"Pinocchio" has long been hailed as Walt Disney's
masterpiece. While Walt Disney Animation Studios' second feature-length production
may admittedly lack the heart that "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" had, there's
no denying that "Pinocchio" tops its predecessor. At least when it comes to
artistic ambition and technological advances.
Mind you, "Pinocchio" wasn't always supposed to be the film
that followed "Snow White." In fact, if Walt had had his way, an animated
version of Felix Salten's "Bambi, A Life in the Forest" would have been the
very next project that the Mouse Factory churned out.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
So how did "Bambi" go from being WDAS' proposed second production
(which was originally supposed to be released to theaters in the Spring of
1939) to the studio's fifth feature-length film (which didn't wind up debuting 'til
August 13, 1942)? That actually has a lot to do with the lessons that Walt thought
that he and his team had learned while working on "Snow White." Chief among
these being that animating believable, life-like human figures is very tough.
In a January 1938 interview that Disney did with the New
York Times in the wake of "Snow White" 's huge success at the box office over
the 1937 / 1938 holiday season, Walt revealed that - as his studio was ramping
up to produce additional animated features - the mistakes that had been made
during production of Disney's first full-length cartoon ...
... will not be repeated. Particularly, the human figures (in "Snow
White") presented a problem which was not solved until the final five months of
(production). So obviously these will be minimized or omitted in his next two
offerings, "The Adventures of Pinocchio" and the subsequent "Bambi."
Artwork from Walt Disney Studios' 1938 Christmas card which hypes thethen-still-pending Holiday 1939 release of "Pinocchio." CopyrightDisney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
Now please note that use of the word "subsequent." Because
it was only three weeks earlier that Walt had revealed - in a December 15, 1937
story that, again, ran in the New York Times - that
... "Pinocchio," the puppet that wanted to be human, will
provide the basis for Walt Disney's next feature-length cartoon, replacing the (previously)
Prior to this, "Bambi" had actually been on the fast track at
the Mouse House. Walt had purchased the film rights to Felix Salten's 1923 novel
from producer Sidney Franklin (who had originally tried to get MGM to produce a
live-action version of this popular Book-of-the-Month Club selection back in
1933) in April of 1937. With the idea being that - as Disney's animators
finished working on "Snow White" - they could then immediately pivot and begin
working on a feature-length cartoon version of "Bambi."
You see, to Walt's way of thinking, all of the experience
that Disney artists had acquired while drawing Snow White's forest friends
(i.e., the squirrels, chipmunks & birds that help her " ... tidy up the place"
as the little princess sings "Whistle While You Work." More importantly, the
deer that the Dwarfs ride while they're pursuing the Evil Queen) would now make
it possible for them to produce an animated version of Felix Salten's "Bambi, A
Life in the Forest" in record time.
"How quickly are we talking here?," you ask. Walt had
originally thought that his artists would be able to turn out a feature-length
animated version of "Bambi" in just 18 months time. Which - if all had gone
according to plan - meant that Disney's "Snow White" follow-up would have
opened in theaters sometime during the Summer of 1939.
Sadly, given that "Bambi, A Life in the Forest" had originally
been written for adults, Felix Salten's novel proved extremely difficult to
transform into fodder for a family-friendly film. All efforts that the story
team made to leaven this movie's rather grim source material (EX: Giving
Thumper six sisters that - just like Snow White's Dwarfs - would have cute /
funny names that quickly summed up their personalities. Or creating a-squirrel-and-a-chipmunk
comedy team who'd be modeled after Laurel & Hardy for Bambi to interact
with) didn't meet with Walt's approval.
Model sheet for the deer characters featured in Disney's "Snow White and the SevenDwarfs." Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
To make matters worse, once serious development of "Bambi"
officially got underway in August of 1937, Walt began reviewing all of the
animal-related footage that his artists had created for "Snow White" and
suddenly found it wanting.
To hear Disney Legend Eric Larson talk, Walt's problem with
the deer that his studio had animated for "Snow White" was that (to his eyes,
anyway) they all now looked " ... like big flour sacks." In order for "Bambi"
to work as a feature-length cartoon, Disney realized that all of the animals in
this pending production would then have to have far more realistic anatomy. And
Walt wasn't entirely sure that the artists at Disney Studios - as talented as
they obviously might be - were actually up to this challenge.
According to Michael Barrier, author of the excellent "Hollywood
Cartoon: American Animation in its Golden Age," Walt kept up a brave face for
In 1937 & 1938, Disney artists struggled to get a handle on the look of "Bambi" 's title character. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
"As late as October 1937, Disney was still speaking of 'Bambi'
as if it would be his next feature."
But as "Snow White" was being readied for its December 21st
world premiere at the Carthay Circle Theatre, Walt began to worry about what
might happen to his studio if the 800 people on Disney's payroll didn't have a
new project to work on soon. Which is why - just six days prior to "Snow White"
's premiere - Walt announced a change in the studio's batting order. From here
on in, "Pinocchio" was now going to be Disney's second feature-length cartoon,
rather than "Bambi."
And then - for the next six weeks or so -- Walt was very
optimistic about the animated version of Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of
Pinocchio: Tale of a Puppet" that his studio was produced. Telling a reporter
from the New York Times that production of ...
"Pinocchio" is going so rapidly that it may be ready for
next Christmas, but Disney is careful to make no promises. More likely, it will
be shown in the Spring of 1939.
An early model sheet for Disney's "Pinocchio," back when this film's title characterwas more puppet than boy. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved
By February, all of that optimism had faded away. This was
when the very first animation tests for "Pinocchio" began coming in. Which was
when Walt then realized that this project wasn't going to be "Snow White"
No, "Pinocchio" 's human characters (i.e., Geppetto &
Stromboli) weren't the problem this time around. But - rather - it was this
movie's title character.
As once Walt once famously said during a "Pinocchio" story
session, " ... people know the story, but they don't like the character." And
given that those early animation tests which Disney artists produced weren't
able to turn Pinocchio into a character that audiences would actually like,
Walt actually shut down production of his studio's second feature-length
animated film for a full six months while his story artists searched for a way
to make this project work.
One of the biggest problem that Disney & his team faced
was that - given that Collodi had originally written "Pinocchio" as a newspaper
serial with more than 36 installments - there was originally just too much
story. But as the below video shows ...
... Walt had a process for whittling all of that material down
to something that would then work as a motion picture.
But even with this herculean behind-the-scene effort, "Pinocchio"
still missed its originally-announced release date of Christmas 1939 by more
than a month. Which meant that Walt then lost out on the opportunity to screen
his studio's second full-length animated feature at the exact theater where "Snow
White" had had its East Coast premiere, NYC's Radio City Music Hall.
This unfortunate development genuinely depressed Disney. As Neal
Gabler recounted in "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,"
Walt sent a letter of apology to Gus Van Schmus (i.e., the then- managing
director of Radio City Music Hall), stating that "Pinocchio" was "... the
toughest job the animators have ever had, and I hope I never have to live
through another one like it."
If you'd like to check out " ... the toughest job (Disney)
animators have ever had," the Walt Disney Signature Collection edition of "Pinocchio"
debuted on Digital HD and Disney Movies Anywhere earlier today. Which means
that - if you're a fan of Walt Disney Animation Studios' second feature-length
animated film and aren't willing to wait for the Blu-ray & DVD version hits
store shelves on January 31st - you can download the digital version
This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, January 10, 2017