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MOVIE REVIEW : Filmation Takes On a Classic With 'Pinocchio'

December 25, 1987|CHARLES SOLOMON

"Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night" (citywide) is a muddled reworking of the famous story that leaves the viewer wondering why the artists at the Filmation Studio chose this property--and why they didn't remain faithful to their choice.

Selecting "Pinocchio" puts the animators in competition with the classic Disney film; the comparisons are inevitable, and inevitably unflattering. And writers Robbie London, Barry O'Brien and Dennis O'Flaherty promulgate those comparisons by borrowing from Disney.

In place of Jiminy Cricket, this Pinocchio has Gee Whillikers, a toy "glowbug" brought to life by the Blue Fairy as a conscience/buddy. (In Carlo Lorenzini's original book, Pinocchio met the Talking Cricket, who tried to lecture the puppet--and got squashed with a hammer for his efforts.)

Pinocchio has been a real boy for a year when he sets out to deliver a valuable jewel box Geppetto has made for the village mayor. Scalawag the Raccoon and his sidekick, Igor the Monkey, trick the boy out of the box, which they give to the evil Emperor of the Night via his henchman, Puppetino. Pinocchio sets out to reclaim it, accompanied by Scalawag, Igor, Whillikers and Grumblebee, a blustering British insect.

They wind up inside the Emperor's sinister frigate, where Pinocchio visits "The Land Where Dreams Come True." He drinks two mugs of something, plays with a pile of toys and sings lead in a rock production number. For "falling prey to his own temptations," he must face the Emperor.

The confrontation is weakened by the fact that he hasn't really succumbed to any temptations. The boys on Disney's Pleasure Island who fight, smash furniture, drink beer and smoke cigars deserve their punishment. This Pinocchio hasn't hurt anyone or broken anything. His worst offense is dreaming of stardom, which is hardly a crime (especially in Los Angeles).

Neither the script nor the direction gives the story much focus. For Lorenzini (and Disney), the gift of life was the ultimate reward for valor and self-sacrifice. Here, Pinocchio goes from being a puppet to a real boy (and vice versa) several times, which weakens the miracle. The writers misapply Lorenzini's famous metaphor for the transparency of lies by having Pinocchio deliberately fib--so he can reach a latch with his elongated nose.

"Pinocchio" features some handsome special effects, and the animation is fuller than any of Filmation's previous efforts. But the artists don't know how to make the characters act through their movements: Scalawag and Igor gesticulate constantly, but the gestures don't reveal their personalities. The story is told on the sound track (which features the voices of Rickie Lee Jones, Ed Asner and James Earl Jones--who must be weary of supplying rumbling bass voices for villains), rather than through the visuals.

It's possible that Filmation's "Pinocchio" will live up to its billing as the last animated feature made "entirely in the U.S.A." Some phases of production may be moved overseas, where most television cartoons are made. It's depressing to think of the era of the American animated feature--which began in 1937 with Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"--concluding not with a bang, but with the whimpering of "Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night."

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