Robert Zemeckis’ new live-action retelling of Pinocchio is a homage to the magic of Walt Disney’s original 1940 animated classic.
“Walt Disney was really clever. He always looked for stories to make movies of that were pretty much impossible to do as live-action movies,” says Zemeckis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Christ Weitz, who launched his film career as a co-writer, along with his brother Paul, of the 1998 animated film Antz. “They could be done very wonderfully as animation because he was able to do animated stories about talking animals and puppets, fairies and dwarves and things that would be impossible to do in live action. Pinocchio is one of the most, if not the most beautiful, animated features that was ever made.”
“But now, since digital cinema has emerged, the puppet could be very much three-dimensional. It occurred to me that you could do a very plausible version of ‘Pinocchio’ as a live-action movie. And so even though I was concerned I was standing on hallowed ground, I thought that was a worthwhile project to do,” says Zemeckis
Weitz says, “The 1940 Pinocchio is an extraordinary film, with Disney’s artists working at the very edge of what was technically possible at the time. At the same time, it was one of the more complex and interesting stories that Disney ever did. There was an opportunity to do something cutting-edge visually and relevant thematically. [The original author] Carlo Collodi’s preoccupation with conscience, and Walt Disney’s interpretation of it, also seized my interest.”
Perhaps the biggest draw for Weitz was the opportunity to work with Zemeckis. He says, “Like a lot of people I grew up on Bob’s films and so it was a treat just to get to kick around ideas with him. It’s a free master’s class in filmmaking. But for a legend, he wears his experience and know-how lightly, and is always alive to the fact that making movies should be fun, which we occasionally forget.”
Zemeckis says, “Chris and I traded ideas back and forth. We both brought ideas to the project, and we both were very helpful in killing each other’s darlings when we were getting self-indulgent.”
In the beloved tale of a wooden puppet who embarks on a thrilling adventure to become a real boy, Tom Hanks stars as Geppetto, the woodcarver who builds and treats Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) as if he were his real son, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Jiminy Cricket, who serves as Pinocchio’s guide as well as his “conscience”.
Zemeckis and his team were generally faithful to the earlier version and have included most of its memorable songs, adding some new ones, also introducing some new characters, plot points, humour, action and other surprises to delight the entire 21st-century family audience.
Explains Zemeckis, “The original animated film is a vast departure from the source material. We use the 1940 Disney version as a template and an outline for our story. So it follows pretty much the same adventure that Pinocchio follows in the animated version. We modernize the storytelling because there was a different sort of pacing in movies 60 years ago than there is now, but we basically kept the spirit and the tone and the theme of the first movie.”
Still, there were certain aspects of the story that needed updating. Producer Andrew Miano explains, “Classic Disney movies like the original animated ‘Pinocchio’ have traditionally given parents the opportunity to introduce themes and situations that affect their children’s coping mechanisms. It was always a challenge to figure out how to adapt Pleasure Island for 21st-century audiences. I love that Disney allowed us to make Pleasure Island tempting and scary in ways that are relevant to parents and kids today. In the original film, they were drinking beer and smoking cigars, whereas now they are on a sugar rush, drinking root beer and we also include elements like bullying and social media.”
The film blends live-action and CGI, with such live-action characters as Geppetto, The Blue Fairy, The Coachman, Stromboli, the Schoolteacher and Headmaster, among others, along with the animated characters Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, “Honest” John and Sofia the Seagull. Throughout his career, Zemeckis has been a pioneer in advancing film storytelling using new technologies, with such films as his “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” “Death Becomes Her,” “The Polar Express” and “A Christmas Carol,” among many others. He says, “All of the visual effects learning I’ve had over the years all went into making this movie.”
The effects proved to be the greatest challenge for filmmakers. Weitz clarifies, “Both the extraordinary number of visual effects, and the need for them to work at the highest level with a filmmaker like Bob, who has been at the forefront of how the movies incorporate effects for decades now, [presented an artistic challenge]. There are a lot of effects shots, of the highest ambition and quality, and a limited time in which to do them.”
Retaining Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s most memorable songs from the animated classic—the Oscar®-winning “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “I’ve Got No Strings” and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)”—the filmmakers wanted to include additional songs in their live-action version. Oscar® nominees Alan Silvestri, who composed the film’s background score and has teamed with Zemeckis on 19 films, and Glen Ballard collaborated on the new original songs.
Weitz says, “The 1940 Pinocchio won two Oscars® – for score and for original song – and so it was important to get the best team possible to do the music. Not only do Alan and Glen pay homage to the classic film, but they’ve made new and exciting creations of their own to work alongside their longtime collaborator Bob Zemeckis.”
While writing the script, Zemeckis and Weitz noted places where additional songs might work.
The director explains, “We went through the process of doing what you do whenever you’re going to make a musical. When we were writing the script, Chris and I would spot places where we said to each other, ‘Hey, why don’t we do a song there?’ What songs do best in musicals is shore up the emotional growth of a character or help express what a character is feeling at any given moment. So that’s what we did with the songs.”
ROBERT ZEMECKIS (Director/Screenwriter/Producer) won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Director’s Guild of America Award for Best Director for the hugely successful and popular Forrest Gump.
Early in his career, he co-wrote with Bob Gale and directed Back to the Future, which was the top-grossing release of 1985, and for which Zemeckis shared Oscar® and Golden Globe® nominations for Best Original Screenplay. He then went on to helm “Back to the Future, Part II” and “Part III,” completing one of the most successful film franchises in motion picture history.
Zemeckis has continued to bring an impressive number of popular films to the screen including comedies Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the romantic adventure Romancing the Stone and the macabre comedy hit Death Becomes Her.
He also directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? cleverly blending live action and animation in a feature film, resulting in a worldwide box office smash. Zemeckis re-teamed with Hanks to direct and produce the contemporary drama Cast Away, which opened to critical and audience acclaim.
He directed and produced Contact, and also co-wrote and directed the motion-capture film The Polar Express.
Zemeckis produced and directed his second motion capture film, Beowulf and released another advanced motion-capture film, A Christmas Carol.
Zemeckis returned to live-action direction with Flight, The Walk, and the romantic thriller Allied.
Along with Caroline Thompson, Zemeckis wrote the screenplay for Welcome to Marwen, which he directed, and also directed The Witches.
In 1998 Zemeckis, Steve Starkey and Jack Rapke partnered to form the ImageMovers, a production company dedicated to telling character-driven stories across many genres for film and television incorporating into their both cutting-edge and innovative digital technology.
In March 2001, the USC School of Cinema-Television celebrated the opening of the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts. This state-of-the-art centre is the country’s first and only fully digital training centre and houses the latest in non-linear production and post-production equipment as well as stages, a 50-seat screening room and USC student-run television station, Trojan Vision.
CHRIS WEITZ (Screenwriter/Producer) was born in New York City, the son of actress Susan Kohner and Berlin-born novelist/fashion designer John Weitz (born Hans Werner Weitz). His brother is filmmaker Paul Weitz. He is the grandson of agent Paul Kohner and Mexican actress Lupita Tovar on his maternal side. His grandmother, Lupita, starred in “Santa,” Mexico’s first talkie, in 1932.
Weitz was educated at the Allen-Stevenson School in New York and St Paul’s School in London and went on to graduate with a B.A. and M.A. English Literature from Trinity College, Cambridge.
Weitz began his film career as a co-writer, along with his brother Paul, of the 1998 animated film Antz. In 1999, he and Paul directed and produced American Pie. In 2002, the brothers co-wrote and directed About a Boy.
He went on to direct several other feature films, including the 2007 adaptation of Philip Pullman’s bestselling fantasy novel, The Golden Compass; the second film instalment in the Twilight series, New Moon; the 2011 film A Better Life, and Operation Finale.
More recently, Weitz has written several feature films, including Cinderella for Disney; Rogue One: A Star Wars Story for Lucasfilm; The Mountain Between Us for Twentieth Century Fox; and the upcoming The Boys in the Boat for MGM. His young adult novel trilogy, The Young World, has been published by Little Brown, beginning in 2014.