems entirely unselfconscious. There’s no hint of irony or intentional outlandishness while Pinocchio dabbles in hypnosis, traipses about on Mars, flees from alien crabs or battles a space whale. The film virtually bursts with the innocent enthusiasm of an eleven-year-old fascinated by astronomy and smitten with pulp sci-fi adventures, and this whole-hearted zest really cancels out the sickly feeling of watching a cheap rip-off.
The result is fun, kitschy and zany. I even enjoyed the dated edutainment factoids about space that are often, much to my amusement, totally incorrect. There’re also little details that make me think the writers actually enjoyed themselves. Pinocchio tries his “You are a statue” hypnotism on a trio of ducks and is pleased with his 33% success, not realizing that the bird that remained frozen is the wooden decoy of a hunter (a nice parallel to Pinocchio himself). Or take a little exchange where Nurtle expresses some skepticism about the existence of Astro, and Pinocchio argues that you’d know if he were lying because his nose would grow.
The script isn’t exactly brilliant, but it is occasionally rather ballsy and that can be a fair exchange in cult B-movies. I found it especially galling (but maybe in good way) when Nurtle, outpacing the Martian mushroom cloud behind him as they escape the abandoned city, mentions offhand that now they’ll never know who the Martians were or why they bred giant monsters. And he means it. No explanations. I’m not sure if I’m baffled by the haphazard loose-ends or impressed with the beguiling ambiguity. I’m probably happier not knowing how much of this is just poor writing.
Another pleasant surprise was the animation, which is not half-bad. Though it doesn’t really distinguish itself from or live up to the 1940 film, one can actually tell that this is a four-year labor of love. The characters are fleshed out (even Nurtle, who doesn’t have the benefit of a well-established precursor), animated with vigor and verb, and voiced with personality and affection. The backgrounds are often fairly detailed, with some standouts like the Martian metropolis and Geppetto’s workshop.
Norm Prescott, co-director on “Pinocchio in Outer Space,” eventually helped found Filmation, a television studio most famous for its low-budget animated series based on Star Trek, He-Man, the Ghostbusters and the like. The studio would eventually venture into feature films that road on the coattails of previous classics (“Journey Back to Oz” and “Happily Ever After” being the other two), including their most ambitious: “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night.”
The plot, seen from a distance, is really just a convoluted clone of the original set one year later and with some throwaway subplots, a love interest and an evil supervillain. Actually, that does make it pretty different...
Pinocchio and Geppetto are revisited by the Blue Fairy, who lectures about the importance of free will and brings to life Pinocchio’s toy glow worm Gee Willikers to be his conscience. No mention is made of Jiminy Cricket, more likely because of rights issues (Filmation was beleaguered by Disney lawyers throughout the production) than an acknowledgement of crickets’ three-month life spans. Pinocchio then sets out to deliver a valuable jewel box, only to be waylaid and conned by a sly raccoon and his monkey stooge (Honest John and Gideon in the original), getting him grounded that night when Geppetto finds out.
The film really gets going after Pinocchio violates his probation to go set things right, heading off to recover the jewel box. He is drawn to a carnival that enticed him the previous day and falls in love with a marionette named Twinkle who puts on a salacious performance while singing about running away from your parents doing whatever you want (upping the double-layers of the 1940’s “I’ve Got No Strings” with a clever triple-meaning refrain line “No one to hold me”). Afterwards, Pinocchio sneaks backstage and is kidnapped by the organ-grinding puppet-master Puppetino (who acts so much like a rapist that the scene never aired on TV) in what surely ranks amongst the most disturbing scenes in an animated children’s film.
With the help of Gee Willikers and the Blue Fairy, Pinocchio escapes, but learns from the still-scheming con artists that the jewel box is now in the dexterous hands of Puppetino. He riverboats down to find the carnival’s next stop, but is swallowed by a whale and entered the empire of the night, a ghostly world of fantasies and nightmares. There he visits the Land Where Dreams Come True and engages in a showdown with the four-armed demon lord The Emperor of the Night.
Perhaps the film’s most notorious scene is at the Land Where Dreams Come True, which actually exceeds the equivalent Pleasure Island in the original (where Pinocchio is transformed into a Donkey during a night of revelry). “Empire of the Night” goes even further, trippier and more terrifying. After entering a night club called the Neon Cabaret full of unlimited toys, Pinocchio indulges in mugs of absinthe, hallucinates that the leering faces around him are melting and then engages in a psychotropic self-indulgent disco dancing duet with Twinkle that involves spinning around on rainbows discs across abstract lightshow patterns while Playboy silhouettes composed of stars frolic around him.
This surreal euphoric high is followed immediately by the confrontation with the satanic demon villain, in a one-two mood-swing punch that probably spawned a lot of nightmares in young viewers. In the end he must escape the sinking ship (who knew we were on a ship?) through a series of implausible doors. One is so tall he has to tell lies so that his nose grows long enough to pull the handle and soon after he must confess truths to shrink it down enough to pass through a revolving door. Weird, but inspired.
However, counterbalancing the exquisitely overwhelming climax are heavy chunks of wasted time spent following Gee Williker’s subplot. He’s as much of a wet blanket as Jiminy Cricket, but without the charm or tunefulness. He spends most of the film vainly trying to argue with Pinocchio, who rightly ignores him, and then gets lost and has a bunch of lame time-killing adventures with Lt. Grumblebee and a large frog that rampages on an insect village. These scenes ruin the pacing of the film and don’t really belong.
Then there’s the Blue Fairy who keeps telling Pinocchio that free choice is the most powerful thing in the universe, but then admonishing him every time he doesn’t make the choice she wants. I guess that’s like real life.
The character design is more distinctive than “Pinocchio in Outer Space,” but much less appealing and hampered by 80’s-bad voice-acting. The good guys are especially weak: Geppetto looks like a jangly skeleton, Pinocchio’s cheekbones poke out distractingly and Gee Williker’s comes off as a carryover from a bad Fleischer cartoon. The villains, however, are a welcome upgrade. The raccoon/monkey con artist duo actually works and their dialog/performance is a far more convincing version of shifty shysters than other adaptations, even if the accents are rather offensive. Puppetino is almost too creepy and stands far above most henchmen (I hate the slow-witted buffoon variations) while The Empire of the Night makes most Disney nemeses seem like Heidi.
The background art is a notch or so above “Pinocchio in Outer Space” in terms of consistency. It also has better atmosphere, especially the carnival (even when it is seen from a distance) and the Empire of the Night. Yet at the same time it doesn’t have quite the same charm and sincerity.
Relative to my expectations, both of these films were real winners. If you’re already a disciple of the 1940 version and you’re tolerant towards a little artistic theft, I’d actually say it’s worth indulging any curiosity you might have. I probably wouldn’t show “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” to little children and “Pinocchio in Outer Space” might be a little quaint and naïve for adolescents, but I’m sure some kids could latch on to either. Besides, good parenting or not, I’m of the belief that a little outrageous surrealism is a healthy childhood vaccine against conformity indoctrination.
Anyway, I’m giving the gold to “Pinocchio in Outer Space,” but objectively it’s probably the other film that most people would prefer.
Winner: Pinocchio in Outer Space