Pinocchio (1940)

After the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, someone at the Disney studio looked at a book that had feet being burnt one’s legs, cricket smashing, paw biting, hanging, imprisoning over foolishness, fairy death, donkey transformation, and fish eating donkey skin and said to themselves, “Yeah, this’d make a great Disney cartoon!”

Yeah, the original book, The Adventures of Pinocchio, published in 1883 by Carlo Collodi, was and is a dark, sadistic, twisted book. But it became the subject of interest for Walt as he and his staff strove to turn the troubled book into a Disney animated feature. It suffered plenty of behind the scenes issues, of course. Most notably the writers trying to adhere to Pinocchio’s original delinquent personality, making him almost wholly unlikeable. Another great story is Ward Kimball, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men, was so upset a sequence of his was cut out of Snow White, he was set to quit…until Walt suggested he create the pre-smashed cricket character for the movie. And the rest is history.

But the big question is, is Pinocchio worth idolizing after nearly 80 years? I say we pose ponderously as we pick personal preferences and pontificate the perfections of Pinocchio!

The plot: Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) recounts a time when he stumbled upon a kindly old woodcarver, Gepetto (Christian Rub), whose kindness is rewarded by the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable), granting life to a wooden marionette named Pinocchio (Dickie Jones). But the Blue Fairy will only grant him true boyhood if he proves himself “brave, honest, and truthful”. Jiminy is roped in to be Pinocchio’s conscience to help him on his journey.

On his way to school the following day, Pinocchio gets sidetracked into performing for a maniacal puppeteer. Before long, Pinocchio and Jiminy find themselves in numerous situations where the puppet has to choose to do the right thing in a cruel, harsh world.

How’s the writing?: The story is episodic, much like Alice in Wonderland, or The Jungle Book. However, unlike those two, there is a very consistent arc that runs throughout the narrative.

Pinocchio spends a good chunk of the film being blindly naïve to the cruelty of the world at large around him. Even when he bumps into Honest John and Gideon a second time, he still can’t put together that they aren’t trustworthy. After his experience on Pleasure Island, he becomes firm in his resolve. It’s here he becomes a fuller character, now driven by good impulses instead of gullibility.

The other characters are equally strong, from gentle and mysterious to loud and bombastic. Each one leaves the screen leaving a profound impact, Especially the villains. Each one is a show unto themselves. You could watch Honest John hoodwink kids for a week. You get captivated by Stromboli’s mood swings. You are fascinated at the terror brought by the coachman. You are bowled over at the raw power of Monstro. And tying it all together is sweet little Pinocchio and Jiminy, on a madcap adventure to to prove the puppet can become a real boy.

Does it give the feels?: Plenty of times. And it stems from the quality of the characters. Most notably Pinocchio himself, who, even in his most selfish moments, is not a bad kid. He is merely driven by what sounds good at that moment in time, and takes all input at face value. Had he been the crappy little punk from Collodi’s book, we would have been happy to see him suffer. So when we see Pinocchio locked in Stromboli’s cage, we feel for him. Same when he finds his father gone. And yes, same when he washes up on shore later.Of course, let’s not forget that riveting sequence where Lampwick becomes a donkey. It’s incredibly well-paced, slowly haunting as Pinocchio reacts comically, yet with real terror. Lampwick’s transformation is slightly silly at first, almost done with morbid laughs as he grows the ears, tails, and face. Then we watch as this tough boy, so full of bravado and arrogance, is reduced to a pathetic mama’s boy as the camera cuts to his shadow. Just that painful final wail as his body contorts into that of a dumb quadruped is gut-wrenching. It makes me wonder why it was Dumbo’s pink elephants that scared me as a kid, but not this.

Who makes it worth it?: Pretty much most everyone. All these characters are big and larger than life, full of dimension and personality. For a long time, my favorite character (Even today) is Jiminy Cricket, particularly because he’s just so likeable. One aspect I miss is in the movie, particularly in the beginning, he’s kind of a scrappy character. He openly makes commentary with a hint of snark, especially when he vents to Pinocchio about his worldview on people not listening to their consciences. Then, he’s late on his first day. And his character is truly tested when he leaves Pinocchio after facing off against Lampwick. It’s a great scene.

But the one character I find most fascinating is the Coachman. We know nothing about him. His thick Cockney accent, his Santa Claus-like appearance, his jolly face…he looks nothing like the man he’s made out to be. Then you consider his henchmen, which are made to look like some kind of shadow gorilla minions, as if he had true supernatural assistance in turning the boys into donkeys. Oh, and need I remind you of this face?

Good luck sleeping tonight!

Best quality provided: Much like Gepetto’s clocks and Knick knacks, the technical wizardry in Pinocchio is second to none, despite its apparent age that seems quaint by today’s standards.

Remember, computers were not a thing in 1940. Computers were not utilized in Disney animation until 1985, a decade before they could even be used and trusted to use them to carry a whole movie. So when that camera pans down over the village on Pinocchio’s first morning, that was done entirely by hand (And Walt’s famous multi-plane camera). Every flashing light and shadow on Pleasure Island? By hand. Every choppy wave in the ocean? By hand. And really, really take a moment to consider that every splash, churn of foam, droplet of water in the Monstro sequence, at 24 frames per friggin’ second, was done by mother loving hand!

Remember: the spots on the puppies in 101 Dalmatians required the Xerox process due to its complexity. The gears in Big Ben in The Great Mouse Detective required computers due to their complexity. The water in Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s second movie, was done with nothing more than pencils, ink, and paint.

Holy smoo.

What could have been improved: One of the movie’s better strengths is its focus. It’s clear from the beginning the movie is about morality. At least, in the old-world sense.

Let’s be real here, at this point in human history, we are the safest we’ve ever been (Yes, I am American, why do you ask?). Life-threatening danger just isn’t nearly as prevalent as it used to be in, say, Italy or American 100 years ago. Just playing in the rain back then was a sure fire way to get dead quick, today, it’s just a kind of inconvenience. Adults had to write stories about the seriousness of obedience, that only by listening to one’s elders and doing exactly what they say, is the only way to grow up proper. Of course, these tales worked so well, they were used also as morality plays, the kind of thing we see in religion all time (“obey God or go to Hell”, that kind of thing). And in 1940, with America being the conservatively Christian nation it was, this lesson was considered necessary. And if you think I’m making it up, what did Dorothy learn at the end of The Wizard of Oz?

And it’s that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.”

Yeah. Quote “There’s no place like home” all you want, but realize that Dorothy had to learn to stay home and never leave. Pinocchio, which came out less than a year later, teaches the exact lesson. That should he recklessly and foolishly dream of anything beyond going to and from school, he is to be punished for straying from the path.

While I don’t think this lesson is bad, I think it lacks nuance. Of course one should listen to one’s parents if they are teaching lessons in safety and responsibility. Of course Pinocchio shouldn’t wander off with Honest John. But if all children stayed home and took no risks, where would we be? Especially consider The Little Mermaid did a total about-face on this moral 49 years later: run away from home and find everything you ever needed.

Verdict: Pinocchio is a treasure beyond descriptors. It evokes some deep feelings, confusing ones for kids, trying to terrify you, but also uplift you. It’s crafted extremely well, and it shows in every facet. It’s remarkable. It’s a stretch to say it’s one of my favorite movies, but damn if I don’t tip my hat in respect when I see it. I award the tale a whopping nine stars to wish upon out of ten.

I think it’s swell.

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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