Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987) | Video History Selections
I often find it a privilege to sit down to watch some of the films that I review, especially something as bizarre and nearly forgotten as this. I bet if you mentioned the name of this film to any random person, not a single one would recognize it. And yet at one point, this film played in theaters, on Christmas day as a matter of fact. And while I just found out about that fact this very moment, I suppose it’s a fitting piece of trivia to make this technically my (late) Christmas review, even though there’s nothing Christmas about it.
I also find it some form of justice that films like this get to be talked about by film buffs like me, because when you think about it, there are any number of films that have all but been lost to time and have remained stuck on VHS for ages, never making the jump to modern home media. Which I find very unfortunate, because every one of the films that have fallen to that fate were produced and created by whole teams of dozens if not hundreds of people: all working together to create one coherent vision that was going to go up on a movie screen. Some stand the test of time. And some find their way to the back of a storage shed, the corner of an attic, or that one wet and moldy crate down in the wine cellar. This is one of those films.
Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night is a very strange and suspect little production produced and created by Filmation: the company behind such Hannah Barbera look-alikes as Star Trek: The Animated Series, Mighty Mouse, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (circa 1970), Shazam!, the original Ghostbusters cartoon series (before the name was bought by Columbia Pictures for the Ivan Reitman film), and perhaps most notably, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
And considering this, after what I’ve just seen, I’m not surprised that the Disney company attempted to sue Filmation for potentially infringing on their intellectual property, because this movie basically takes the script for Disney’s Pinocchio page by page, and alters just enough to make it their own thing. Instead of Honest John and Giddeon, we have Scalawag and Igor (a raccoon and a monkey). Instead of a pet cat or fish, we have a little yellow bird. Instead of Stromboli, we have Puppetino. And of course, we can’t forget Pinocchio’s conscience, where instead of having Jiminy Cricket, we have Wilikers the Glow-bug (whose really just a wood-sculpture brought to life). The rest of the cast, however, is exactly the same.
Pinocchio here sounds nearly identical to his Disney counterpart. The Blue Fairy is indeed still blue and fairy-ish, except she’s now played by music artist Rickie Lee Jones, who has a very loose breathy way of speaking her lines. And we still have good old Geppetto, portrayed this time by small screen personality Tom Bosley, of Happy Days and Murder She Wrote. I’ll get to the rest of the cast later on.
To be perfectly honest, the plot to this film is actually rather hard to boil down, but I’ll give it my best shot.
On the day of Pinocchio’s birthday, the blue fairy appears before him to wish him well, and to give him a piece of important advice: that because he is now human, he has been given the gift of free will, a gift which he should not squander, nor take for granted, otherwise, he will turn back into a puppet.
Just over across the forest, however, a dark force has entered the land, and has docked its ship nearby and has set up a carnival of magical wonders. Now knowing Pinocchio, despite his father’s warnings, he’s definitely going to go check out this carnival. And unfortunately he does, all while also carrying around an ornate jewelry box, which he was supposed to deliver to the mayor’s house. But on his way to the carnival, Pinocchio is stopped on the road by our resident con artists, Scalawag and Igor, who trick Pinocchio into giving up the jewelry box for what they claim is a Pharaoh’s ruby. And after returning home to tell his father–Geppetto–what happened, his father is rightly angry with him and sends him to his room. This is where Pinocchio makes the choice to venture out and get the jewelry box back, braving hell and high water to make things right. And while on his journey, he is sure to have his will and strength of character tested by the dark forces of the titular, Emperor of the Night.
Now I’m actually amazed I was able to make all that make some sense, because the first time I wrote this synopsis, it went on five paragraphs, and was basically a play-by-play summary of the entire film. I didn’t even think one could boil this plot down, but thank goodness, because we’ve got plenty more things to talk about.
What ends up making the plot of this film much harder to wrap one’s head around is that it has a secondary story arc going on at the same time as Pinocchio’s: an entire sub-plot involving the Jiminy Cricket surrogate, named Wilikers the Glow Bug, who is running around trying to locate Pinocchio on both of the occasions that he goes missing. As I stated earlier, Wilikers is actually a wood carving that was brought to life by the Blue Fairy as her present to Pinocchio, and so he then becomes Pinocchio’s guardian of sorts, although he isn’t really good at holding that post or distinction. During the first half of the film, Wilikers comes across another bug named Grumblebee, Leftennant of the Royal Air Bugs, who soon warms up to Wilikers and promises to help him find Pinocchio and fight off any and all would-be evil doers the come about.
Now, when I heard Wilikers for the first time, it sounded to me like just some random actor trying his best to do a vague impression of Cliff Edwards: the original voice of Jiminy Cricket, even though he ends up sounding more like Don Knotts. Well as it so happens, Wilikers really IS Don Knotts, except he’s trying to pitch up his voice in order to sound slightly more like Cliff. A rather fitting replacement I suppose, but not the best. And his voice does become annoying after a while.
Along with Don, some of the other actors we have include James Earl Jones, performing both the voice of the Emperor of the Night, as well as some of his lesser minions. Ed Asner portrays the con-man/raccoon, Scalawag: giving what I consider one of Ed’s best voice-over performances. You’d never guess it was him either, because half the time it sounds like radio personality Hans Conreid. And as is per usual, voice-over legend Frank Welker lends his usual useful repertoire to this animated feature as both Igor the monkey, and a few other background characters.
This film, while being a unique specimen among animated films and Pinocchio adaptations especially (there are far more than you think), it is greatly weighted down by a lot of artistic issues: not the least of which is its agenda to imitate numerous aspects of the original Disney film. The beginning of the movie starts with Pinocchio meeting the blue fairy, Pinocchio is tasked with something his father wants him to do, the little bug character promises to keep Pinocchio on the right path, but then the con-men convince Pinocchio to do something he really shouldn’t, and then Pinocchio finds himself forced to put on a show in a puppet-show. It’s pretty much the exact same structure as the Disney version. After those opening bits, however, there’s much more original material. And yet when it does become original is when the movie starts to slow down and lose track of itself. This is also where the sub-plot involving Wilikers and Grumblebee trying to find Pinocchio comes in: taking up nearly half of the film’s running time and never really getting anywhere.
Some of the film’s other problems include overly-crammed and fast-paced comedic timing, which make many attempts at humor fall flat. Pointless non-sequiturs that fill up time until the next bullet point on the Disney script can be reached. There are also a lot of rather annoying and confusing musical decisions. There’s no consistency with any of it. It’s not early enough in the 80s for the music to have a darker more magical sound to it like The Neverending Story, and we haven’t reached the 90s yet, which means we don’t get the pleasure of a live orchestral score. Instead, we’re left with late 80s synth, which sounds more like your typical 1990s direct-to-video music: a style that is often confused, haphazard, disingenuous, and devoid of artistic style or an overall stylistic plan. It all feels like there was no structure put in as to the genre or intention of the musical riffs, themes, and motifs. Each scene of the film sounds as if it was just written up as they went along: making no one scene match with another. Sometimes you’ll hear sweet frolicking music accompanied by a synth clarinet, other times you’ll hear dark droning new-age chords, and other times you’ll hear twangy country/western banjo music to evoke the quirky down-home nature of the con-men. But it’s all just very generic, cliché, and expected. There is no originality here.
Which reminds me, for some reason, even though Pinocchio is a story that takes place somewhere around Denmark and Holland, this film makes it look like its taking place nearby Louisiana. Rather an odd choice of relocation.
But the single worst problem, by far, is the absolutely terrible sound design, of which there was no design what-so-ever. The sound guy on this film simply did the cheapest and quickest thing he could, and went to his library of Hannah Barbara sounds—which both HB and Filmation used extensively, since they were rivals back in the day—and he sprinkled spring noises, bottle cap pops, slide-whistles, and other awkwardly familiar thumps, klangs, and other noises all over the place in every single scene. After a while you start to get annoyed at the placement of these sounds, because the sound effects add no tactile or level or reality to this world that we’re presented with. Yes, it is a cartoon, and yes it is a film, but every film is meant to suspend our disbelief in order that we may react to and empathize with the characters on screen. And when you have all of these dorky and ugly sounds going all of the time, it knocks you out of that alternate reality very quick, and you can’t take any of it seriously anymore.
Using that stand-by sound library was an absolutely terrible decision. There was no reason they should have had to settle for that. Television is one thing: it has very short deadlines, and back in the 80s, Hannah Barbara and Filmation knocked out new shows and new episodes every couple of months. So I can understand why sound effects would not be a priority in that case. But when dealing with a feature-length film that’s going to be shown theaters, you have to up your game on everything, especially your soundtrack: because as all of you should know, Sound is more than half of what makes a film work. In some cases and according to some people, sound is even 90% of what makes it work. So you cannot and should not flounder it. And in this case, both the music and the sound effects are a complete waste, and they add nothing of substance to this otherwise fascinating production.
In terms of story and character relatability, I think this film falters more than a bit. Pinocchio is a mere impression of the Disney version, as are most other interpretations of the character. The script, the actor, and the director are what make a performance come alive and work to the goal of the character and their story. But here, this character gives me nothing to latch on to. And on top of that, the world in which he lives does not follow any well-established rules. For instance, every single character in the film is either a human or humanoid: except for Scalawag and Igor. But of course Honest John and Giddeon were also anthropomorphic humanoids of a fox and a cat. So I suppose that fact is not explained in either case. Except perhaps if you consider that there is more magic and spells in the Disney version, since there was an entire island that turned kids into donkeys. So maybe Honest John and Giddeon were once humans, but were cursed by a witch or something. Here, though, they give no reason for it: Scalawag and Igor just are.
The titular villain of our picture also never gets a full back-story or description. Who is the Emperor of the Night? What does he rule over? Why is he called the Emperor of the Night? Why does he have a rivalry with the Blue Fairy? And are there also a Green, Red, and even Yellow Fairies? Why does the Emperor travel around in a large wooden ship? Why does he have a traveling carnival? What does he gain from luring patrons and kids into his domain and keeping them there? Does he take their souls and use them as energy? Does he make them slaves in some economic venture?
So many questions with so much left unanswered by movie’s end. I really hate it when the villain is simplistic, and yet his motivations are unclear. At least with something like Star Trek (2009) the villain has a straight forward reason why he wants to kill Spock and destroy the Federation planets. His motives may be simple, his character may be slightly less than 2 dimensional, but at least I can understand him. This Emperor character I cannot understand. I can even understand the Emperor in Star Wars a lot more than this guy, and that Emperor only showed up during the last film in the original movie trilogy.
When all is said and done, Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night is a disappointing production that doesn’t nearly enchant or impress with its unique production approach. It’s story leaves much to be desired, it’s pacing is all over the place and often slow, and when it isn’t slow it is boring and confusing with far too much information and random character introductions. Pinocchio is a weak and uninteresting character in this version, his bug companion Wilikers serves no purpose other than to have an entire sub-plot of filler, and Wilikers’ sidekick Grumblebee is even less important, and yet he’s the character that opens the film. All of the voice actors do a decent job, most especially James Earl Jones (how could he not), Tom Bosley, and Ed Asner. The animation varies a bit, but that’s to be expected with a team of people of varying skills and a limited number of clean-up artists, so that’s acceptable. But the movie’s biggest fault is its sound design, which I consider some of the most uninspired and lazy sound design I’ve ever heard. There are video games on the Sega Genesis and the original NES that sound leagues better than this, and I would have far preferred it if this entire movie were scored and dubbed by a 16bit Sound engine.
And while this film is only available on rather old VHSs in the US, which is why I have it featured under Video History Selections, it can be found on a rather crisp and clear DVD from the UK. And for video quality’s sake, I may just buy myself a copy.