Pinocchio (1940)

  • Release date: 7 February, 1940
  • Run time: 88 mins
  • Director: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee
  • Cast: Dickie Jones, Cliff Edwards, Christian Rub
  • Inspired by: The Adventures of Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi)

“A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face” 

Having set the template for future Disney films, Walt promptly broke it with his next feature release. In fact, looking ahead to some of the films coming up, it’s amazing how varied the subject matter of these films are – certainly it isn’t often a case of noble hero rescuing fair princess from evil queen/witch/dragon. So after the Germanic fairytale of Snow White, we head across the border to Italy (to what looks surprising like a German town) and the tale of Pinocchio. Originally to be the studio’s third feature length film, it was bumped up to take on the position of difficult second album movie when problems with the proposed second film, Bambi, forced Walt to put it on ice (if you’ll pardon the reference). And difficult it proved to be – despite being another leap forward in animation with a brilliant story and well-rounded characters, the advent of the Second World War meant Pinocchio flopped on its initial release in 1940 (I’m guessing that people living in Europe had other things to worry about than heading to the cinema).

Original idea? Nope. Based on the story by Carlo Collodi, the book had been hugely popular since its first release in 1883. In fact, originally written in serial form, when there was a pause in the story for a few months, demand was so great that it was quickly re-started. It’s not hard to see why Disney was so keen to turn his hand to it (“Walt was busting his guts with enthusiasm” according to animator Norman Ferguson); its a fantastic fable with danger lurking everywhere. True, the character of Pinocchio isn’t as nasty in the cartoon as he is in the book, but we’ll get to that…

Dead parents? Well, given that Pinocchio isn’t alive himself to begin with, can he really be said to have parents? Besides, his maker, Geppetto, is still very much alive and kicking throughout the movie. So technically, the parents are alive. But the boy is dead. Except somehow magically alive. It’s complicated – let’s just move on…

Y’know – for kids? Compared to the original book, it is most definitely more child-friendly. Pinocchio, in his storybook form, is certainly far from pleasant – before he’s even been finished, he’s kicked Geppetto in the leg; he then gets Geppetto imprisoned for child cruelty; murders a talking cricket (poor Jiminy doesn’t even get a name in the book); and has his feet burned off after falling asleep in front of the fire. That said, it may be toned down, but there’s still plenty in there to give the children a nightmare-filled sleep. The villains are petrifying and the poor puppet finds himself getting into some serious horrible situations (he’s trapped on an island where boys are kidnapped and turned into donkeys, for goodness sake!). Talk about ‘be good or the boogieman will get you’ threats – sweet dreams after this one, kiddies!

Princesses, villains and comedy sidekicks? Hmm, not really any Disney princesses here. Unless you count the brief appearances of the Blue Fairy. Could you call Pinocchio the hero? He seems to be too naive to be anything more than the protagonist rather than a heroic figure – he seems to fall from one disaster to another, constantly being led astray rather than listening to his conscience. At least he has much more character than Snow White; he’s so likable that you can’t help rooting for him, even when he clearly should have a lot more common sense to him.

However, villains the movie has in spades. When you consider that Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat are probably the nicest nasties that Pinocchio encounters, you know this is going to be one twisted tale. Just when you get over Stromboli, the puppet master, and think things can only get better, the puppet finds himself in the clutches of The Coachman who takes him off to Pleasure Island (you know, that place where naughty boys are transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery). And let’s not forget Monstro the whale. Seriously, save some evil for another film!

Fortunately, the sidekicks save the day. Obviously we have Jiminy Cricket (who manages to avoid being squished in the Disney version), acting as Pinocchio’s conscience – and generally making everyone feel better whenever he’s on screen. How we believe a tiny insect can make a difference is beyond me, but it is one of the smart moves in the story to make the audience confident that Jiminy can somehow make everything right. Odd, given that he’s never around when Pinocchio needs him – and the one time when he can make a difference, unlocking a cage and freeing the wooden boy, he somehow manages to mess it up and has to wait for the Blue Fairy to come along and do the job. You had one job, Jiminy!

Alongside Jiminy is the wonderful character of Figaro, Geppetto’s pet cat. A beautiful creation that manages to convey a broad range of emotions and acts as an hilarious comic foil whenever he is on screen. Apparently a favourite of Walt, who demanded to see more of him in the movie, it isn’t hard to see why. Figaro could easily have been a mistake; a cross-over from one of the Silly Symphony shorts who seems lost in a bigger movie. Instead, he is probably the stand-out of the whole piece – which is saying something for film that has numerous scene-stealing characters in it.

Sing-along a showtune? Plenty. Clearly When You Wish Upon a Star has transcended everything to become the Disney Corporation theme tune (and can you blame them), it is still eclipsed by three even greater songs. Okay, so Give a Little Whistle is only slightly better, but it’s still a corker. Then you have I Got No Strings, a wonderfully joyful song about living a life of independence (or at least, it was until Avengers Age of Ultron managed to make it deeply sinister – thanks Iron Man). But topping it all off is the underappreciated Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me); sung with gusto by Honest John, it is sheer brilliance (helped in no small part by the wonderful Fozzie Bear and Rawlf doing an hilarious cover in an episodes of The Muppet Show – seriously, give it a watch. Even if it’s just for the “halibut”…).

Feel-good factor: Ooo – a tricky one. Pinocchio is an out-right classic; it regularly features on Best of… lists for animation (Terry Gilliam named it among his 10 greatest animated films of all time – and he knows a thing or two about animation). The artwork is stunning, the story is filled with action and adventure, the characters are superbly rounded, the songs are sublime. But…in terms of feel-good, it is a decidedly dark and twisted tale. You get not one by five villains, along with some of the scariest scenes ever produced in a Disney film. Is that enough to lower the rating? Frankly, no. I’ve always been a fan of the dark and twisted, so something like this is going to make me feel better, no matter what. It has to be a 10 (but feel free to give it a lower score if darkness and horror aren’t really your thing…).

You can watch the trailer below:

Next movie: We move even further from the traditional Disney tale with Fantasia (1940)…

Published by Ben Evans

Film fan; music lover; avid reader; culture snob.

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