Thursday, August 27, 2009


One of my earliest childhood memories is of watching, in a state of some mesmerisation, the mysterious creation that is Fred Ladd and Ray Goossens' Pinocchio in Outer Space (1964) on the late show. I was spending the night at my maternal grandmother's house, which meant I was allowed to stay up at all hours, or at least until local television stations signed off the air in those Dark Days Before Cable. The animated fantasia's surreal images of flying whales, giant crabs, and other creatures have rattled around in my skull to this day, which brings me to Image Entertainment's 2003 DVD. This U.S.-Belgian revision has been dismissed by several Internet commentators, but--however far the story strays from Carlos Collodi's original satirical conception--Pinocchio in Outer Space deserves revisitation, if not precisely reverence.

The boy's continued mischief has motivated the Blue Fairy to turn the child back into a puppet, who lives with his father Geppetto and dog Fedora in the old man's toy shop. Pinocchio wants to be a boy again, but he's not making much headway in his studies: "The planet Venus is twenty-six million miles from Earth. Mars is thirty-five million miles away. I wish school were a million billion miles away!" Meanwhile, the just-launched Cosmos II satellite has been destroyed--the third in a week's time--by the picture's Terrible Dogfish/Monstro surrogate, an interstellar rogue whale named Astro. When Pinocchio sets off for school the next morning, he's waylaid by the Fox and the Cat (called in this version Sharp and Groovy), and winds up parting with his lunch money for a hypnosis primer. He later encounters interplanetary operative Nurtle the Twertle from Twertle-D, who's overshot his orbit and imagines he's on Mars, where he's been sent to investigate atomic energy on the presumedly dead world. Pinocchio, hoping to haul in Astro with hypnosis and (not incidentally) get out of going to school, climbs aboard Nurtle's spacecraft, and the two journey to the Red Planet.

At this point, Pinocchio in Outer Space becomes quite interesting. Our adventurers, after encountering a magnetic storm, touch down on Mars and spot a mysterious city, which resembles a futuristic Disneyworld, in the distance. After narrowly escaping being devoured by colossal, drooling sand crabs, Pinocchio and Nurtle explore the city, which upon closer inspection is deserted and disintegrating. The puppet suggests that Astro must be responsible for the destruction--indentations in the ruins reveal ominous whale shapes--and Nurtle agrees that "there's something fishy here, all right." The pair examine the city's underground chambers as organic-looking machines hum eerily. They discover a flowing canal, as well as pits of regular-sized crabs and scorpions, and deduce that the contraptions dispensing radioactive food to the creatures are mutating them into giants. Other monstrosities, including enormous spiders and turtles, make their presence known, and the astronauts flee down a long tunnel. (How this subterranean sequence fired my prepubescent imagination!) The pair also encounter a pod of whales, from which Astro has undoubtedly escaped. A colossal sandstorm begins to blow, and Pinocchio and Nurtle take off in their spacecraft before sand reaches the atomic reactors and the city explodes.

Astro, of course, awaits with snapping jaws to consume the ship. As the duo drift among swallowed satellites, seemingly doomed to be digested, the Blue Fairy appears to the puppet, inspiring him with the idea of exiting through the creature's spout. (In a nice touch of swish humor, Pinocchio cries, "That's the Blue Fairy!" and Nurtle--to whom she's invisible--skeptically replies, "Sure it is, and I'm the Queen of the Moon.") The ship's stabilizer, alas, is damaged in its trip through the darkened spout, causing the craft to spin. "By the time we get back to Earth," Nurtle informs Pinocchio, "I'll be twertle soup and you a box of toothpicks." Astro is awakened by the commotion and gives chase, only to be hypnotized by the brightly-twirling ship and captured. But re-entry into Earth's atmosphere is deadly, and Pinocchio sacrifices himself to save both the spacecraft and the planet by reversing Astro's spout. Fortunately, the Blue Fairy returns to resurrect him in flesh and blood.

It's fluff, admittedly, but compelling fluff nonetheless. Some reviewers have found the picture's trio of songs intolerable, but I must confess a grudging admiration for the Fox's ditty, "Doin' the Impossible." Pinocchio is voiced by Peter Lazer, while Nurtle is rendered by Arnold Stang of Top Cat fame. (Most, if not all, of the cast were drawn from radio.) Image offers a colorful transfer of this sixty-five minute feature, with odd bits of grain here and there. Supplements include a still gallery containing poster, lobby card, and production boards. Universal's original six-minute U.S. prologue, which tours the Milky Way, is also included, and the opening "Little Toy Shop" sequence is available for inspection sans titles. Martin Caidin, whose novel Cyborg inspired television's Six Million Dollar Man, is credited as the film's technical advisor.

Ladd's audio commentary redundantly describes the onscreen action, in addition to praising Animation Director Goossens' work and pointing out the various performers. (For some reason, he identifies Lazer twice.) The film's narrator, Bret Morrison, who was radio's Shadow, is best remembered among cultists for his trailers voicework for Radley Metzger's Audubon Films erotica; he, rather than Fox personator Conrad Jameson, also renders "Doin' the Impossible," as the studio preferred Morrison's silken stylings. Ladd observes that the obliterated city's mushroom cloud took four months to complete, while the feature required four years. He further notes that the cosmic clouds in the background of the penultimate space sequence were often invisible in dense theatrical prints, but Image's transfer renders them distinctly. A separate commentary is included for the prologue, which combines government and privately-made footage with impressive animation effects. Pinocchio in Outer Space appears in its original 1.78:1 ratio (enhanced for widescreen sets), and contains fifteen chapter stops. Image's Dolby Digital Mono disc is as easy on the ears as Mr. Morrison himself.