The Great Disney Blogathon: Pinocchio (1940)
|September 10, 2012||Posted by Jess under Cartoons, Disney, Movies, Musicals, The Great Disney Blogathon|
Time for another Disney rewatch! The second full-length animated Disney feature was Pinocchio, which was released in 1940 – bad timing, because this humongously expensive film tanked at the box office thanks to World War II cutting off the overseas market. Whoops!
Pinocchio was one of the few non-anthology Disney movies we didn’t have at my dad’s house when I was growing up, so I’ve only seen it all the way through a handful of times, and don’t have that kneejerk childhood affection for it. Still, let’s see how it measures up.
Well, for starters, it’s absolutely stunning. Snow White was beautiful, but the feature film animation department improved by leaps and bounds over the next three years, because good gravy, kids. It’s one of those films where the more you know about animation the more impressed you are with it: the way the camera leaps in “cricketvision” as Jiminy hops over to Geppetto’s workshop; the gorgeous panorama of the village as Pinocchio starts off on his first day of school, with the beautifully painted streets, the wheeling birds, and all the children running and tumbling out of their houses; Geppetto’s workshop, with its hundreds of independently moving parts. Even seemingly simple scenes like Pinocchio jouncing around in his cage in Stromboli’s cart involved complicated use of the multiplane camera, and there are brief moments, like the stark composition of Pinocchio running to the edge of the cliff to throw himself into the sea in search of his father, where I caught my breath in wonder. It really is a triumph of animation, if nothing else.
The plot’s also a bit more solid. Though the structure is still mainly episodic, with Pinocchio running into three dangerous set pieces in a row, it achieves more of a rising action – each set piece is more dangerous and has more devastating consequences – and the action never screeches to a halt for hijinks the way Snow White does. Our hero also gets a chance to grow during the story.
It’s hella dark, though. In fact, this movie, The Fox and the Hound, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are known as the Darkest Trilogy in a tradition I just made up. But jeez. We’ve got Pinocchio sold into slavery twice. We’ve got the terrifying scene where Stromboli threatens to chop him up for firewood. We’ve got Honest John and Gideon offering to kill someone for money, then selling Pinocchio into slavery again, this time as part of a vast slavery ring, and the line “Don’t worry, they never come back…AS BOYS!” complete with the Coachman’s demonic visage. We’ve got the horrifying sequence where Lampwick turns into a donkey – seriously, the way his hands clawing at Pinocchio turn into hooves haunts my nightmares. We’ve got the masses of frightened donkey children screaming for their mothers as they’re hauled off to be worked to death. We’ve got Geppetto, Figaro, and Cleo stoically waiting to starve to death.
And most gruesomely we have Pinocchio’s dead body. Even though it makes no sense – we know Pinocchio doesn’t need to breathe, so how did he drown? – the image of a little boy floating facedown in the water is pretty jarring for a Disney movie. Sure, characters die, but it isn’t usually that brutal, and it isn’t usually members of the target audience.1
For my money, though, the darkest aspect of the movie is the fact that once Jiminy and Pinocchio realize what’s going on on Pleasure Island, they just take off. There’s absolutely no effort made to save Lampwick, supposedly Pinocchio’s best friend, or any of the other children – or, perhaps more tellingly, to stop the Coachman from rounding up more little boys in the future. There’s not even a hint that our heroes might want to try to put a stop to any of it. As much as Pinocchio is a moral fable, it rings kind of hollow under the platitudes about a lie growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face and how a boy who won’t be good might as well be made of blah blah blah. Even Pinocchio’s eventual selflessness as he rescues Geppetto is rather limited, since he abandons Jiminy, Figaro, and Cleo in the process. (Cleo would probably be okay in the ocean. More on that later.) The absence of genuine virtue or compassion anywhere in the film (even Jiminy is, technically, in it for a gold medal and some of the Blue Fairy’s smiles) makes the nightmare scenes that much worse.2
Aside the fact that he’s a terrible person, Pinocchio is okay I guess? I mean, he’s very cute. He’s also frustratingly stupid, well beyond naïve and into “Well, the last time I trusted these guys they sold me into slavery, so I guess I should hang out with them some more.” Without his appealing design and sweet little boy voice, he’d be totally intolerable. As it is, he’s mostly just there? I don’t dislike him, but I can’t muster up a tremendous amount of affection for him either. Though he is only a day old for most of the movie, so I should probably cut him some slack.
Looming far larger in this movie’s legend is Jiminy Cricket, who a) is far more of an active and engaging protagonist and b) was a flagship character for Disney for decades. In fact, aside from sequels, Jiminy is the only Disney character to originate in a feature film and then cross over to a completely unrelated feature film (Fun and Fancy Free). As mentioned above, Jiminy is as tunnel visioned as Pinocchio when it comes to heroism, but I like him a lot better, mostly because there’s just a lot more going on. He’s streetwise; he’s obnoxiously preachy in a way that winds up being totally charming; he’s, um, weirdly hot for human girls carved out of wood; he’s clearly a mass of neuroses, as his running monologue about the movie’s events and his own failures and triumphs as a conscience show. He absolutely runs away with the movie. And, as mentioned, he became sort of a generic Disney spokesperson, hosting a radio show and multiple TV shows and generally being one of Disney’s most visible and iconic characters for quite a while. His last major appearance was in 1983’s Mickey’s Christmas Carol, which is a fascinatingly transitional Disney piece that I’ll probably discuss at unnecessary length here eventually. (Although Wikipedia tells me that he’s in Kingdom Hearts, which makes me happy. Go Jiminy! You keep that vintage Disney charm alive!)3
Then there’s Geppetto. You guys, Geppetto is weird. Like, sure, he’s kindly and all, but he spends all of his time talking to a wooden puppet that he carved and making his cat kiss his fish and stuff. He brings his goldfish on a rescue mission, and he sends an animate wooden boy to school without bothering to explain to the terrified townspeople why this demon creature is in their midst. I don’t know about Geppetto.
On the other hand, Figaro is precious, and does his best to steal the movie back from Jiminy whenever he’s onscreen. Figaro was a crossover star in his own right, appearing in shorts with Pluto and Minnie, and it’s pretty easy to see why – I spent the entire movie just wanting to cuddle him. Rounding out the household is Cleo, who spends the entire film in a fishbowl, even while in the belly of a whale in the middle of an ocean, which is never commented on but is beautifully surreal.
Then we have the villains. Stromboli is a good villain for what he’s worth, but he’s also such an offensive ethnic stereotype (mostly Italian, though Honest John calls him “that Gypsy,” so there seems to be some equal-opportunity racism going on here) that I can’t really enjoy the character as he was intended. Less troubling is the Coachman, who is for my money even scarier, since he’s more complex and thus more sinister than Stromboli. Honest John and Gideon are fine, though I tend to find comic supporting villains tiresome after a while; mostly I just spend their scenes wondering why everyone in town is so chill about the giant talking fox and his cat sidekick, although if that’s normal for Geppettoville it does explain why no one seems bothered by the walking, talking wooden child.4 Finally, there’s Monstro, who is big and all but doesn’t strike much terror into my heart, mostly because the multiple failures of whale anatomy (he shouldn’t have teeth, and also shouldn’t look like a giant sponge cake with eyes) are kind of distracting. But he makes a good climax!
Also, I want a t-shirt with Lampwick’s face and the letters “YOLO” on it.
Look, as much as I tease, I do have genuine affection for this movie, based if nothing else on the face that it’s classic Disneyana. It really is a visually stunning film, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” is rightfully considered one of the greatest songs in American pop culture, let alone the Disney canon. In fact, to take us out, let’s have Nsync take us out with an a capella rendition of it. Because it’s Nsync and it’s a capella and it’s my blog and I can do that. Ha!
- Children were not necessarily the target audience in 1940 – it was assumed that adults would attend this movie too – but in the context of today where it’s very much a children’s entertainment company… ↩
- Again, The Fox and the Hound is very similar to this in that it’s dark largely because it fails at its central moral message. It’s a parable about racism that ends with “So you can’t actually be friends with people who are different, oh well, the end.” Um. ↩
- Heartbreaking side note: Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, the voice of Jiminy, died penniless in 1971 despite voicing this iconic character for 31 years. I know. ↩
- Hilarious side note: Mel Blanc, probably the greatest voice actor of all time, oddly never voiced anything for Disney – except Gideon, who doesn’t speak. Blanc apparently recorded a whole set of dialogue before it was decided that Gideon shouldn’t speak, and thus Blanc’s only contribution to any Disney cartoon ever is a single hiccup. ↩