Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night

Rogue Reviewers Roundtable Review: June ‘05 – Movies Under the Bed


When it came time to pick a truly scary film from my childhood, I realized there weren’t a lot of options. My parents would never have allowed me to rent your average horror flick, opting instead to stick to the supposedly wholesome entries found in the Family section. I say “supposedly” because a lot of these movies are actually creepier than a lot of kid-oriented pictures you’ll find in theatres today. Return to Oz was edgy and filled with dark moments, and Labyrinth featured some truly crazy puppet designs destined to keep many a child up at night. Only one film could come out on top, though, so ultimately I decided Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night was my best bet.

If you haven’t heard of this film, I wouldn’t be surprised, as it’s a fairly obscure animated film from Filmation Studios. You might recall some of Filmation’s work from television, which included many He-Man specials and such random series as Lassie’s Rescue Rangers, Gilligan’s Planet, and Kid Superpower Hour with Shazam among many other projects. They also created several films other than Pinocchio, such as a pseudo-sequel to Disney’s Snow White called Happily Ever After. As a quick side note, they also made a TV special called A Snow White Christmas, which is truly weird. If you ever wanted to hear the most generic ‘80s hair band in the world sing about a Snow White Christmas, this special will have you rolling.

Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night, like Happily Ever After, is a follow-up to its Disney predecessor. Unlike its more famous big brother, however, Emperor is much odder and overall creepier in the way it tells its story. It opens with a scene in which darkly lit carnival wagons pour out of a creaky ship that emits an eerie red glow. Along with the wagons, snake-like tubes wriggle along the ground and burst open to form large, menacing circus tents. Granted, this may not sound overtly scary to you readers, but just know I was always equally fascinated and unsettled by this sequence. The animation is especially good here, and I give credit to Filmation for doing good work.

The general story of the movie has Pinocchio, who is now living life as a genuine, grade-A real boy, agreeing to deliver a jewel box Gepetto recently finished. Before he leaves he is met by the Blue Fairy, who sings a haunting pop ballad called “Love is the Light inside Your Heart.” True, her voice sounds as if she probably threw back a couple lines of the ol’ sugar cane, but I can’t get enough of this song. Other tunes are peppered throughout the film, and they really enhance the somewhat thin story, in my opinion.

Anyway, Pinocchio basically relinquishes his responsibility within seconds of leaving Gepetto, because as we all know he’s nothing more than an unappreciative brat. His wooden cricket sidekick Gee Willikers (voiced by the ever goofy Don Knotts) tries to stop him, but before you know it Pinocchio is lured to the very fair we saw in the opening scene. There he is entranced by a wooden puppet named Twinkle, who sings an unsettling song with a vacant yet horrifying stare on her face. Believe me when I say the film only gets weirder from this point on, people.

Pinocchio is tricked into coming backstage by the dastardly Puppetino, a big-lipped psycho who grinds an organ in order to turn our plucky hero back into a puppet. This portion of the film is nothing short of a torture scene, as the poor kid contorts and rolls around desperately trying to resist his fate. One by one his limbs become wooden, and Puppetino wields marionette sticks which shoot out laser-like strings and attach themselves to the kid’s body. Meanwhile, hundreds of puppets with catatonic expressions watch from the shadows, their images set to pounding harpsichord. Put off by any of this yet? I was surprised at how well the scare factor of this movie held up over the years, as this scene proves without a shadow of a doubt.

Let’s skip ahead to the part of the film where Pinocchio enters The Land Where Dreams Come True, a sort of  Pleasure Island rehash in the form of a gigantic, pulsing juke box. I swear this place is like a modern day rave, with swirling techno lighting and music only a drug user could appreciate. The children inside throw back pitchers of green beer-like liquid, and they pressure Pinocchio into doing the same. Eventually his vision becomes blurry, the children around him turning into stretchy, laughing demons from a bad acid trip. In short, the filmmakers more than likely gave up on making a “traditional” Pinocchio movie at this point, and it shows.

The last and most important element of Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night I should mention is the Emperor himself, who serves as the film’s main villain. Voiced by the great James Earl Jones of Allan Quatermain fame, this character is almost beyond description. He’s the one thing you would never want to see in your dreams, a towering demon with four arms, bright red skin, and triangular, snake-like eyes. He wears a huge, flowing cape which conceals a torrent of red light, and above all else turns his hands into hissing snakes at one point. … Yeah.

If you think I’m making any of this up, please feel free to hunt this movie down and see it for yourself. Mind you, I’ve focused solely on the sections which scared me as a kid, so the rest is your standard animated fare. There are humorous sidekicks, a couple more songs which are highly enjoyable, and some random message about appreciating your freedom. That moral was a pretty funny highlight in hindsight, since it’s pounded home so many times it’s like George W. Bush was in the director’s chair. “Appreciate your freedom or the Emperor terrorists will take it from you, leaving you nothing more than silly puppets! You don’t wanna be puppets, do you America?”

All right, that’s enough from the Humor Department. This is a good film I recommend without hesitation, so if you want a Pinocchio experience that excels no other in terms of oddities, be sure to look up Emperor of the Night. Uh, but don’t bother with Happily Ever After. That movie features an owl rapping and Don DeLuise as an achingly wacky Magic Mirror. Needless to say, it’s really painful.


  1. did they ever make a soundtrack of those songs??
    that was the best movie when i was little

  2. Awesome underrated animated movie! i saw this in theaters when i was 5 after christmas in 1987 and it scared the bejesus out of me especially those scenes you mentioned.

    I uploaded the movie on Youtube.com if anyone wants to check it out.

  3. I was talking about this film, This was truly a scary film when I was a kid, hell if I saw it now, it would bring bad memories. The only thing I remember is the girl puppet was named Twinkle. But if I ever see it again it would be a memory lane trip.

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