No grain, no pain: Disney's 70th Anniversary Edition of "Pinocchio"
Pinocchio, on my 50-inch plasma display
Believe you me, I am not one to wax nostalgic over the days of VHS. But it's an indisputable truth that back then, things were a little simpler. The question of how a movie ought to look on home video was severely circumscribed by technical limitations. The answer to the question was, in pretty much every case, "As good as it can look given how crappy the resolution of the NTSC broadcast standard and the crappier-still VHS standard could get it up to." As a devoted laserdisc buyer back in the day, I wish I could say that said superior disc format had some say in the debate, but let's face facts: that particular market was so small that its proclamations concerning the, shall we say, art of the possible never even had a chance of being heard.
Today things are quite different. DVD, and its high-definition coeval Blu-ray, complicate the question in any number of ways. In this post I'll only deal with one aspect of it: film grain. The debate falls, crudely, along these lines: those who believe that when dealing with a good number of what we'll call classic films,grain is not just an integral part of the picture but is, as film restoration expert Robert Harris has said, nothing more or less than the picture itself. Then there are those who argue that grain...or, when pressed, what they term "excess" grain, is a detriment to picture quality, and is only defended by purist "monks," to use Jeffrey Wells' term. They argue, for instance, that if Billy Wilder could have concocted a shiny, grain-free version of Sunset Boulevard, they damn well would have—as Paramount, with the technical assistance of the digital restoration firm Lowry Digital, did a few years back for a standard-definition DVD of the film.
The argument that moviemakers themselves hate grain and would gladly do without it if they could is contradicted in large part, I think, by, say, the post-2001: A Space Odyssey work of Stanley Kubrick. It receives an extremely controversial rebuke in the form of the new Blu-ray disc of The French Connection, which was subjected to a color re-timing by director Billy Friedkin himself. The new version has been denounced by no less a personage as Owen Roizman, the cinematographer of the picture. I'm of two minds about it myself, and the discussion is a continuing one.
There's one genre of filmmaking, though, in which the "they-would-have-gotten-rid-of-the-grain-if-they-could" line holds a great deal of water. Animation. Disney works with Lowry Digital on (thus far) all the restorations of its classic animation titles, and the digital work goes beyond erasing scratches and smudges. It extends well into the issue of the grain that was produced when the actual animation cels were photographed. It aims to give a representation of what the artwork would have looked like had the intermediaries of the camera lens and the film stock never, shall we say, interfered.
The first high-definition demonstration of this wizardry was with 1959's Sleeping Beauty, released on Blu-ray last fall, a staggeringly beautiful disc. In a week and a half, DIsney unveils a 70th-Anniversary edition of Pinocchio on Blu-ray, and in a way, it's even more of a stunner.
Okay, the actual 70th anniversary of this 1940 title is a year away, but let's not quibble. For borderline boomers such as myself, Pinocchio never played as an "old" movie when we saw it, or bits of it, on the color version of "The Wonderful World of Disney" on our households' first color televisions in the early '60s. But to look at this version is to look at something not just not old, but brand new. The colors, the detail, the almost preternatural absence of smudges, scratches, and whatnot...this does, I think, inarguably, honor the intentions and the labors of the filmmakers in a way that even they themselves could not have envisioned. The above frame is a snapshot I took off of my display, midday on a sunny day; I don't have to apologize for my photographic ineptitude here. Below are a couple of screen caps I got on my computer from the standard-def DVD included in the package I got; they speak for themselves.
I don't know how you yourself feel about Pinocchio the film; as you might have inferred, I'm pro. If you love it as I do and have a Blu-ray player, go out and grab this; it's pretty much as thrilling as the format gets.