So now we get to a terrifying moment of my childhood- watching Pinocchio. And on a rewatch I have to say I was perfectly valid in being scared! It’s kind of a nutty movie but in a way I now find quite brilliant.
Bambi was originally meant to be Disney’s second animated film but with delays that honor went to Pinocchio. It debuted in 1940 and was initially a huge flop. It wasn’t until a re-release in 1945 that the studio began to make back it’s investment.
It won Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Original Song and is considered by some as Walt’s masterpiece.
It was certainly a bold undertaking. All the post- Snow White movies were very bold. I think we have an idea of the 30’s- 50’s as being squeaky clean and polished but that’s definitely not the case with Disney. Snow White, Bambi and Pinocchio all have darker themes and moments of characters dieing. Dumbo has a baby separated from his mother, which is quite devastating. To be clear, the darkness is not necessarily a bad thing because it is always paired with lightness and humor. Still I don’t think Disney takes as many risks these days.
Pinocchio is based on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel. It was purchased by an animator and given to Walt Disney who immediately loved it. The story of the novel is changed drastically (In the book evidently Pinocchio is cold, rude, and ungrateful).
They also changed Pinocchio from an all wood design to give it more of a fluid feel. Animators used the puppet Charlie McCarthey as inspiration for Pinocchio’s appearance.
The story of Pinocchio is what is called a ‘morality tale’. Morality plays were popular in the Victorian era and usually involved a character having to make choices and fight off temptation. ( fables, greek myths, etc were popular choices). These stories also typically had biblical illusions. Masonry and other groups also have morality tales as part of their rituals.
When the Blue Fairy comes she tells Pinocchio that he ‘must learn to choose between right and wrong’. I could see illusions to Adam and Eve. She also tells him ‘the wrong things may seem right at the time’
She also tells Pinocchio that in order to turn into a real boy he must learn to be ‘brave, truthful, and unselfish’ so each of the episodes of the movie teach Pinocchio (and the viewers) these lessons.
The Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio some help in Jiminy Cricket who is his conscience and serves as a semi-narrator to the movie. Evidently Jiminy was added to the story in 1938 because Walt felt it needed to be softened and I think he was right.
There is also an acceptance of magic which is interesting but it is used at some points and then other times they have to push through. For instance, they are able to travel under water for large periods of time and yet another scene shows Pinocchio as having drowned.
Unlike most Disney films Pinocchio does not have one evil villain but a series of corrupt people trying to lead Pinocchio astray. It is almost as if evil itself and sin is the villain.
The ‘Honest Fox’ meet Pinnochio on the way to school and convince him to join them on ‘the easy way’ and they sing Hi Diddle Dee is all about how it is ‘great to be a celebrity’
Honest Fox then sells Pinocchio to the gypsy Stramboli who wants him in his marionette show. At first Pinocchio is dazzled by the bright lights and attention.
Even Jiminy see’s Pinocchio on stage and walks away in despair ‘They like him. He’s a success. Maybe I was wrong? What does an actor need with a conscience anyway”
Then it turns out Stramboli imprisons Pinocchio so he won’t run away. The Blue Fairy comes to rescue him but not before Pinocchio tries to fudge how he got there. This causes his nose to grow.
Lampwick introduces Pinochio to many evils. Pleasure Island has pool, alcohol, cigars, mayhem, and lots of children out of control.
It turns out The Coachman is drawing all these children to Pleasure Island in order to turn them into donkeys for the salt mills.
This is absolutely terrifying idea. There are even donkeys who are half-way turned so they are still talking and The Coachman throws them to the side to ‘deal with them later’… Yikes! Is this Disney or a horror movie!
So are we supposed to assume that all the animals are secretly naughty children? What’s amazing is that Pleasure Island is never really resolved. Pinocchio escapes but that is it. I guess the hundreds of children we see playing early on are donkeys and The Coachman keeps with his scheme. Who knew mines needed so many donkeys?
From Pleasure Island Pinocchio has learned to not be selfish. To think of Jiminy, his father and others and not just doing what is fun.
Jiminy and Pinocchio get back home but Geppetto is gone and the Blue Fairy gives them a clue that he is in the belly of the whale looking for Pinocchio. It’s kind of funny that the Blue Fairy doesn’t help them any more but I guess Pinocchio wouldn’t have learned to be brave.
So off they go to find Geppetto and defeat the final villain Monstro, the whale. There is a dazzling scene under the water. Pinnochio was a pioneer in animation because Disney developed a technique for layering animation on top of animated backgrounds.
Look at how the bubbles and waves are layered around the characters in this scene.
Eventually all are saved and home but Geppetto is grieving because he thinks Pinocchio is dead. The Blue Fairy comes and turns him into a real boy because he has learned what he needed to know.
We also get a reprisal of what became the official anthem of Disney- When You Wish Upon a Star. It is also why the Disney logo is blue for the Blue Fairy.
I know that was a lot of detail but it’s such an odd movie I couldn’t think of any other way to describe it.
As an adult there is lots to like about Pinocchio. It is creative and different. The artistry is often dark and beautiful. It teaches good lessons and has wonderful music.
On the other hand, it can be heavy-handed in the delivery of those morals, which can be intense for children and annoying for adults. Modern storytelling has learned to be a bit more nuanced in its messaging.
It also creates a world that doesn’t really make any sense. It is almost like an anime world of today like in Sprited Away where some animals behave one way, others another. Sometimes people are magic, sometimes they aren’t.
The Pleasure Island scene is pretty scary. I remember being terrified by it. Also it is unsettling to not know what is going to happen to all the Donkey children. Stramboli is scary and so is Monstro the whale.
But sometimes kids like to be scared. I don’t’ think it is so much that it will harm or scar a child, so it’s appropriateness depends on the child.
The music by Harline and Washington is wonderful. In the first scene Geppetto plays a music box and you can hear that influence throughout all the songs.
Some express concern about When You Wish Upon a Star because dreams do not always come true but I don’t think encouraging children to dream is a bad thing. They have plenty of time to learn the harsher realities (plus many are presented within the movie) so that doesn’t bother me.
It is interesting that Pinocchio only has one female character in the story- the Blue Fairy. In Snow White we have 7 male dwarfs, a prince and an evil queen. In Pinocchio Geppetto, Jiminy, Honest Fox, Stramboli, The Coachman, Lampwick. I don’t know if that will affect a girls enjoyment of the movie but it is interesting.
Pinocchio is visually gorgeous with good, if heavy-handed moral teachings. It can be scary for kids and has a grim overall in feel. I appreciate it but I can’t give it my highest rating because of how I know it affected me as a child.
Overall Grade- B+