Another edition of Journeys In the Disney Vault (took me long enough)! Today’s film tells the tale of a little wooden boy going on a manic and frightening series of adventures. Actually, the film details a little boy exploring the perils of kidnapping, indentured servitude, child trafficking, juvenile delinquency, and peer pressure but I doubt that would go well on the poster. Regardless, critics cite Pinocchio as the true accomplishment of the Disney studio with animation that rivals Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I do agree that the animation is advanced in terms of the background and the movement of the characters but story can be a taste repetitive. Pinocchio is one of the few movies I recommend watching in HD as the colors are gorgeous but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at Pinocchio.
Good-hearted toymaker Geppetto (voiced by Christian Rub) is granted the wish of turning a puppet to life, naming the puppet Pinocchio (voiced by Dickie Jones). If Pinocchio can prove himself “brave, truthful, and unselfish” he’ll be turned real. With the aid of his conscious, a cricket named Jiminy (voiced by Cliff Edwards) Pinocchio finds being good is difficult as he’s set upon by foxes promising fame and fortune, a trip to an island of constant joys for little boys, and finds himself in the belly of a whale.
As I did in my first review of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs I have to mention the opening credits as they continue to be beautiful. The opening of Pinocchio has woodcuttings used to introduce the names associated with the film and they do an amazing job of telling you what the story is about regardless of prior knowledge. Obviously it’s something about wood and toys! The opening credits also introduce an iconic song in the Disney legacy, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I don’t remember the opening music of Snow White but I don’t think it opened with a song that not only sets the tone of the story but is synonymous with Disney, wishes, and everything the studio has come to represent. Unlike the credits to Snow White, we don’t have as storybook setting the scene but that’s not to say one isn’t included as Jiminy, after finishing the song, does climb down and open the Pinocchio storybook, reading to us the story we’re about to see. It’s a different way of setting the stage while still hearkening back to the original story by Carlo Collodi.
Disney started out as innovators of animation with the multiplane camera in Snow White. Well here we get the first use of POV that I can recall in an animated film as we see through Jiminy’s eyes as he hops to the ledge of Geppetto’s workshop. The opening scenes of this movie are spellbinding for kids and adults. Jiminy starts to interact with the various clocks and toys in Geppetto’s shop all to hilarious effect. He tries to blend in with the scenary and acts like a genuine kid in a toy shop, not too far removed from the film’s audience. At the same time you notice the detail of these toys and the careful animation. When all the clocks signal it’s time for bed no one clock is the same as the other with each one signaling the time in a different way from a mother spanking a child to a drunk clinking his beer steins together.
Considering the dark subject matter that presents itself over the films 88 minute runtime there were several changes between the script and the finished product. According to Wiki, numerous plots and characters were dropped and even as it stands now there’s a few too many divergent plot threads that seem to be quickly tied together, mostly with the aid of the fox Honest John (voiced by Walter Catlett). Original plans for Pinocchio himself had him looking like a Charlie McCarthy character with a wise guy attitude and a marionette appearance. Thankfully, animator Milt Kahl softened the character and made him look and act like a little boy. Jiminy Cricket soon became an expanded character whereas before he was minor.
Speaking of Jiminy, Pinocchio is also the first animated film to use celebrities in voice roles, sadly a practice that has become the norm in animation and we’ll see popular actors take over as we go through Disney’s canon. Cliff Edwards was a famous Broadway and film actor, introducing the song “Singin’ in the Rain” to the populace! There’s a reason Jiminy endures as a character in this film and he’s really the one with any true personality. Geppetto and Pinocchio are so pure and naïve that they borderline on boring. Jiminy has quips and banter that makes him colorful. When Geppetto makes his initial wish for Pinocchio to be real Jiminy serenely says “A very lovely thought…but not at all practical.” Considering the film is made in 1940 at the height of WWII I have to wonder if Jiminy could be seen as some type of “forgotten man.” We’re introduced to him as a beggar with his shoes falling apart, looking for a place to crash. He’s given the role of Pinocchio’s conscious it’s almost as if the poor and downtrodden of the world can guide the innocent down the straight and narrow or at least help society live better? Or I could be talking completely out of my hat!
I mentioned the use of color and sound in Snow White and it continues in this film, sadly I wish these elements were retained in the later Disney films. In Snow White everything had that hazy, gauzy quality. Here that’s been removed by including bold colors and presenting life as is, not as a fairy tale. You do still see the beautiful hand-drawn brushstrokes, especially in Figaro the cat‘s coat. I mentioned seeing this in HD or Blu-Ray and I cannot recommend that enough with this film. Pinocchio was the first film I went out and bought on Blu and the colors are brilliant, especially the underwater sequence before Jiminy and Pinocchio meet Monstro. The lush blues and golds of the fish are breathtaking and I’d say far better than any of the coloring in Snow White (I know, blasphemy).
The use of sound is also ramped up like the hilarious symphony of sound sequence as Jiminy is trying to sleep. Disney, pre-1980, used to be reliant on the various sounds of the mundane to create comedy and this sequence proves it. Watch it above. While we’re on the topic of sound we have to discuss the music. I mentioned the songs in Snow White not being memorable and that’s fixed in Pinocchio. I knew every song, not just “When You Wish Upon a Star” but “Hi-Diddily-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)” and “I Got No Strings.” The first song, as mentioned previously, has become the unofficial anthem of Disney (up there with “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella but we’ll discuss that when we get to it). The songs are all simple songs a child could sing, especially with the latter two being sung by Pinocchio himself and there’s such an ethereal quality to the way Edwards sings the opening song (I included it right after the jump to get everyone in the right mindset for this review). I will say “When You Wish Upon a Star” is one of my favorite Disney songs.
I guess since the film is about Pinocchio we should discuss him. I hate to say it but Pinocchio as a character always annoyed me. I understand he’s a little boy and a fully formed human in the span of a couple of seconds but then I guess you have to blame Geppetto for making him a dunce. I get told I overanalyze Disney movies too much but I have to so I apologize if your rolling your eyes during this next part saying “It’s a kid’s movie” (I’ve heard this a million times). Short and to the point: Couldn’t a lot of pain been spared if Geppetto had just given Pinocchio the “stranger danger” talk? I mean the story is pretty brisk in that as soon as Pinocchio leaves his house he’s set upon by scoundrels but at no point does Geppetto say “and don’t talk to strangers!” One line could have saved a lifetime of heartache. The big issue, as I explained already, is that you need Jiminy to add color to the bland, annoying qualities Pinocchio exhibits. Sadly, the film seems to stumble towards the end with the repetition of certain events such as Pinocchio finally escaping Stromboli and immediately running into Honest John again. I mean does Honest John just work that corner all day? And the one-two punch of Pinocchio’s extreme gullibility and Jiminy’s insane ability to be continuously separated from the boy grows tired. You’d think after the first time Jiminy would sit on the damn puppet’s shoulder for the rest of the movie!
I do enjoy how Pinocchio does blend the puppet side with the human in that his face looks human but he’s got the wooden joints. There is a lot of subtle humanity presented within the puppet as he does the occasional human tic that’s not necessary to the story but increases the audience’s belief that he’s human. A particular scene on Stromboli’s stage sees the wooden boy scratch his leg with his other leg. It’s a small bit of stage business but you wouldn’t expect a puppet to scratch his leg, I mean they don’t itch, but it shows his identity as human. I don’t feel this is as fleshed out with the anthropomorphism of Honest John and Gideon. It’s not explained why Honest John is a fox and Gideon a cat except to externalize their qualities and they feel so out-of-place with the rest of the human characters and Gideon just feels like a Dopey rehash, sadly losing all that Mel Blanc recorded dialogue except for the hiccup sound effect. Other moments where the film confuses the definitions of the characters is when Pinocchio becomes entranced by Honest John’s story of fame and fortune. Are we supposed to believe that Pinocchio knows what fame means? The kid doesn’t even question why these men look like foxes!
Has anything been written on Pinocchio as a war story? I mentioned the forgotten man angle of Jiminy but there’s a lot that could be tied into WWII with this film. The idea of a naïve, coy boy being led astray by foreigners (I mean they are the ONLY animal characters that talk aside from the donkeys at Pleasure Island). Obviously you have the fear of strangers and leaving an education behind for a quick buck or endless fun. The strongest link between this and WWII has to be with the Pleasure Island sequence. You have a group of young boys seduced by a world of no responsibilities by a male carriage driver. In reading about WWII there was a strong rise in juvenile delinquency as young boys roamed free without fathers. The various little boys who are turned into donkeys all cry for their mothers, but not fathers or parents in general. Something to think about at least.
The Pleasure Island sequence, so far, is still disturbing. Your introduced to the carriage driver who’s showcased as a devil. There’s bizarre minion like things that close the gates, and Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey is terrifying to this day. It’s almost a little anti-climactic to go to Monstro after all the frenzy and fear that you see on Pleasure Island. Of course Monstro is the highlight and the underwater scenes are gorgeous, pre-Little Mermaid.
In spite of my issues with the plot I do like Pinocchio. It hasn’t grown on me as much as Snow White but I enjoy it for the mastery of the animation and the songs. The plot is too thin and at the same time convoluted with repetitious scenarios but Jiminy and his wishing on a star makes it all worthwhile.
NEXT WEEK: The 1940s keep going with a look at Fantasia. Honestly, I’ve never seen Fantasia all the way through and the last time I saw it at all had to be over ten years ago. Should be interesting. Fantasia next Saturday!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.