Last night, a carnival arrived in town, but the only soul to see it set up was Lieutenant Grumblebee (voiced by Jonathan Harris), and he was oblivious to the fact that nobody was to be seen working on the big top or the surrounding caravans. Today, Pinocchio (Scott Grimes) wakes up and goes downstairs for his breakfast, to find his guardian Gepetto waiting for him with a cake: it is the first anniversary of the boy's transformation as he used to be a puppet that Gepetto had made. It should be a happy occasion, but the temptation of the carnival will be his undoing...
Filmation was an American animation studio who made a virtue of not making their productions with any foreign input, and they had offered up a variety of cartoons over the years, from a Tarzan series to The Space Sentinels, and of course their version of Star Trek and their biggest success, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. During the eighties, the head honchos decided to venture forth into feature films for the cinema, and Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night was intended to kick things off with style, a sequel to Carlo Collodi's celebrated book.
But not a sequel to the Disney version of that book, oh no, this was meant to be very much its own entity, mainly because Disney were very litigious and would have come down on them like a ton of bricks if they thought Filmation were trying to cash in. Which they were, but to their credit this project, the characters aside, did not have much to do with the forties classic. It did have one thing in common with it, and that's the fearful reaction it produced in children: it may not be as well known, but there are adults today who recall being well and truly scared by the creepier moments in this.
It starts innocently enough after the carnival sets up, with the Blue Fairy (voiced by quirky singer Rickie Lee Jones, of all people) appearing to offer her best wishes to Pinocchio and bring to life none other than Jimminy Cricket! No, wait, it's not Jimminy Cricket, it's an impostor called Gee Willikers (Don Knotts) who is actually a carved glowbug and becomes the voice of the boy's conscience. Or he would be if he spent any time with him, because they are separated for most of the story so the bug can team up with Grumblebee for some timewasting adventures to bump up the length of the film.
Pinocchio leaves his home for the day to deliver a jewel box made by Gepetto to the mayor, but wouldn't you know it? He never gets there, distracted by Scalawag (Edward Asner - one thing this does have is an eccentric group of voice talent) and his sidekick Igor (Frank Welker, he had to turn up somewhere) who steal the box and leave the boy with the rest of the movie to get it back. This involves a tussle with the Emperor of the title (James Earl Jones) who leads Pinocchio into temptation and attempts to return him to his puppet state (in more ways than one). The animation here is a step above Saturday morning fare, but with its weak moral (something about hanging onto your freedom) and rather shrill characters few are going to prefer this to Disney. Still, it's not as bad as it could have been.