Walt Disney’s Pinocchio

Pinocchio (1940)

Back in the 1930’s, Walt Disney captured the hearts of movie-goers across the globe with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first attempt at a theatrical length animated film.  Snow White was a rousing success and proved that animation had a place in the film scene.  Before Snow White, animation was mostly relegated to shorts set to music.  Mickey Mouse helped bring spoken dialogue to animation before Snow White, but for grander tales Disney turned to new characters and old stories.

Pinocchio was the follow-up to Snow White and was based on an old italian children’s story.  Compared to the english translations of the Pinocchio stories, the film wasn’t that long in following.  The tone of the story for Walt’s take was much different as the original Pinocchio is almost unlikable.  He’s basically a bad kid and while the Pinocchio of the film runs astray, it’s mostly through ignorance.

I spent the better part of a week this past summer in Walt Disney World, so I’ve been on a major kick.  Disney makes a ton of money off of park admissions but they make even more on the general good feelings relayed to the patrons that translates into merchandise sales.  As a lover of traditional hand-drawn animation, I have a great appreciation for the Disney classics.  I like some more than others, and I like some of the modern classics as well, but the old ones have a certain charm.  Pinocchio is one of my favorites though, and it was one I had not seen in decades until I found a new copy of the Blu Ray release hanging around a store (it has, per Disney’s rather annoying policy, re-entered the dreaded Vault for the time being so after market prices are obscene) and snatched it up once I saw how much even amazon.com was listing it for.

Pinocchio and his “conscience,” Jiminy Cricket.

I can’t imagine the pressure that the production staff was under following Snow White.  Production began before Snow White’s completion so starting out the only pressure put upon them was by Walt himself, which apparently was fairly immense since his ambition knew no bounds.  Pinocchio was supposed to be the third feature-length release following Bambi, but delays on Bambi moved Pinocchio up.  Snow White was, and is, a marvel of animation but Pinocchio is just plain better.  Pinocchio himself, is mostly responsible for this.  Pinocchio, as most probably know, is a wooden marionette for much of the film and he moves and behaves just as one would expect.  His rear end tends to rise when he walks, his limbs flop around, and he often exploits his ability to rotate his head 360 degrees.

Not to be done outdone, the supporting cast is done awfully well.  Geppetto, particularly in the scene where he’s frightened by a sound in his house early in the film, is wonderfully animated.  His knees are rattling and he’s clearly on edge.  Figaro, the cat, is reminiscent of Pluto in his mannerisms and behaves mostly as a cat would be expected to.  He’s very curious and approaches new objects cautiously.  Even when the story calls for the character to behave with human emotion, it still seems authentic.  Monstro, the massive whale in the film’s final act, is quite impressive and frightening.  He has a real hand drawn look, like a moving canvas, the way the water interacts with him is so impressive.

I love how Figaro the cat is animated. So many of his mannerisms remind me of my own cat.

There are other trick shots and fantastic pieces throughout the film.  Pinocchio’s reflection in Cleo’s fish bowl is a particular treat, and the sequence where Lampwick turns into a donkey is done so well it’s unsettling.  His hands gnarl into hooves as he paws at Pinocchio in desperation.  Of course, the film’s most iconic scene is where Pinocchio’s nose extends until it becomes a full tree limb on his face.  The attention to detail throughout this film is a wonder, even 70 years later.  It’s just incredible to behold and an obvious labor of love.

I confess I have a love/hate relationship with the music in Disney films.  The score and effects are always excellent, it’s where the characters break out into song that I never fell in love with.  A lot of these scenes break the narrative for me, especially in the modern classics where the sequences are obviously influenced some by music video.  In Pinocchio, the songs are worked into the narrative as seamlessly as could be done.  That’s due in part to Pinocchio being an impressionable youth which makes it believable that adults might turn to song to drive a point home.  The songs are not overdone, and quite nice too.  The film is most known for “When You Wish Upon A Star,” the unofficial song of Disney at this point, and it’s such a wonderful and perfect song for this film.  There’s something extremely affecting about the melody and the vocals by Cliff Edwards (as Jiminy Cricket) just accent it so well.

And what would Pinocchio be without its wonderful narrative?  The story of a puppet brought to life by the wishes of a lonely old man who longs to be a real boy.  There’s such a warmth to the Geppetto character when he interacts with Pinocchio.  Jiminy Cricket is an excellent sidekick for Pinocchio and an interesting concept as Pinocchio’s conscience.  The story is certainly a fantasy, but it’s handled with such care that we as the audience are able to buy into it.

Possibly the most memorable scene from the film, Lampwick’s transformation.

Pinocchio himself is handled well.  He is, in many ways, what one would expect of a puppet suddenly brought to life.  He’s impressionable and curious, a blank slate of sorts, which is why he needs the Jiminy character.  We see him go astray and get into trouble, but we know he possesses a sweetness to his personality which never makes him unlikable, only misguided.  And when the plot calls for him to rise to the occasion, we get to see the real Pinocchio.  We root for him and wish for him to succeed in becoming a real boy.

It seems one can’t have a conversation about Pinocchio without talking about the fear injected into the film.  A lot of the older Disney films were willing to use fear as a story-telling device.  Pinocchio’s imprisonment is quite unsettling, and the scene with Lampwick is one of the scariest things I ever saw as a kid.  It succeeds both visually and thematically as being a frightening scene as the formerly cocky Lampwick is reduced to a whimpering child.  The whole sequence is sort of a lesson to kids, be a good kid or become a jackass, and perhaps there’s an element of propaganda or audience manipulation in place.  It works with the film though.  The film is not so scary that kids shouldn’t watch it, just maybe more at the seven or eight year old mark as opposed to three or four.

Is this Walt’s best? I sure think so.

The film’s pay-off is certainly rewarding following the scarier scenes and the fantastic escape from Monstro.  It’s conclusion is joyous and sweet and may even leave you with a misty eye or two.  It’s a fitting end for such an incredible picture.  If you become too engrossed with the plot to really take notice of the animation splendors before you, the Blu Ray includes an hour-long documentary on the making of Pinocchio that’s quite informative.  The scope of this film is just breath-taking and there’s no doubt in my mind that this is Disney’s ultimate high point.  It’s a perfect marriage of amazing technical feats with a delightful narrative.  There’s no superlative that can do it justice.  It’s a title truly deserving of the “classic” label.

I’ve acquired quite a few Disney films over the years and some of the collections of animated shorts.  I’ll probably turn to them for posts from time to time so expect more Disney themed posts in the months to come.

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