After a wildly successful venture into feature length animation, Disney had to continue the trend with a follow up. There were several options to choose from, but they went with a similar route and adapted another fairy tale with a dark edge to it, though in this case much darker than before. In 1940, “Pinocchio” was released, based on "The Adventures of Pinocchio" by Carlo Collodi.
Given this was made in 1940, it’s packed full of little treats that would never make it into a “family film” today. The use of cigars, beer, and the presence of real danger and death add a great deal of weight to Pinocchio’s actions (there’s no happy ending for some of the poor kids in this story, that’s for sure). There are serious consequences to his mistakes, and it’s done in a way that’s sadly no longer acceptable these days.
Anyway, the story is the classic tale of a wooden puppet brought to life by a fairy thanks to the wish of a slightly crazed and very lonely wood crafter named Geppetto (voiced by Christian Rub). He then ventures out into the world learning valuable lessons on life in his quest to become a “real boy”.
The backgrounds are beautiful once again, depicting a wide variety of locations in colorful and meticulous detail. The interior of Geppetto’s shop is a madhouse of interactivity and imagination, ranging from the wonderful clockwork creations that he supposedly crafted from wood. Like “Snow White” before it, the backdrops are quite large and allow for the cel characters to cover a great deal of space in both the foreground and background. There are also even more dynamic views, including the occasional framing from a bird’s eye perspective as Pinocchio and others dance their way through the streets of the town.
It’s striking work being presented here, making even some of the craziest locations seem real and lived in. The horrible Pleasure Island (the name alone gives me the creeps) is set up as a madhouse of animation and action, and then destroyed in the same detail for when it’s shown to be deserted during the night. The varied locales give the story a lot of variety and adds considerable danger and excitement.
The animation of the characters is just as impressive, starting with Pinocchio himself (voiced by real boy actor Dickie Jones). He is a blank slate character, lacking any sort of true personality. He’s exceptionally naïve and innocent, taken to the extreme where he doesn’t even comprehend the nature of right and wrong. There are wonderful moments where his inhuman nature is on display and it’s done almost entirely through the animation. The way he moves and interacts with object, bending his joints and spinning while his head remains stationary makes his every action fascinating to me.
He’s the plot device, keeping things on track. Where the true character enters into it comes in the form of his conscience, a cricket named Jiminy (voiced by Cliff Edwards). Jiminy Cricket is one of the most recognized of all Disney sidekicks, and he sets the gold standard. He’s given so much responsibility in steering this puppet down the right path, but he’s also a wonderfully flawed character. He’s a vagrant insect hobo who hops around looking for a place to stay (breaking in, I might add). He’s not always right, and questions even his own decisions. He’s also got a wandering eye for the ladies (human or toy, apparently). As a living conscience, he’s often ignored, but he always comes back to help Pinocchio even when he’s fed up with his post or given up on the boy. He’s one of the all time great Disney characters.
Another part of what makes “Pinocchio” so great is the effective use of literal metaphors to teach lessons to the audience. The lessons are basic, i.e. don’t lie, don’t misbehave, don’t talk to strangers, the easy way is not always best, etc. The literal interpretation makes some of them horrific, but also unforgettable, such as the jackass scene. Boys who drink, smoke, fight, and skip school make jackasses out of themselves, and in the most painful literal way possible. Another iconic image comes from the way Pinocchio lies, where his nose grows out from his face until it’s a tree branch complete with a bird’s nest. These visual associations for the lessons are part of what make it one of the all time greatest movies for children. Sure it’s scary, but they’ll never forget it.
“Pinocchio” is fun, dark, and often frightening, but not without purpose. It utilizes classic fairy tale storytelling (fear and death) to instill its audience with lessons. It’s timeless and as good as it gets with children’s films.