Pinocchio (1940) Review
What do I know about the film?
It is based on a terrifying Italian book called ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’ from the 1800’s in which Pinocchio is not so much a naive new born thrust into a world that is trying to exploit his innocence as he is a soulless psychopath.
Don’t believe me? Easily the most enduring character from the Disney version is Jiminy Cricket, the little insect who acts as Pinocchio’s conscious and often relieves him from serious harm. He became one of the most recognisable Disney characters from that era and works as the narrator, a surrogate for the audience and a sympathetic character in his own right.
Well in the book he shows up to encourage Pinocchio not to give in to hedonism and what does our little wooden boy do?
Squishes him. TO DEATH. Crushes him underfoot. Deliberately.
Leaving that disturbing little piece of trivia on the bottom of the protagonist’s shoe, Pinocchio was the first Disney film to win proper Oscars as opposed to honorary ones, snatching up one for the score and another for the song ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’
This might seem like an unimportant point but think about this… Walter Disney not only made animated movies a legitimate art form when he made ‘Snow White,’ he also created the Soundtrack Album. Prior to ‘Snow White’ no studio would even have considered releasing an album of songs from a movie. They had no reason to believe people would be interested. And now not only did the soundtrack from Snow White prove popular it motivated the Oscars to start handing out awards for songs, something which was not happening before Disney demonstrated the power of music in film. He does not often get credited with this and so I thought the progression was worth noting particularly considering the next film I am going to review after this one.
Did I see it as a child?
Yes. But I did not have it on VHS so I am not sure where. I don’t have any childhood nostalgia for the film as I don’t really have a memory of watching it. What I am much more familiar with is the television show. It was a weird, unsettling, not brilliantly drawn show that was on very early in the mornings. On the plus side, thanks to the intro I will never forget how to spell Pinocchio:
There are have been some very odd adaptations of Pinocchio now I think about it. Italian director and actor Roberto Benigni, who shot to prominence in Hollywood with ‘Life is Beautiful’ created a very expensive vanity project several years back where he played the little wooden kid. At the tender age of…50.
And there was a horrific version that came out in the mid-90’s called ‘The Adventures of Pinocchio’ where the poster alone was enough to make me run out of the Video Drive In. Seriously. I know that puppets are rarely charming, often creepy and given the horror of the source material why not abandon fantasy family feature and go out and out nightmare fuel? Maybe I will review all this some day but for now Google the 90’s Pinocchio and try not to scream.
Back to Disney.
I did rewatch the Disney version a few years ago after someone posted a clip on their Facebook page and I found myself intrigued. It looked so…dark. Much darker than the memories I had retained. And my reaction surprised me. I thought it was…Well. See below.
A Cricket tells us the story of Pinocchio. A story he is in. Using a book. With no words in it. That he narrates in the first person. But the film is in the book. And the narration stops after the first scene.
Ok I will start over…
A lonely old man with nothing but a flirty fish and a put upon cat for company makes a little wooden boy which is magically brought to life by a fairy. The wooden boy is assigned a conscience in the form of a cricket and told if he is ever to be a real boy he’d better behave. He doesn’t. And so the adventures begins…
I am stuck. I am starting to think this was a stupid idea. Because we are 2 films in to my 52 classics run and I may have already discovered my favourite Disney animated film.
It is nowhere near as fondly remembered in my demographic as it deserves: The soundtrack is not by Elton John, Robin Williams is nowhere to be found and there ain’t a love interest in sight. Unless you count the sexual tension between the cat and the fish. But my God…This is not just great animation, although it is. This is not even just a great example of what this movie making studio was capable of, although it is. This is one of my favourite films of all time. So how can I play this fairly?
Right now I feel like saying: Call off the search. The Studio peaked here. But I want to look at all the animated classics and therefore I need to put my bias to one side. And who knows? Maybe revisiting the Disney renaissance period or watching some films for the first time will dethrone ‘Pinocchio,’ a film that currently has an 100% fresh rating at critics data collection site Rotten Tomatoes. The only one of the 52 films that does. This isn’t even nostalgia talking cause I did not like it as a child. But then I listened to Aqua without a sense of irony as a child, my judgement then could not be trusted.
So…what works? The animation is even more ambitious here than in Snow White and man, do they pull it off. During the scene that marks the final act, set in the ocean with a massive angry whale chasing our heroes down, the water looks so choppy and vast that I felt like I could actually drown in it. It is genuinely suffocating as well as beautiful and I still don’t know how they did it. I find myself rocking back and forth muttering: ‘Someone had to draw this…This was hand drawn…In the 30’s and 40’s some people actually made this come to life with their hands…’ It is jaw dropping even now.
And it is not just this scene. There are several eye catching creations from the sleepy little town where our story is set to Pleasure Island to Geppetto’s workshop and home. And then there are many little artistic touches that demonstrate the skill of the people involved: the madness in the eyes of the man collecting truanting boys, the glow around the fairy, even the butter sliding down a slice of fish that looks good enough to eat…It is so tight, every choice communicates and does the job it is supposed to do.
How about the characters? Jiminy is far more endearing than I remember him being as a child. He isn’t a know it all. He stumbles into the story by accident and finds himself over his head very quickly and it is easy to empathise with him whenever he calls it quits only to find himself pulled back in because he cares about Pinocchio. And cause he wants a shiny badge.
Figaro the cat is the silent hero of this film and I can’t help wondering if he ever got a spin off series. His reactions shots are genuinely funny. Unlike Dopey whose silent obliviousness was played for weak laughs, Figaro is a convincing sad sack, who has to tolerate the eccentricity of his elderly caretaker while fighting off the come hither eyes of a playful goldfish and he does so with barley concealed irritation. It is a joy to behold.
So…the aforementioned darkness. The villains are excellent and numerous. From the slimy fox in a top hat named Honest John to the unsettlingly large Stromboli there is plenty to fear in the world of ‘Pinocchio’ meaning, unlike some Disney adaptations, it is not a complete departure from the source material. It would be easy to be good and make the right choices if there was no one there to show you the other side and in this film little Pinocchio seems positively surrounded by moral decay. He is a total innocent and people are queuing up to exploit him. The dark moments come from the consequences of this such as when Stromboli the puppet master tells Pinocchio he will keep him locked up until he gets too old and then he will be good only for firewood. This may as well be called the Macauley Culkin story.
But Pinocchio is rescued by the Blue Fairy as there is never any long term harm done to a child in a Disney film, yes? WRONG. When the manic eyed Coachman recruits several youngsters including Pinocchio for Pleasure Island, Jiminy discovers his secret…He turns the boys into donkeys and sells them to salt mines. Feel free to read that sentence again. In an actually heart breaking moment that made my soul hurt, a little Donkey is brought forward to find out if he can still talk. He can. ‘I’m Alexander…’ He sobs ‘And I wanna go home to my Mama!’ But he doesn’t get to. He is thrown back in with the rest until he has lost the ability to talk. Right now I am actually picturing his never seen Mother wondering where Alexander is…Cheers Disney.
But most terrifying of all is when Pinocchio’s unfortunate friend Lampwick begins to transform. Because he is actually scared. If the scene was played for laughs or if he remained baffled by what was happening it could be ok but he is horrified. The shot of him clinging to Pinocchio in fear only to have his hands become hooves is one of the scariest things I have ever seen. I am not sure why the nose growing scene has become so iconic and not this one. Maybe it is just too frickin’ scary for people to think about. If you have not watched this film in a while or ever…I promise you. It is so freaky. Shit gets real. And there is no sugar coating. Just a scared little kid realising he has made one hell of a mistake.
And he and the other donkey boys are never rescued. Once Jiminy gets Pinocchio out we head off for the third act set piece and the villains get to keep being villainous. Not one baddie in this movie gets their comeuppance. Could you get away with that in a family film today? I doubt it.
Following on from Snow White, the score is excellent, the songs work by turns catchy, playful and heartfelt. But unlike Snow White time flies while watching ‘Pinocchio’ as it genuinely exciting, moving and actually quite witty when it wants to be.
What Doesn’t Work:
Geppetto, The Blue Fairy and Pinocchio himself are not terribly 3 dimensional. I find it worrying that we are supposed to root for Geppetto to get his real boy seeing as how he is a terrible Father. In the first 2 minutes of his life, Pinocchio sets himself on fire while Geppetto is in the room and then the next morning, not 10 hours after becoming a Dad, Geppetto sends his wooden son to school. Alone. As an employee of a child protection agency I have some questions.
It might seem childish and petty to pick holes in a film where smoking and pool leads to being turned into a donkey, but it is like how in horror films the teenager hears a noise in a supposedly empty house and they gamely run up the stairs in their underwear to meet their doom. It is inevitable for the sake of the plot but it does not make it any less infuriating.
The Blue Fairy is pretty, even if her features are not as nicely defined as other characters but her motivation and role in the universe at large are never explained. The infamous nose growing scene is the only one where she demonstrates a personality of her own: a slight malevolent streak as she encourages Pinocchio to keep lying long after she has rejected his story, just to prove her point. What I am trying to say is…She is not very interesting. The films does not lose anything by making this so but it could have gained so much more by having her be a real player in the story.
Is Pinocchio as vapid as Snow White? No. He is not a chasm of dull and some might find his gullible pluckiness charming. But it is supposed to be his journey and yet he is a passive character in his own story, a story that is full of people taking action. Even his decision to rescue his Father from the whale seems to be borne from a demand of the plot rather than any character growth or any sense that he now understands cause and effect. He knows he loves Geppetto and wants to be a real boy but we don’t know why. He just does.
But this is just review chat. I am not asking an animated film from the 40’s to satisfy the criteria for Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero Journey’ (I studied English Lit at Uni! Can you tell?) Not when it has a scene where a fox with a top hat and cane does a double take at the sight of a wooden boy. He is seriously shocked to see a puppet without strings. A TALKING FOX. Who could object to a film like that? According to Rotten Tomatoes, nobody.
Also for some it might be too scary. Those people (and I am including children in that) are idiots. Life is scary guys. Get used to it.
With 50 films still to watch I am going to go out on a limb and say this is as good as it gets. Despite some characters being more underdeveloped than others meaning the emotional pay off is not a touching as it could have been, ‘Pinocchio’ is engaging, clever, funny, exciting, looks beautiful, refuses to play it safe and is a living breathing example of where imagination can take a team of talented people. All you need to do is wish upon…No. I am not saying that.
Disney Nightmare Inducer Count:
Off. The. Scale.
Ok. I will try and count it up…*takes deep breath* The old man dancing with his puppet like it is real, a clock that depicts a mother abusing her infant, a wooden kid innocently setting himself on fire, animals in clothes spying on a kid walking to school, Stromboli, The nose growing longer, The Coachman freaking out the already pretty villainous characters by explaining he collects little boys, the crying donkey who wants his Mother, the guards at Pleasure Island whose faces are covered, Lampwick turns into a donkey and is really believably frightened, the enraged whale trying to murder all the lead characters…11. At least 11.
‘An Actor’s Life for Me’ is excellent but the softy in me has to say ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ Even cynics like myself can’t help but get dewy eyed over the beautiful warbling chorus that opens the story as well the ball shrinking high notes. It is a song that manages to be simultaneously melancholy and hopeful. Just perfect for the film it represents.
The hell demons come out to play… it is Fantasia (1940)