Thursday, August 8, 2013
In Defense Of: Pinocchio And The Emperor Of Night
So, in case you haven't noticed, I have this weird obsession with puppets. I don't know what it is, but there's something about the thrill of coming up just to the edge of the uncanny valley as inanimate creatures made to look alive are made to then act alive, only to highlight that they are not in fact, alive. Its that same creepy magic that only exists in stop motion animation and has largely been lost in the age of CGI. And yet, for whatever reason, I've never really been a huge fan of the story about arguably the most famous living puppet, Pinocchio. Its particularly strange considering my love of fairy tales, but I've never been able to watch the Disney film or any incarnation and feel the reverence and wonder that I gather I'm supposed to. However, I did just watch a movie I didn't know existed before last week, a dark and twisted unofficial sequel to the Disney movie called Pinocchio and the Emperor of Night, and after watching it, I must say I was pleasantly surprised.
Okay, so I guess its not all that surprising to see a sequel to a Disney classic, as until the company's recent change in direction, they've been more than happy to suck out all the good will generated by their theatrical movies with chintzy straight to DVD continuations. Except not only was this film not made by Disney despite clearly trying to evoke the same feeling as the Disney film, but it wasn't even straight to video. This thing came out in theaters apparently, and had I not also known that Freddy As F.R.O.7 and The Oogieloves were both in theaters, I would not have believed something so bizarre could make it onto the big screen. The easiest comparison I can think of is Return To Oz, in that both employ the same kind of off kilter and off putting macabre sensibility with all the elements of the original still in place, just tweaked and twisted enough to be made interesting again. While I think it would be unfair considering I'm not a fan of the original, I'm tempted to say that for all its flaws, Emperor of Night is by far the superior effort.
Its just so delightfully weird and creepy in all the right ways. It basically takes the one scene we all remember from the original, where the children are tricked into indulging in their vices only to transform into donkeys and become slaves, and tries to build an entire movie around as many similarly freaky moments like it. They even try to repeat that scene almost verbatim, and somehow manage to make it the least creepy of all the creepy scenes in the movie. Our journey into madness begins with a jaunty song by the Blue Fairy, leads into Pin getting basically puppet raped by a leering circus owner in what is apparently the film's most famous and controversial moment, and ends with Pinocchio battling Satan himself in everything but name for the fate of the free world.
If that last sentence didn't just convince you that you need to see this movie, than I don't know what would, and I would be intensely curious to find out what exactly could motivate you to see a movie at all. What is most striking is the tone, which jumps so jarringly from the kind of sickeningly sweet and shallow stuff of every bad DVD sequel of a famous movie, to the kind of inspired fuckedness that I always key into instantly. There is a point in the film where I just knew I was in for something special, which came about just as I was beginning to wonder if I'd bitten off more schmaltz than I could chew. Its just one close up shot of Pinocchio during the Blue Fairy's song, and I literally had to do a Google search immediately to find out if John K was an animator on the production, as it was exactly the kind of freaky Ren and Stimpy style out of nowhere close up he's so well known for.
And it only gets weirder from there. Something I really appreciated about the film is that it eschews the cliched and over simplified battle of straight good versus evil for a relatively more nuanced examination of the nature of freewill versus subjugation. Pinocchio's status as a puppet turned real boy is the ultimate expression of emancipation, such that his continued existence as a real boy is revealed to be contingent upon his not taking his new found freedom for granted by willingly giving it up, lest he become a puppet again. This all comes to a head as we discover that the titular Emperor of Night, a massive four armed demonic god on a pirate ship is in the business of turning human children into puppets through trickery, all as part of a grander scheme to undermine the power of the Blue Fairy, supernatural guardian of free will, in what is very much implied to be some sort of epic cosmic chess game between the two forces.
Did you get that? The Emperor of Night, who is clearly the freaking Devil incarnate, is capturing human souls through infernal deals in an effort to defeat the Blue Fairy, who in this universe is essentially God, all with our favorite little puppet boy and his magical friends caught in the middle. How is this not the plot of every movie? Okay, admittedly, its not perfect. The production values leave something to be desired when compared even to other animated films at the time, and there are many non-creepy moments that tend to drag until we get to the next bit of dark and gritty awesome. I sit mystified that they never considered making this script in the medium of stop motion to accentuate its weirdness especially in a decade so well known for it, or perhaps they did, but didn't have the budget to go that route. Either way, I still think that the good far outweighs the bad, and for anyone on the look out for obscure 80's strange, you don't want to pass this one up.