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MOVIES : No Strings Attached : Oscar winner Martin Landau plays Geppetto to a Henson-created Pinocchio. Guess which one gives the wooden performance?

October 22, 1995|Peter Green | Peter Green is a free-lance writer based in Prague. and

PRAGUE — "Watch the nose, watch the nose!"

Delicately balanced by three personal assistants, the star of director Steve Barron's new fantasy film enters Stage 2 at Barrandov Studio. Or, at least, the star's head does. At the end of an eight-foot-long, wood-grained, carbon-fiber nose is a latex head the size of a slo-pitch softball, with two blue eyes as big as silver-dollar pancakes.

It's Pinocchio as an animatronic puppet--his head filled with tiny electric motors that give him an uncanny ability to mimic human expressions.

For the past two months, Barron and a pan-European crew have been creating "Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio," a $30-million film planned for release next year on Memorial Day Weekend from Savoy Pictures. The film takes a fresh look at the original tale by 19th-Century Italian author Carlo Collodi, but most of the story will be familiar to anyone who remembers Disney's bright-eyed, green-hatted cartoon character from the 1940 classic animated version.

But it's the puppet at the end of that long nose that has made this film possible. Designed by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, the mechanical monster-makers who got their start on Sesame Street with Kermit and Oscar, it stars alongside Martin Landau as the woodcarver Geppetto, Pinocchio's reluctant father.

A hundred miles south of Prague, when he finally pauses on set in the immaculately preserved historic town of Cesky Krumlov, Barron explains why he thinks this version of Pinocchio will surpass anything cartoon characters could do.

"I've always felt it was a complete natural to make Pinocchio as a movie--a wooden boy becoming a real boy. But in the cartoon there was no wooden boy and no real boy. Here you make it strong because the animatronic puppet lets you do both of those characters just right--a real boy and a wooden boy," he says. "You can wow people with computer graphics, but to make the audience really care about something you have to act with it. I want Geppetto to fiddle with the puppet and squeeze it and hold it. He has to be there to hold and touch. Computer-generated images just don't have the same emotional range."

Getting that emotional range out of Pinocchio is the job of Mak Wilson, the London-based Creature Shop's chief puppeteer. Standing at a wheeled table jammed with computer gear, monitors and electric cables, Wilson slips on the hand controls that run the 20 tiny motors that animate Pinocchio's face and let the puppet actually lip-sync the dialogue.

Seamlessly, Wilson becomes Pinocchio. The mouth movement is carefully programmed into the computer-run puppet beforehand, but Wilson manipulates the hands, the face and massive blue eyes with such dexterous empathy one almost forgets that this is just a latex doll. A grandmotherly Czech extra passing by pinches the doll's rubber cheek. "What a cutie," she says. The puppet flinches, almost blushing.

For Landau, still luxuriating in this year's best supporting actor Academy Award for the dying, morphine-addicted Bela Lugosi in "Ed Wood," getting that emotional range out of Pinocchio is not half the challenge he thought it would be. "You see the grains of wood, but Mak gives the puppet real personality. After a while you forget you're talking to a dummy."

"Who you calling a dummy?" snaps Pinocchio. "I'm a puppet, and I want to be a real boy."

"It's difficult," concedes Landau, "after all I'm acting with a puppet, but if I believe it the audience will believe it too."

Relaxing in a tree-shaded park between scenes, Landau cracks Yiddish jokes, does a Cagney impersonation and launches into a vaudeville patter on the subject: "When I was a kid in summer stock, I worked with some really wooden actors."

How does he play the woodcarver Geppetto? "Take a block of wood and chip away everything that doesn't look like Geppetto."

What about the accent, after playing Lugosi? "Just a tiny trace of accent, I mean a leetle beet, you know whatta I mean?"

And measuring up to the Disney Geppetto? Slipping into a Yiddish accent, Landau continues: "I'm not even thinking about him. He got one part and then whatever happened to him? I did 75 films, 500 TV shows. And that goldfish, Clio was I think her name? Never did another movie, a talented goldfish like that."

For Landau, the film brings back childhood memories: "Of course, I remember the Disney Pinocchio," says Landau, 62. "I was a little kid then. . . . It was very instructive. Little boys who don't behave wind up in lots of trouble."

Landau insists he is not being upstaged by Pinocchio, even though the puppet has 20 handlers to Landau's lone personal assistant--and has a larger contract too. Henson's Creature shop is reportedly getting some $2.5 million for the puppet.

"The puppet gets more than Martin, but he doesn't get any percentage points," says Rob Fried, Savoy's president.

Shooting with a set full of kids has also been a challenge for Barron, a soft-spoken, almost shy man in his late 30s.

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