By Paul Freeman (1992 interview)

Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” has enchanted global audiences for 70 years. The 1940 film was rereleased theatrically in 1945, 1954, 1962, 1971, 1978, 1984, and 1992. It was released on video cassette in 1985 and is now available, in all its colorful glory, on Blu-Ray.

But when animators were toiling on the incredibly complex and ambitious project, they were not thinking in terms of creating a timeless classic. In fact, they worried about the movie flopping.

So said Frank Thomas, one of Disney’s legendary “Nine Old Men” and one of the primary animators of the Pinocchio character.

Thomas recalled, “’Snow White’ was the only full-length animated feature that we’d done. Its success could have been a fluke. It could have been a one-in-a-lifetime hit. There was no assurance that the next picture would go over as well with an audience.

“We were just hoping that Walt wouldn’t do something stupid in the planning of it, so we’d all be out of a job,” Thomas chuckled.

For its video, DVD and Blu-Ray rereleases, the vintage production has been spruced up. Restoration processes have resulted in ever sharper, clearer images, more vivid colors and enhanced sound.

At the time of this interview, Thomas had not yet viewed the restored versions. But he expressed reservations.

“I’m apprehensive, because none of the people doing it were around when we were doing the original work. Walt felt so strongly at the time about the shading and the subtle relationships among the colors. He wanted this picture to truly be artwork.

“Sometimes, when this sort of restoration is done, they go too far. They make it too bright, too light, too gaudy. Not to be irreverent, but it’s like the Sistine Chapel, where there was criticism for taking too much off the paintings of Michelangelo.”

When “Pinocchio” was being created, the atmosphere at Disney Studios was electric. “There was so much stimulation, so much inspiration,” Thomas recalled. “Walt was working night and day. He’d act out the characters to show us how he saw their development. He was so alive! Each of us was so fired up about what we were doing.

“We were pioneers. We had nothing to study. We didn’t know how to do any of the things that were being asked of us. But there was the feeling that nothing was impossible. We were trying to do something fresh and new. We wanted to please Walt. We wanted to please one another. We wanted to please ourselves.”

Thomas said Disney was the ideal boss for a creative artist. “Walt was always more concerned with the quality of the work than with how much it cost. He hired people to watch the pennies. They’d come and say, ‘Hey, you’ve been on this scene five days! How much is this going to cost us?’ But we knew that, if Walt liked the end result, he would never care what the cost was.”

Finding Pinocchio’s personality was a difficult challenge and Thomas was a bit disappointed with the direction it finally took. “When we first started, we were influenced by Charlie McCarthy, who was very popular at the time. Pinocchio was a brash, cocky guy, like in the original story by Collodi. But Walt felt that the picture wasn’t coming off, that it didn’t have enough heart. So he stopped working on it for six months.

“What got us going again was the concept of this cricket who was brash, cocky and funny. So Pinocchio lost his keen character. He became soft, cuddly, innocent, fitting the idea that he’d been born yesterday... or last night. Jiminy Cricket had picked up all the personality that had originally been part of Pinocchio.”

Nevertheless, Thomas and his cohorts managed to make Pinocchio one of the most beloved movie characters of all time.

“You have to capture the intricacies and subtleties of a personality. You have to make the character look like he’s thinking, if he’s going to be alive to the audience.

“We always tried to get the illusion of life. People see our characters as living creatures. Don’t try to tell someone that Jiminy Cricket is just celluloid with a bunch of globs of paint on it.”

Thomas believed that animation could affect a viewer in a way that live-action films could not. “It gets inside a person’s imagination and their heart. If you can get the audience to identify with your character, it reaches deeper inside them than live-action can.”

Thomas, like Disney and many others on the staff, was a perfectionist. They had to be, to create such masterpieces as “Pinocchio.” Today, many of the great animated films on which they labored tirelessly have become staples of home entertainment. The availability of videos aroused mixed feelings in Thomas.

“The pictures were designed to be on the big screen and they certainly work much more effectively that way. But I still love animation as an art form and I think it has a fantastic future.”

[Frank Thomas passed in 2004, at age 92. The great animator contributed to such classics “Snow White” (the dwarfs sobbing over Snow White’s lifeless body), “Bambi” (Bambi and Thumper on the ice), “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio” (“I’ve Got No Strings” sequence), “Lady and the Tramp” (the spaghetti sequence), “Sleeping Beauty” (the three fairies), ”Cinderella” (wicked stepmother), “Alice in Wonderland” (Queen of Hearts), ‘Peter Pan” (Captain Hook) and “Mary Poppins” (dancing penguins).]