Directed by Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske (supervisors)
After an elderly woodcarver wishes for his recently-completed marionette to become a real boy, he is visited by the Blue Fairy who grants his wish. The next day, Pinocchio is sent to school, accompanied by a cricket to be hi “conscience.” He is repeatedly distracted by various temptations, however, ranging from stardom in a puppet theater to unsupervised mayhem on Pleasure Island, where naughty children are turned into donkeys. After learning that his father had been swallowed by a whale trying to rescue him, Pinocchio rescues him in turn, and the Blue Fairy turns him into a real boy for his selflessness.
Pinocchio actually wasn’t intended to be Disney’s second animated movie. They were already working on Bambi as the follow-up to Snow White, but the animators were having such difficulty with the story and animation that Pinocchio got bumped up in the schedule. The movie didn’t originally have Jiminy Cricket as a supporting character, either – he was just a bug that gets squashed by Pinocchio. But Walt Disney decided that Pinocchio wasn’t sympathetic enough, so they promoted Jiminy and gave him a name and personality.
Despite its current stellar reputation, it was actually a significant box office failure when first released. It cost almost 50% more than Snow White to produce, but made less money than Snow White had, leading to a $1 million write-off for the company – a massive amount in 1940. Part of this is certainly attributable to the advent of World War II in Europe, which cut the movie’s international box office to virtually nil. It eventually made a profit when it was re-released after the war.
Snow White might have been the first feature-length animated movie, but this is where it all starts to come together for Disney. Pretty much every aspect of this movie, from the animation to the voice work to the songwriting, is a noticeable step up from the previous film. For example, I criticized Snow White for its reliance on rotoscoping, and its bland human characters in general. Fortunately, that’s not a problem at all here. Every character, with the exception of the Blue Fairy, is fully animated this time around, and they all come to life in a way that eluded all of the non-dwarf characters in the previous film. Even minor characters, such as Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish, have tons of personality. The Blue Fairy is rotoscoped, but I think that actually fits with the character. As a magical being, she should look different from the other characters. The rotoscoping lends her the requisite otherworldly quality.
The movie’s plot is episodic, but actually managed to hold my interest a lot more than Snow White’s did. Maybe that’s because a lot of the film has actual stakes to it, as Pinocchio makes a series of bad decisions that he and Jiminy Cricket have to find their way out of. By contrast, once Snow White makes her way to the dwarves’ cottage, she’s in practically no danger at all until the queen finally catches up to her at the very end of the movie. Pinocchio is pretty much kidnapped by Stromboli midway through the film, then is almost sold into slavery as a donkey in the salt mines during the Pleasure Island sequence. It’s a far cry from Snow White cleaning house and cooking dinner.
Speaking of his misadventures, the entire movie (and the book it was based on) is a morality play. To become a real boy, Pinocchio must learn the mid-class values of hard work, education and self-sacrifice, while avoiding the temptations of entertainment, delinquency and overindulgence. And he fails, hard. As does Jiminy Cricket, something that I appreciated. He isn’t the perfect angel on the shoulder, always giving Pinocchio the correct advice. He can make mistakes too, most notably in leaving Pinocchio with Stromboli, rationalizing it by trying to convince himself that Pinocchio is a success as an actor and doesn’t need him anymore. This mistakes help prevent the movie from coming off as too preachy with its moralizing.
Something that also helps in this regard is that several of sequences are legitimately scary. None more so, in my opinion, than the Pleasure Island sequence. The ringleader of the enterprise, the Coachman, is menacing from the start, in his red coat and hair stylized to resemble devil’s horns. That Honest John, the villain who previously sold out Pinocchio to Stromboli, is immediately scared of him speaks volumes about the reputation that must precede the man in whatever passes for a criminal community in the film’s world. Once the boys reach the island, everything appears to be alright, with Pinocchio joining his new friend Lampwick in consequence-free fun and mayhem. However, this seemingly idyllic island of, well, pleasure soon turns into an almost Lynchian sequence of body horror, as Lampwick contorts into a donkey, crying for his mother the entire time. The shot of his hands turning into hooves as he pleads at Pinocchio for help, and the sound of his voice as it changed into braying, actually got to me a bit even on this watch. It’s pretty easy to see how this sequence in particular has left so much of an impression on many young viewers.
The movie saves its best for last, however. The final sequence in the film, in which Pinocchio rescues his “father” Geppetto from Monstro the whale, is head and shoulders above anything else in the movie in terms of animation. The effects animation of the waves in particular drew my attention. I can’t think of a hand-drawn animation for the next fifty years that so convincingly captures the look of a storm at sea, the waves crashing and flowing around Monstro as he breaches and chases the fleeing raft. This is one sequence that I definitely remember from when I watched the movie in theaters as a young child.
Now, not everything about Pinocchio is perfect. For one, there’s an overabundance of smoking in the movie. Yes, it was very much in keeping with the times, and Pinocchio’s own cigar use is shown to have immediate negative consequences. However, the point still stands that pretty much every character in the film, from Geppetto on down, lights up at least once. Gideon the cat even blows a smoke ring, and then proceeds to dunk it in his beer and eat it like a donut (a sight gag I’ll admit to enjoying, even if it does make light of a terrible habit). In a movie targeted at young audiences, it’s a bit much for me. There’s also the use of “gypsy” to describe Stromboli. At least the movie doesn’t seem to play up this at all. Stromboli reads as more stereotypically Italian to me, or Eastern European at most, but nothing other than the fact that he travels in a wagon seems to suggest that he’s meant to actually be Romani. Also, the person who describes him with that term is Honest John, not a character who’s the most reliable of witnesses.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the movie’s music. The movie has seven songs by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, including reprises, and four of them are all-time classics. None more so than “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which has become Disney’s unofficial theme song. It’s accompanied the Disney logo at the beginning of every movie since the 1980s, and is on the shortlist for best song to have ever won the Best Song Oscar. If Snow White’s soundtrack was a line drive single, then this is the company’s first home run.
Overall, I enjoyed Pinocchio a lot more on this rewatch than I did Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Despite it having a fairly episodic plot, I was engaged for much more of the movie due to the stakes involved, and never really got bored with any of it. And the songs were better too.
Animation: A (Absolutely gorgeous, with some of the most difficult multi-plane shots ever committed to film)
Main Characters: A- (Pinocchio is a tad bit oblivious, but Jiminy Cricket makes up for it)
Supporting Characters: A (Probably the best cast of supporting characters in a Disney film for decades)
Villains: B+ (Honest John, Stromboli, the Coachman and Monstro are all pretty strong individually, but the movie doesn’t spend quite enough time with any of them to earn A status)
Music: A (There’s not a bad song in the bunch)