Classic No. 2 Pinocchio (1940)

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For their second feature length animated film, Disney went for something completely different. After the huge success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs it would have been easy to have just gone for the same sort of idea again, but instead of another fairytale this time Disney decided to adapt a (very dark) children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Italian writer, Carlo Collodi. The result is perhaps one of Disney’s darkest and most sinister films, in which the protagonist encounters different forms of villainy at every turn.

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This original poster sums that up pretty nicely! Clean-cut red-cheeked Pinocchio walking merrily into the path of ice cold villainy

At the time the film was considered a financial failure; the film cost $2.6 million to make (over $1 million more than the budget of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) but failed to match the box office success of its predecessor. There were several significant reasons as to why this was the case, not least of which was the outbreak of the Second World War, cutting off the European market. However, just because it was perceived as a financial failure at the time in relation to Snow White does not mean that it is an artistic failure. It is an artistic triumph and many film critics and animators mark it as Disney’s crowning achievement in animation.

First of all, Original Trailer Time!

Highlights!

–          Opens on a rather underwhelming note with a ‘Special Announcement’ sign that looks like it was scrawled seconds before they aired the trailer

–          Stromboli is misrepresented as a cuddly Hagrid-like figure

–          A painfully shrill opening vocal note for Pinocchio. ‘I’VE GOT NO STRINGS!’

–          The clueless narrator struggles to muster up some enthusiasm, and also makes clunky attempts to build up the film: “Now Walt Disney brings you his first, and only, full-length feature since Snow White” … that poor grammar is all over the place (Special Note from David: Surely it would have been easier to say, ‘Now Walt Disney brings you his next full length-feature’?)

–          The awkward turtle of fanfares happens over the title of Pinocchio, especially considering how impressive Pinocchio’s soundtrack is

–          Then rather than talking about the story, he breaks the fourth wall and asks who will be your favourite character in the film.

–          ‘Roly-poly Figaro!’

Protagonist:

Walt Disney was fearful that the character of Pinocchio from the original story was not sympathetic enough for cinema audiences, being a bratty, arrogant wise-guy, prone to misbehaviour. Thanks to Walt’s involvement, the character of Pinocchio avoids falling into the trap of being a painfully annoying protagonist. Quite often it is common for young children in films and television shows to possess these negative qualities, and yet directors still expect audiences to feel sympathy for them. The character has moments of naivety, moments when he tells blatant lies, and also moments in which he succumbs to temptation, but these flaws are very understandable (very ‘human’) especially since he has literally been brought to life out of nothing, and thrust out into the world. It is a morality story, and Pinocchio has many lessons to learn throughout. Any time he makes a mistake, he is really made to suffer as a consequence.

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We think he learned his lesson long ago Blue Fairy.

However when Pinocchio’s personality was still in the bratty category, he was initially animated to look more ‘puppet-like’; this concerned Walt Disney so much that production was temporarily halted. Pinocchio’s personality was softened and he was redesigned by Milt Kahl to look much closer to a ‘real boy’, adding the wood and bolt elements afterwards. Pinocchio is Disney’s first male protagonist and is voiced by Dickie Jones, whom we had previously seen in Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Walt Disney wanted to cast a child rather than an adult to play Pinocchio in order to capture the character’s youthful innocence. He has a sympathetic optimistic voice and is animated in a very happy-go-lucky fashion, with his jaunty walk and wide-eyed expression. Furthermore he is so curious about everything that it is endearing and even humorous, especially when he sets his finger on fire and blithely says ‘Look! Pretty!’ And he’s still smiling when his whole finger is igniting and Geppetto is going ballistic.

Establishing a character as more of a blank slate rather than being born sinful marks Pinocchio as easier to sympathise with, as he is an innocent lead astray by new temptations. Learning about right and wrong overnight is a lot to take in, especially considering that most children start learning from birth. However he is not completely absolved from blame. He does make stupid decisions (it is a didactic  morality tale after all), which can be infuriating from time to time, especially when Jiminy advises him to tell Honest John and Gideon that he is not interested in their offer of fame and fortune, he nods and off-camera says ‘Bye Jiminy!’ Gah! He is so gullible that you wish Jiminy could grow into giant size so he can forcibly drag him back home, or better yet his actual father, Geppetto do some parenting and drag him back (more on flaky Geppetto later). But what makes his character appealing is that even though he makes poor choices, he does feel terrible for his actions and like any normal child in trouble, wants to make good. Unlike previous protagonist Snow White, Pinocchio is no generous member of royalty that the public worships, he is the little guy – he makes mistakes, strives to be good in spite of corrupting influences and learns to be a better person. It is a bildungsroman tale, thus he goes on more of a journey than Disney’s preceding main character.

Antagonist(s):

Where to begin! There are probably more antagonists in Pinocchio than any other Disney film. There is no primary antagonist so we have to sandwich them all into this category. Villainy manifests itself in many different ways throughout the narrative, and as events continue to unfold the stakes keep on being raised, moving through the comedic double-act of Honest John and Gideon, to the imposing Stromboli, to the highly sinister Coachman (and his featureless accomplices) and finally the giant ‘whale of a Whale’: Monstro. Something that makes most of these villains especially effective is a lack of any sort of comeuppance for their actions. Typically a Disney villain (no matter how evil they may be) will pay the price for what they do, but here they get away with their misdeeds.

Honest John and Gideon are a foppish, camp pair that are parodies of opportunistic entertainment biz types and they both share some amusing gags. To our contemporary eyes, the visual gags seemed quite Warner Brothers-esque, in the vein of the gleefully mean-spirited slapstick humour of the Looney Toons, such as Gideon smashing Honest John over the head with a mallet – which is timed hilariously. Ironically Gideon was originally voiced by Mel Blanc; he had recorded all of his lines for the character, but Walt Disney suddenly decided to make the character mute, so all that remains of Mel Blanc in the film is a hiccup. However, despite the loss of a voice actor like Blanc, the silent humour for Gideon works terrifically, particularly in contrast to the loquacious Honest John. Like Dopey, Gideon has sleeves that are too big for him, emphasising the stupidity of the character as he drags himself around.  Honest John’s voice actor has a great witty sound, a Shakespearean actor of the day, he does a terrific job of highlighting the foppishness of the character.

(Special note from Melissa: Disney loves casting Shakespearean actors for foxes don’t they? Another Shakespearean actor, Brian Bedford would voice Robin Hood more than 30 years later)

Dressing up villainy in benevolence is what makes the character hilarious, such as eating Pinocchio’s apple then handing the core back to him. Other amusing moments are when he is running along beside Pinocchio treadmill-style and his double-take when he first sees Pinocchio, ‘[Sauntering] A little wooden boy heh … [stops in his tracks] A WOODEN BOY!’ 

Side note – Isn’t it odd that there is a talking fox and a talking cricket that walk on two legs, an oversized cat that walks on two legs, all of whom are wearing clothes, and yet there are animals that are normal-sized, voiceless, undressed and behave like real world animals like Figaro and Cleo? What kind of world is this?

Showman and Italian gypsy, Stromboli is a large threatening presence whose booming voice causes the whole room to shake. He is caricatured and over-the-top in every possible way.  Passionate and uncouth, he eats food not with cutlery but with a sword – that sums him up well! They allowed the voice actor, Charles Judels to incorporate his own characteristic vocal shtick into the performance of Stromboli, such as the unique shriek he does when Pinocchio pratfalls down the stairs. In Pinocchio he finds himself any director’s ideal performer: an uber-marionette, a puppet who is capable of movement without a puppeteer, and who is free from ego, and any physical limitations that inhibit human performers.

There are some great opportunities for humour as quick-tempered Stromboli often takes a complete 180, going from a benevolent passionate showman to an out-of-control aggressive monster at a moment’s notice. He is like a time bomb always ready to go off. He is named after an Italian volcano after all – explosive without a doubt. Like Honest John and Gideon, Stromboli takes full advantage of Pinocchio’s naivety/stupidity. One of our favourite moments is when he finds a worthless piece of metal in amongst the money earned from the show, he goes ballistic and starts ranting in Italian, then spontaneously relaxes and dresses it up as a false act of kindness by presenting it to Pinocchio, as if it is a great gift: ‘For yooooooooooooou my little Pinocchio’. Bless him, naïve Pinocchio has no idea: ‘For me?! Gee thanks!’ The uber marionette does not need to be paid either.

A transitional scene between Honest John, Gideon and the Coachman serves to undermine the villainy of the comical double act, dwarfing their misdemeanours under the very real threat of the Coachman’s menacing plot, as well as his truly terrifying grin! Honest John and Gideon are noticeably uncomfortable in his presence and are horrified when the Coachman’s intentions become clear – you can even see the sweat dripping off Honest John’s face.

Why is the sadistic Coachman rarely included on Disney villains lists? He is SCARY! He is HORRIBLE! HE GETS AWAY WITH HIS CRIMES! Forget the Donkey issue for a second. He is abducting young boys, abusing and selling them for his own profit – to make them do things against their will, whether it be slave labour or something worse (it is never disclosed what happens to the donkeys who can still talk, but we can only assume that it is something bad). And yes, on top of that, they are transformed into donkeys, are told they will never see their parents again and most of them have lost the power of speech. How devastating is it when one of the children who can still speak says, ‘I wanna go home to my mama!’ Trafficking in a Disney film. These children are led into a false sense of security by a man who is promising to make their desires come true, they are drugged and drunk on pleasure and without warning, have the rugs swept from under their feet and are treated viciously and exploited.

Similar to the men in Homer’s The Odyssey, who transform into pigs / beasts for their overindulgence, the boys are transformed for their overindulgence. They are transformed into donkeys for making ‘jackasses’ of themselves, not unlike Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The difference is that Bottom and Odysseus’s men are restored to their former states, and their transformation scenes can be perceived as humorous. There is nothing to laugh about concerning this sequence at all (except perhaps Pinocchio’s look of revulsion as he puts his cigar down as far away from him his possible). There is no timely intervention for these boys. They are not rescued and restored to their normal states. It is shocking for a family film because as a viewer, you expect it to turn out alright somehow. But it never does. And that is terrifying because sadly enough, (minus the donkey element), this happens in the real world and there are twisted people like the Coachman. It is a collection of fantastical scenes that feel disturbingly real. In a film full of dark moments, this takes the cake for most disturbing, and is arguably one of the darkest moments in Disney film history.

The Coachman’s minions are creepy and uncanny – who are these strange beings?

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When the Coachman orders the doors to be shut, and his henchmen slowly do so, it sends chills. When doors are locked, whether it be in literature, film or television, you know that something dreadful is about to happen as the escape routes are blocked and there is potentially no way out for the characters. That’s scary.

The scenes involving Monstro are animated spectacularly (just look at the water alone – mind-blowingly all done by hand – no shortcuts there!). The way that whale’s body thrashes around is astounding, and the particularly tense moment when Pinocchio sets a fire inside him and he makes that wheezing sound before sneezing – it just builds and builds, thus the tension rockets during that moment. Monstro seems like a predecessor of the villainous Shark in Jaws as he has a relentless raging desire to capture Pinocchio and Geppetto (even though wooden puppets and humans are not on the diet list for a sperm whale). Monstro is also effective as his presence is felt throughout the underwater scenes, even when he is nowhere to be seen physically. The mere mention of his name is enough to scare all the fish away. There are so many ‘Uh oh, this can’t be good’ moments in this film, in which you are ahead of the heroes in knowing that terror is coming their way.

Our DVD box says, ‘Universal: Contains no material likely to offend or harm’ … So, no reference to peril, or scenes that may frighten or upset?

Isn’t this face alone worth a PG rating?

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With the exception of Monstro, money and greed are the motivating forces that drive these villains to their heinous crimes. If there is money to be made by selling the souls of young children, they will do it without a second thought. In a way, this aids in pulling the film much further out of the fairytale world and into the contemporary world – a world of bastards who will do anything for money.

Supporting Cast

Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio’s ‘Conscience’, is a forerunner for characters like The Jungle Book’s Baloo and Aladdin’s Genie –  He is a benevolent side-kick / advisor to the protagonist and  a contemporary presence in a traditional fantasy story world, which is interesting as so many family films today cannot resist littering a film with colloquialisms and modern-day references. Jiminy’s dialogue has a lot of colloquialisms from the 1930s and 1940s, especially in the ‘gee’ and ‘swell’ variety, but it is not overdone so it comes across as charming rather than irksome. This contemporary feeling is highlighted strongly in the opening sequence when, instead of the book simply opening, Jiminy is there to greet the audience, breaking the fourth wall by speaking to the camera. It reveals him opening the page which then flaps backwards, cutting off his narration. He has been described as the glue that holds the story together and functions as offering comic relief and lightness in such a dark film.

We liked his character, but we did throw our hands up in the air at the amount of times he storms away from Pinocchio in a huff. Luckily he generally has a change of heart and gets back almost in the nick of time. Overall, he is a solid companion who stands by Pinocchio when it is important and the stakes are high, even going along to the seedy Pleasure Island and jumping into the ocean despite knowing the risk.

Something that we did not remember from childhood viewings is that Jiminy has a fondness for the ladies, and these are not cricket ladies:

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Anyway, he is a cheerful type who begins the film as a scruffily dressed opportunistic realist and ends the film as a dapper looking responsible believer in dreams. Animator Ward Kimball initially drew him to look more like an actual cricket, but similar to the originally more puppet-like Pinocchio, it did not look appealing, so he drew a more anthropomorphic character. Walt Disney jokingly claimed that he is ‘A cricket because we call him one’.

Cliff Edwards, who voices Jiminy Cricket, was a popular radio star of the time known as ‘Ukulele Ike’ (celebrity voice acting has begun! But voice actors are still un-credited). He has a snappy quickfire wit and a warm, inviting all-American sound to his voice. Jiminy’s quips are generally amusing, even hitting the mark of hilariously satirical:

The Blue Fairy has a lot more personality than we initially assumed she would have, rather than being little more than a redressed version of Snow White (although some of her expressions are very similar). She is graceful and dignified, but also stern and even flirtatious (so much so that Jiminy tries out his charms on her). Walt Disney insisted during a story meeting that the Blue Fairy was to ‘give the appearance of loveliness … (but not look like) a glamour girl’. She certainly looks otherworldly and ethereal, as she is drawn in pastel shades, pale lines and is animated as translucent. There are suggestions that she was inspired by glamorous Hollywood actress Jean Harlow …

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… which defies Walt Disney’s initial demand that the Blue Fairy should not look glamorous, but he was pleased with the result and the men on the crew allegedly whistled when they saw a colour test of the Blue Fairy. One of the few female characters in the film, she is a no-nonsense elegant lady, who like Snow White, takes none of Pinocchio’s rubbish attempts at lying and calmly teaches him a lesson for it. Technically, she is the most powerful character in the film, as the decision over Pinocchio’s fate rests with her, and she was the one who granted him life in the first place.

Figaro and Cleo are Geppetto’s pet kitten and goldfish respectively. Cleo is an interesting character as she is animated adorably with cute little coy expressions, but that is also a little odd. She is a goldfish with a flirtatious woman’s face, as she puckers her red lips and bats her eyelashes at anyone who looks inside her bowl. Figaro has been described as a cross between a playful kitten and a spoilt child in terms of his behaviour in the way that he is animated. Animator Eric Larson based him on his little nephew and combined it with cat movements. Funnily enough Figaro is our favourite character as he is so delightful to watch in everything that he does. He was such a popular character that he was given his own series of cartoon shorts. His little petulant grumpy face is priceless here:

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We felt bad for him as flaky Geppetto constantly mistreats him, kicking him with the puppet, standing on him and we both went ‘WHAT?’ when Geppetto tells Figaro when they are both in bed, ‘I forgot to open the window’ indirectly ordering the cat to open the window for him. Lazy! The last time we let a cat near a window he tried to escape through it (it was terrifying!). Lastly, do not put a fish dinner in front of a cat and then tell him not to eat it:

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That’s just MEAN!

Geppetto is an interesting case as we were sure prior to watching that he would be a sympathetic character whom we would feel sorry for throughout. We did feel sorry for him particularly at his lowest points, but he did annoy us in the beginning because of his merry abuse of Figaro, his flakiness and his ineffective parenting of Pinocchio. At least accompany your new little boy to school on his first day instead of letting him wander there alone exposed to potential threats. Pinocchio is learning right from wrong from both Jiminy and the harsh realities of the real world, but we do not recall Geppetto’s sound words of advice. Because there are NONE! Luckily the Blue Fairy does not see it like that and rewards him for his generosity and kindness to others. He is a benevolent, affectionate, well-meaning man overall, and he has moments of hilarity usually in the form of double-takes – ‘[Distracted] Don’t bother me now Pinocchio! … [Realises] PINOCCHIO!’ and of course, ‘Father whatcha cryin for?’ ‘Because you’re dead Pinocchio’ ‘No no I’m not’ ‘Yes yes you are, now lie down – ’ And of course your heart breaks for him when he is searching high and low for his lost son, when he selflessly tells Pinocchio to save himself and finally when he grieves at his boy’s bedside.

However this moment baffled both of us. We’re not sure we want to know how on earth he lit this match:


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Bear in mind, this scene was intentionally drawn that way!

Pinocchio’s friend Lampwick is the 1940’s vision of a bad boy – he smokes cigars, vandalises, wields a slingshot, plays pool, drinks beer, dresses smartly and thinks that everything is ‘swell’. If Pinocchio had been made today, he would probably be adorning a hoodie, wielding a knife and snorting coke in between vandalisms.

(Special Note from Melissa: Little boy? Seriously this character looked about thirty. Is that why it took so long for him to become a donkey? Is he a man-child? If he is meant to be a child, then the cast of Grease clearly had nothing to be concerned about)

Leading Pinocchio astray he may be, but this supposed child who thinks that he’s tough, demonstrates that inside he is a scared vulnerable boy as he screams for his mother during the dreaded transformation scene.

(Special Note from David: It’s quite fortunate that he already looked quite donkey-like before the transformation, should make the adjusting process easier to deal with!)

Imagery and Artwork:

This film is incredibly sophisticated in terms of its animation. The shades and colours are so thorough that when you pause the film, any still frame can look like a work of art. Like Snow White, the details are impeccable, particularly in the creativity of the clocks and music boxes. However, Pinocchio has that tendency to make even light moments somehow become progressively unnerving, as the clocks start off innocently and cutely with ducks and chickens and bees doing nice things, then suddenly … we see macabre designs of a turkey about to get head cut off, a man shooting a bird, a drunken man lurching out of doors, and a mother spanking her child’s bare bottom … bear in mind, these all happen on REPEAT! Then Geppetto nonchalantly says, ‘I wonder what time it is’.

Point-of-view shots such as the frame bouncing up and down when Jiminy heads to Geppetto’s house and the lens going out-of-focus and blurry when Pinocchio is sozzled on alcohol, are very creative. Whenever the translucent, shimmering blue fairy appears and casts her spells, the magical sparkles and shining effects are stunning. From our contemporary eyes, the Blue Fairy reminded us of Raymond Briggs’s illustrations (e.g. The Snowman) – lovely soft pastel shades and pale lines. Rain, fog and mist are impressively displayed, looking like moody paintings. The Monstro scene makes for an epic spectacular visual finale. There are gorgeous backgrounds ranging from beautiful to grotesque in the forms of the twinkly moonlit sky overlooking the mountains, the panoramic shots of the village in daylight, the temperamental ocean and the colourful sordidness of Pleasure Island.

Pleasure Island illustrates eerie images of a big scary clown face, cigars being dished out, a model home that is ‘Open for destruction’, children falling off Ferris wheels, artwork being vandalised, windows smashing, Pinocchio’s friend, Lampwick simply carrying a full roast chicken like it’s a box of popcorn and creepy model of an ugly stereotypical Cockney thug with his pork pie hat and club inviting the boys to join in on the fun of a big scrap. There are also twisted images presented in Stromboli’s caravan as the audience witnesses a hellish abattoir of lifeless hanging puppets when Pinocchio is thrown into a cage.

Oh God the Donkey Transformation scene. We raved about the spectacular transformation scene in Snow White, but this scene is much more terrifying because unlike the Wicked Queen, this is happening against the victim’s will. It is horror beyond horror, like a Hitchcock film – the shadows, the suspense, the underscore, the use of dissolve from hands into hooves, the use of a juddering changing silhouette and the chaos of this boy/donkey that is hysterical with fright, smashing the room to bits, etc … It is one of the scariest scenes in any film let alone Disney.

Music:

As with any Disney soundtrack, Pinocchio provides its fair share of memorable songs; as its centrepiece is the quintessential Disney anthem When You Wish Upon A Star, a song about hope, faith and dreams, definitively performed by Cliff Edwards.  The American Film Institute marked it as the seventh song on their list of 100 Greatest Songs in Film History (the highest Disney song on the list). The two of us were in agreement that it was the standout song from the film, one that is full of warmth and sincerity that absolutely soars. Unsurprisingly the tune became the signature song for Disney; you can even hear it accompanying the Disney logo at the start of any of their films. Cliff Edwards sings with such purity and honesty that it is impossible not to feel moved during the song. It is a beautiful representative of 1940’s crooning at its absolute best – you can imagine it playing through a dusty old wireless or gramophone.

Cliff Edwards also performs Give A Little Whistle, which is a sweet and simple little number that is very catchy; Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actors Life For Me) could technically be considered the first Disney villain song, but is far too light and breezy in tone, although it does contain some dubious lyrics. Allegedly an actor’s life is both ‘fun’ and ‘gay’, as you can ‘wear your hair in a pompadour’ with ‘a wax moustache and a beaver coat’ and you can ‘buy out a candy store’, ‘promenade a big cigar’ and live on ‘chicken and caviar’.

(Special note from Melissa and David: Speaking as actors ourselves, we can confirm that those goals are the motivating forces behind all those long hours of training and rehearsals!)

I’ve Got No Strings made us wince slightly as it has moments of shrillness. On the other hand, the way in which the melodies get altered and varied to suit culturally different music styles is charming, as Pinocchio is joined by Dutch, French and Russian puppets – several of whom catches Jiminy’s eye –

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Seriously Jiminy how many fake women have you ogled now?

Lastly, Little Wooden Head can get somewhat repetitive, as it is emulating the style of Geppetto’s wind-up tinkly music box. Furthermore it felt hard to warm to Geppetto during this song as he has been needlessly mean to the adorable kitten Figaro and is even more unjustifiably so as he uses the puppet to kick him. However the tinkly music box melody does have a sense of whimsy and charm to it.

Pinocchio won two Oscars for Best Original Song (When You Wish Upon A Star) and Best Original Music Score – a double triumph that Disney would not achieve again until Mary Poppins in 1965. The score is really sophisticated and impressive, particularly during the perilous scenes involving Monstro and the terrifying Donkey transformation (transformations seem to be a running theme in terms of our standout scenes – Disney films just do them so well!). Furthermore, the sounds are outstanding during the scenes with the clocks – it is like one big minimalistic blast of different mechanical and musical sounds when the clocks all gradually build in sounds and layers. This is especially impactful when Jiminy Cricket is going mad trying to sleep, but the clocks keep ticking and Geppetto and his pets start snoring, so he eventually bellows ‘QUIET!’ Hilarious silence.

Story:

The story opens with a heart-warming rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star, and a fourth-wall breaking interaction with Jiminy Cricket. The tone of this opening suggests that the film is going to be a lot more bright and whimsical than it actually is.

It is surprising to take into account just how different this film feels when compared to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The filmmakers certainly did not underestimate their audience.

A common misconception concerning Pinocchio is that the story is about a wooden boy whose nose gets bigger every time he tells a lie. This is not the case, as the nose growing element only occurs in a single scene, and is likely brought about by the Blue Fairy to simply prove a point about lying being wrong. Pinocchio spends a lot more of the film with donkey ears and a tail than he does with a super-long nose!

(Special Note From David: It’s probably easier to remember the relatively harmless nose-grows-every-time-he-tells-a-lie aspect of the story, as opposed to the emotionally scarring abducted-by-creepy-paedophile-and-forced-into-slavery aspect!)

Because the film is based on a children’s novel that was originally published in serial form, the story is consequently episodic in nature. As a result of this, viewers less familiar with the story may find themselves surprised by the extent of darker content, especially in comparison to many other Disney pictures. It is perhaps the darkest of all the Disney films (something we’ll discuss more when comparing it to others). In fact, its episodic nature, didacticism, dark atmosphere, heavy morals and bleak situations mark it as very Dickensian (another 19th century serial author). There are more villains than just about any other Disney film, and they all escape unpunished (something many other villains don’t manage), there is an almost continuous sense of danger and threat, and when the tone isn’t threatening it is heartbreakingly tragic (the image of Geppetto searching for his son in the pouring rain is enough to make audiences forget how much of a useless parent he had been). One the one hand, it is a didactic morality tale about not talking to strangers or giving in to temptations, but on the other hand it is a story about hope and that hard work and perseverance may lead to rewards.

David’s Verdict:

Pinocchio really surprised me. I already knew that the film had its share of dark content, but I felt like I had really been through an ordeal by the time I got to the end. It is certainly a demanding film; one that hammers home its moral message through several powerful scenes. The storyline involving the Coachman in particular stands out, and the absence of any sort of retribution for his crimes gives an uneasy feeling that lingers long after the film has ended (at this moment in time I can’t think of any other children’s film when the villains get off Scott-free). Nevertheless I have to praise Disney for taking so many risks, as they make the film much more effective during its dramatic moments.

Just like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, there is a transformation scene which surely took (or maybe even provided) inspiration from horror movies – the hands changing into hooves, as well as the silhouetted image against the wall. The sequence involving Monstro is spectacular, a real testament to the hours and hours of time and effort it must have taken to draw each particle of water as the giant Whale crashes through the waves. There are also some stunning scenic shots that look like works of art, such as the sleeping little town against the night sky, and also the first glimpse into Geppetto’s workshop.

I didn’t finish watching the film with the same warm, fuzzy feeling that accompanied the ending to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it is a challenging film, which forces the audience to become emotionally invested, and even concerned about the eventual fates of its characters. When You Wish Upon A Star is certainly a heart-warming song, and it book-ends the film, but don’t be mislead into thinking the whole story will be full of warmth.

Melissa’s Verdict:

Yes I agree with David that after the film was finished, I did feel as if I had been through an ordeal. Pinocchio goes through such an Odyssey of hellish adventures that you cannot help but feel sorry for the poor puppet. Despite beginning and ending with a delightfully warm and comforting song, in between it is essentially a harrowing series of unfortunate events. Its forceful didacticism can be hard to bear at times.

However, the risks that Disney took in presenting a moralistic tale in which terrible things can happen, not shying away from moments of terror, are tremendously brave. The artwork on this film is gorgeous to behold, ranging from beautiful to macabre – it is incredibly sophisticated. I love how seriously the crew at Disney took this film, treating it like an epic live action film, which is elevated by the use of animation rather than detrimental to it – treating it as artistic entertainment as opposed to saccharine cartoon ‘kiddy-fare’. Suspense is sublime in this film, particularly during the intense Monstro scene and the terrifying Donkey Transformation scene. Watching that silhouette’s posture of half-boy half-donkey judder and crunch into a four-legged creature, while the child goes from screaming out for his mother to hysterically braying, is hard to forget. Will the Disney Company go this far in terms of creating gripping atmospheric horror today? That remains to be seen. That image of a dead Pinocchio face down in the water, coupled with a spontaneous cut-away from Jiminy to a zoom shot of the body accompanied by a dissonant ominous clash of music, is hauntingly evocative and again is the taking the viewer seriously. It does have its moments of comedy, mostly in the form of black comedy, but nevertheless made me laugh – Stromboli’s drastic changes in mood, Jiminy’s contemporary quips, Geppetto’s flakiness, Honest John and Gideon’s antics and Figaro’s endless grumpy faces.

Overall, it is a dark atmospheric moralistic film with thankful moments of lightness and satirical humour, with a towering underscore and gorgeous creative animation. I did not feel as giddily joyful as I did at the end of Snow White, but instead relieved that Pinocchio finally can lead a happy (thankfully mundane) life … unless he goes through another cycle of horrors the next day on the way to school when Honest John and Gideon show up again persuading him to be the next human cannonball.

Legacy:

While Pinocchio has certainly left behind nightmarish images of unnerving villains and terrified donkeys, it has also left behind striking illustrations and memorable characters. Forget Shrek’s thong-wearing screechy wooden puppet that bangs on about being a real boy, Pinocchio is a sweet iconic character that represents all of us trying to make our way through life without supremely messing up. It was not the Again animators and film critics frequently hail this film as Disney’s masterpiece and crowning glory in animation, and this statement is understandable. Many of the film’s moments inspired people to become animators. When you consider the look of early Don Bluth films like An American Tail and All Dogs Go To Heaven, the influences are clear. Also Don Bluth’s philosophy that children can take anything as long as there is a happy ending sums up Pinocchio in every possible way. The creators of Pixar’s Finding Nemo claim that they owe a lot to Pinocchio in terms of water animation innovation. Disney animator Andreas Deja describes it as a masterpiece and that there will never be another film like it. Without the film there would be no gloriously beautiful When You Wish Upon A Star, which has become so synonymous with Disney’s image.

 

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15 Responses to Classic No. 2 Pinocchio (1940)

  1. jayden213 says:

    I don’t really know if this is better than Snow White or not, but these two are definitely the best out of the 5 films in the Classic Era. I know that thisis one of the darkest films in the canon, but it never scared me, even when I was younger. Great review.

    • David says: Having now seen the first 5 films in the canon, I agree with your statement that those 2 are the best of Disney’s early years.

      Melissa says: Funnily enough, Pinocchio did not scare me as a child at all and yet when I watched it on this particular viewing, I was unnerved by how sinister it was. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Pingback: Pinocchio | screengrabsaz

  3. shayne says:

    Pinocchio is Disney’s darkest film, I say this because even in the beginning there was that Deepily atmosphere with geppetto and the clocks. Pinocchio is also the only Disney film with more the one villain. In Disney films the villain gets defeated and there’s a happy ending, the viilains in Pinocchio get away with there deeds( except for monsto in a close but no cigar way.) But in the end like other Disney films there’s a happy ending with Pinocchio.

    • It is certainly one of Disney’s darkest films (we’ll have to hold off calling it THE darkest until we’ve seen them all). There is something very unsettling about the clocks at the start – especially as that sequence progresses. The consistent dark tone throughout this film does make it stand out from the other Disney films we’ve seen – especially the multiple villains who never get their comeuppance. Pinocchio certainly goes through an ordeal, and so it definitely feels as though he has earned his happy ending when it eventually arrives.

  4. shayne says:

    Well of course snow white is going to be more successful cause it was the first animated length movie by walt Disney the originals will always be the best.

    • Snow White was a huge success, but was very much an underdog in doing so, as there were a lot of sceptics. Technically Pinocchio could have been even more successful than its predecessor, but since World War II broke out, there’s no way of saying for certain how successful it could have been.

  5. swanpride says:

    I guess the Coachman is usually not included, because he is terrifying but not in an enjoyable way.

    Full disclosure: This movie gave me nightmares so badly, I avoided watching it. I was an adult the first time I could bring myself to watch the pleasure Island scenes again, and it STILL terrifies me. No horror movie out there had ever such an impact on me.

    • We absolutely agree; he is so terrifying, but not in a way that makes you go, ‘I love to hate him’, just ‘I HATE HIM’. ‘Pinocchio’ in a way should be up there in Horror Film lists – it goes to such frightening territory.

  6. Emily says:

    This is my favorite Disney film and my second favorite film of all time. A lot of people are put off by how unrelentingly dark it is, but honestly, that is why I love it. It has a more realistic view of evil than most Disney films; many Disney pictures end with the villains either dying or being defeated in some way. The best Pinocchio and friends can do is escape with their morality and lives intact. Like evil in the real world, it cannot be defeated forever, but we can try to combat the evil present within ourselves.

    On Geppetto, I like the way the filmmakers developed him. He is an incompetent parent at first. He’s one of those people who likely thinks kids are akin to pets, not realizing they need more attention and guidance. He also comes across as a recluse, reluctant to leave the house. By the time he realizes his son isn’t coming back home, that’s when he gets off his butt and searches high and low for Pinocchio, eventually willing to sacrifice his own life to save the kid from Monstro during the epic climax. Jiminy is the same way, though his development is not as extensive as Geppetto’s: he too, must grow and change into a more responsible parental figure for Pinocchio.

    Anyways, great review on a great film!

    • Thank you for your lovely and detailed comment! We were really impressed with this film. We look forward to those moments in the canon when Disney dares to be bold and out of their comfort zone, especially when it comes to villainous characters. Pinocchio’s villains really stand out because they get away with their crimes, and are truly monstrous people. Pinocchio itself feels like an odyssey of a film.

      Ah yes, Geppetto … he is useless and incompetent but we love him.

  7. Furienna says:

    “Our DVD box says, ‘Universal: Contains no material likely to offend or harm’ … So, no reference to peril, or scenes that may frighten or upset? Isn’t this face alone worth a PG rating?”

    Indeeed, I never saw this movie. But just reading about The Coach Man on other people’s reviews make me want to not ever do it for the rest of my life. And yes, I’m a grown woman who should NOT be afraid to watch a freaking Disney movie! Okay, maybe I somehow will watch “Pinocchio” at some point in the future. And if nothing else, I have to introduce my little niece to Disney when she gets a bit older. But I am in no hurry to show her “Pinocchio”. Too bad, as I hear that it also has a lot of nice things to offer the viewer…

  8. 1940’s Pinocchio Is One Of My Favorite Films.

  9. Pingback: Pinocchio (1940) | The Cool Kat's Reviews

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