On the heels of the spectacular success of "Snow White," Walt Disney took a giant risk with "Pinocchio." There had been great doubt about the concept of animated feature films in the 1930s and 1940s, but instead of leaving well enough alone, Walt plowed all the money from "Snow White" into his next three films. According to longtime Disney buff and expert Leonard Maltin, "the anticipation for Walt's next film was keen, to say the least, and he didn't let them down."
That's not the only risk Walt took. Six months into the making of "Pinocchio," he halted production, making changes to character design and story direction. Leonard explains "He threw out essentially everything they'd done because he felt it wasn't going in the right direction. How many people (then or now) would have the guts to do that? To recognize a problem, and take such drastic action for the sake of making a better movie -- well, that exemplifies what he was all about."
He was also about remaining true to the story. According to Richard Greene who, along with his wife Katherine, assembles the content for the online presence of the Walt Disney Family Museum, "You can find Walt all over 'Pinocchio,' which of course was one of his greatest skills. You talk to the men and women who knew him well, and although he wasn't the best animator in the Studio, he could guide animators to do their best work. Although he was not a trained musician, he was known to guide the people who wrote the music to do their best work. And in any case, he was clearly the best story man around."
The Walt Disney Family Museum Online's special exhibit this month showcases Walt's devotion to story, focusing on Pinocchio's buddy (and conscience), Jiminy Cricket. Working with animator Ward Kimball, Walt was determined to bring warmth to the wooden puppet. Richard says "He realized fairly far along that Pinocchio as a character just didn't have a whole lot of heart by himself. He was wooden, both literally and figuratively, so Walt came up with the idea of using the cricket to bring more heart into the story."
Jiminy also provided the film with comic relief, notably by the scene in which Monstro the Whale sneezes. Richard explains, "Walt saw that bit of animation in the sweatbox and said 'Gee, that's good. But can't we do something a little bit more?' A little bit more was Jiminy Cricket saying 'gesundheit' and that got one of the biggest laughs in the film -- because Walt always thought there was an opportunity to make things better."
Character is essential to the storytelling process, but Walt also brought luster to "Pinocchio" through his fascination with technology. In the very first scene when the camera delves deep into the town, we see Walt's genius for innovation at work. Richard explains, "He loved technology not for its own sake but always in service to the story. In fact, if you talk to John Lasseter about his own thoughts on technology today, it mirrors what Walt thought about it."
Walt knew the importance of taking creative risks, but he also felt that collaboration -- and having a creative space to do so -- was essential in making the magic happen. So he was generous when it came to the people who helped him to create such amazing stories. Richard points out that "Walt knew the importance of an environment that his team needed to do their best. Around the time of 'Pinocchio' he was also building the Burbank Studio. He built it in a far more lavish fashion as studios go than he would have ever built his own home, because he wanted the best possible environment for the men and women who were doing the animation, story, and music for his films."
With such hard work and devotion behind it, it's no surprise that Walt's journey to bring Pinocchio's story to life brought about such a legendary movie -- inspiring us along the way, frame by frame. Richard sums it up best when he says, "There's a huge amount about Walt to teach us, inspire us, and help us to understand his creations in a deeper way than would be the case if we didn't understand the man."
If your wish upon a star is to see this beloved classic again, you'll be happy to know that the 70th anniversary of "Pinocchio" (was) marked with the release of the Platinum Edition Blu-ray and DVD on March 10! Sometimes, dreams really do come true.
*Image © Disney