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‘Pinocchio’ will try again, in Italian

Times Staff Writer

When Miramax released “Pinocchio” in December, it aimed the Roberto Benigni version squarely at children. Abel Esbenshade wished they hadn’t.

Halfway through the movie, the 8-year-old ran from the theater in tears, distressed by director-star Benigni’s dark interpretation of the famous fairy tale. “It was getting too scary,” Esbenshade said in the lobby of the United Artists Pasadena Marketplace 6. “In the commercials, they make you think it’s funny. And then you come. I didn’t laugh. It’s not funny at all.”

The film’s box office returns were equally grim.

When Esbenshade and his father, Rick, walked out of their matinee a day after the movie’s Christmas debut, only 14 of the theater’s 234 seats were left occupied.

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Business was no better elsewhere. At the Tinseltown USA theaters in Erie, Pa., “Pinocchio” earned less than $200 for its entire first weekend of release, finishing last among the multiplex’s 17 films, even trailing the fifth weekend of Disney’s disastrous “Treasure Planet.”

Playing in about 1,100 theaters “Pinocchio” grossed a wooden $1.8 million, finishing 19th overall its first weekend. In the month since, it has floundered, selling a total of only $3.7 million in tickets to date.

Now, in an unusual attempt to boost the $42-million film’s anemic returns and keep Benigni happy, Miramax is re-releasing the movie today in one theater each in Los Angeles and New York.

Instead of being dubbed in English as it was in its initial release, “Pinocchio” now will be presented in its original Italian with English subtitles, and will run nine minutes longer than the original U.S. release.

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New advertisements for the film will pitch “Pinocchio” as an art-house release for sophisticated adults, even though its G rating is intact.

“When we released it dubbed, we marketed it to a family audience,” said Rick Sands, Miramax’s chief operating officer. The film was promoted with tie-ins at toy store FAO Schwarz and McDonald’s, which offered six bendable “Pinocchio” characters with Happy Meals and Mighty Kids Meal packages. “Unfortunately, American audiences have not embraced dubbed movies,” Sands said. Miramax previously distributed Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” in Italian, and then tried to distribute the movie dubbed in English. That experiment did not succeed.

Re-releasing “Pinocchio,” Sands said, “was something we wanted to do, and Roberto wanted us to do it as well. It made sense for the movie.” Benigni had originally hoped that Miramax would release both versions of the film at the same time.

“Pinocchio’s” collapse represents a dramatic turn of events for the 50-year-old Benigni, who declined to comment for this article. His 1997 film, the Holocaust comedy “Life Is Beautiful,” grossed more than $229 million worldwide and won three Academy Awards, including best actor for Benigni and best foreign-language film.

Benigni had long considered adapting Carlo Collodi’s book about a childlike puppet; his production company is named Melampo after a character in the novel. When Benigni walked on the back of seats to accept his “Life Is Beautiful” Oscar, he borrowed the exploit from a Collodi scene.

The actor had dubbed his own “Pinocchio” voice, but he and Miramax decided Benigni’s performance in English wasn’t working. At the last minute, several actors were summoned to dub the movie, and the results were reminiscent of “Godzilla” lip-syncing. One talent agent who represents an American actor who supplied a new voice said Miramax offered his client the part just weeks before the film opened. Breckin Meyer (“Road Trip”) replaced Benigni’s voice.

The reviews were devastating.

The movie’s prospects of being resuscitated by the re-release are slim. Nevertheless, Miramax -- which bought worldwide distribution rights outside of Italy for $21 million -- hopes “Pinocchio’s” home video and DVD returns will minimize losses.

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