Blu-ray Review: Pinocchio - Two-Disc 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition

Man, as if my childhood hadn't already been screwed up enough. But no, my parents had to go and sit me down to watch Walt Disney's Pinocchio. At the age of six -- old enough to be curious about the world beyond my house but too young to have a clue what any of it meant -- here was my first horror movie. This animated classic from 1940, which ranks #2 on the AFI's Top Ten list of animated features, is as nightmarish a children's film as you'll find anywhere. I mean, come on: As the newborn wooden puppet Pinocchio begins his odyssey into the world beyond old Geppetto's workshop, his journey's simple life lessons about honesty, bravery, and responsibility come steeped in the last gasps of harsh Victorian moral codes, all 19th-century Dickensian brutality and unearned cruelty. The scoundrels Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat embody the temptations of fame and high living with an admonishing mind-your-place ethic. Then as further punishment for skipping school on his first day of life, the Pleasure Island sequence is a beautifully rendered horror show where innocent young Pinocchio gets ensnared by the allures of forbidden fun. He falls in with the evil Coachman's cargo of wayward children, namely a Dead End Kid named Lampwick, who have been snatched from their parents and sold into slavery, doomed to become, literally, laboring pack animals. Sure, with outside help Pinocchio gets away in the nick of time, but what about Lampwick or that other little boy who pitifully cries, "I want my mama!" while he's transforming body and soul? They're abandoned to their punishment along with the other children whose transgressions against "proper" behavior surely don't warrant the treatment they receive. Where's their Blue Fairy and Jiminy?At its strangely dark heart, Pinocchio showed the six-year-old me that freedom is just another word for everything left to lose, and singing "I've got no strings on me" in the adult world gets you locked in a birdcage faster than you can say "Oliver Twist." As I take a look at where I'm sitting now, updating "birdcage" to "cubicle," I'm thinking that Walter Elias Disney has a lot to answer for. No wonder so many of us remember the bad dreams Pinocchio induced when we were kids. And now we get to show it to our children. This time, however, Pinocchio has been gloriously restored for a 70th Anniversary two-disc DVD and two-disc Blu-ray release. Benefiting from modern digital restoration techniques that -- this is vital -- don't lose touch with the film's rich painted-cel brush strokes and artistic authenticity, this new edition of Pinocchio looks and sounds sensational. The Blu-ray particularly is a dazzler, further testimony to my growing conviction that this new format's greatest value comes from the remastering of vintage classics with revelatory fidelity. But even if you opt for the DVD, expect to be amazed. Along with the feature film, the discs are loaded with quality extras. (The extras on the Blu-ray come in HD.) Pinocchio's pathbreaking production history is explored in enlightening and entertaining featurettes that help us appreciate its achievements all the more. The two-year production was by no means an easy or untroubled one, and we get the full chronicle through a very good commentary track and an excellent "making of" documentary. The film's team of animators worked with painstaking precision and technological inventiveness to create this rich and complicated full-length animated feature frame by frame -- only the second such Disney endeavor after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just a couple years earlier -- and we get to see some of their work in progress through behind-the-scenes footage from the Disney vaults.Plus, for kids there are Pinocchio-themed games and activities, adding even more bang for the family buck.
Checking out the Blu-ray edition, I was impressed time and again by how beautiful the film looks in 1080p high-resolution. Museum-quality, archival work went into the restored visuals here. Colors are true and vivid, and the richly detailed backgrounds just sing off the screen with an almost 3-D clarity. The digital preservation team was mindful about maintaining the warmth and texture of the original painted cels, so this restored print is clean and flawless and gorgeous, yet doesn't come off over-processed or unnecessarily "tweaked" in any way. There are several watery scenes in the movie -- for instance, Geppetto searching the streets for Pinocchio in the pouring rain, and the long sequence both on and under the sea when Pinocchio bravely rescues Geppetto from the belly of Monstro the whale -- and during them I'd hit the pause button just to admire the painterly quality of it all. You can't watch Pinocchio without coming away in awe of the talent evident in the frames, and that's especially the case while watching this Blu-ray edition. As for the sound, the DVD offers a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, while the Blu-ray provides a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio track that allows for up to 7.1 surround sound. The sound is clean and clear, with the surrounds deployed conservatively, kicking in for just so for music and during the climactic confrontation with Monstro. Like the visuals, the audio elements have been curated with care and restraint. Naturally, some of the music and dialogue may not sound as full-bodied as a modern recording, but we can be thankful that nobody at Disney decreed that it's a "problem" that needed to be "fixed." Also available on both formats is the restored original mono audio. My favorite among the extras is No Strings Attached: The Making of Pinocchio, an hour-long behind-the-scenes piece chronicling the production from the initial concepts (which were quite different from the final work) through the production process -- how the animators worked, the talent casting, etc. -- to the latest techniques employed by the restoration team. Augmenting that production history is a thorough, enjoyable audio commentary with animation enthusiast Leonard Maltin joined by animation experts Eric Goldberg and J.B. Kaufman. The Blu-ray disc adds the "Cine-Explore" Picture-in-Picture video option, which allows you to view the commentary track during the movie with illustrative stills, storyboards, film clips of the original Disney animators discussing their work, and so on. Further historical exploration comes in the form of separate featurettes on The Sweat Box -- the projection room where the animators tested their daily reels for Walt Disney himself -- and some impressive Live Action Reference Footage that the animators used to create Pinocchio's backgrounds as well as the characters that moved through and interacted with them. It's fascinating archival material. Also here are a pop-up trivia track, introduced storyboard sequences for two deleted scenes and an alternate ending, and a deleted song, "Honest John."More extras include eight Art Galleries with hundreds of production and behind-the-scenes images, an 11-minute look at toymakers around the world, a karaoke-style subtitle track for sing-alongs, and Disney Channel star Meaghan Jette Martin's "When You Wish Upon a Star" music video. Games include a multiplayer Trivia Challenge, arcade-style Pleasure Island Carnival Games, and Pinocchio's Puzzles. (Furthermore, the Blu-ray adds marketing-directed BD-Live Interactivity options of "Movie Chat," "Movie Mail," "Movie Challenge," and "Disney Movie Rewards Live.")The two-disc Blu-ray edition adds a third disc, the standard-def DVD of the movie. That's a nice touch for those families with both DVD and Blu-ray players or who have only DVD for now until they opt for the new format. Consider Pinocchio's 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition highly recommended for Disney enthusiasts and families looking for a real multi-generational experience. It's a loving, history-minded restoration of classic animation, quite possibly the peak masterpiece from the Golden Age of Disney. It's still a twisted story, though, he says as he hits Save, feels the cubicle walls close in a little tighter, and hums in a minor key, "Yes, there are no strings on me...."