“Pinocchio” is a one-of-kind gem in the Disney Canon. Disney has always adapted a lot of grim fairy tales, novels and folklore – distilling some of the more gruesome elements into cheerier, contemporary films that still retain the themes and ideas of the source material – and it does so rather well. “Pinocchio” is quite rightly remembered as one of the few Disney films that are genuinely, unrelentingly frightening. Because, here’s the thing about Disney. The studio is extraordinarily good at invoking mood whiplash when it does so deliberately. “Robin Hood” was a lively, lighthearted romp that got very dark in it’s last act. Likewise, “Pinocchio” starts off as a cozy, whimsical, wholesome story about love, family, and your dreams coming true, and then it gradually turns into a ghost train ride or a G-rated horror movie, starting from the moment Pinocchio, the wooden boy, innocently lights his own hand on fire. “Pinocchio” benefits a lot from having excellent pacing. It’s slow-burning but never boring, giving it’s darker moments time to simmer and contrasting them with the innocence of it’s lead; letting dread build and sinisterness spill off the screen, taunting the audience with the knowledge that Pinocchio is in too deep, before it finally strikes forward savagely, like when Stromboli finally shows his true colors. The strongest and most iconic example of this is the Pleasure Island sequence.
At Pleasure Island, Pinocchio and dozens of other little boys are ‘generously’ allowed to indulge in every vice they can imagine. They smoke, drink, fight, wreck everything they get their hands on, and generally behave like animals, and Pinocchio, despite knowing better, joins in with encouragement from his pal Lampwick. That night, when the park’s gone far too empty, Jiminy Cricket tries to talk some sense into the boys but just winds up being pushed around and humiliated by Lampwick – the audience reminded that the ugly side of human nature isn’t just exclusive to adults. Children can be pretty awful as well. Jiminy does manage to uncover the truth of Pleasure Island though. The park’s proprietor turns it’s inhabitants into literal animals, stealing their voices so they can never speak another word and selling them into slavery and hard labor for the rest of their lives. He’s in the market for slaves. Pinocchio and the audience watch Lampwick undergo a werewolf-like transformation, losing his mind and his humanity screeching – metaphorically dying – before Pinocchio and Jiminy are forced to flee the island and abandon everyone there to die, lest they be turned next. And this is the final fate of the Pleasure Island boys. No one ever comes back for them and as far as we know, they’re never rescued. It’s one of the most brutal things Disney has ever done, one of the most honest (if you stray too far from home and ignore all your instincts, you could land yourself in some trouble you’ll never get out of) and by far, one of the most memorable.
I’ve been heaping a lot of praise onto this movie, but none of this is to say “Pinocchio” is a perfect film. Like a lot of the big Walt Disney classics, it does have some noticeable flaws that are often ignored. The first two acts segue into each other nicely, but the movie starts to go off the rails and stops really making sense in the last act when Pinocchio and Jiminy mount a rescue mission to save Pinocchio’s dad from Monstro the whale. The new direction the film takes raises quite a few questions, like why did Gepetto decide to look for Pinocchio out at sea of all places? Where did he get a boat from? Did he always have a boat? Gepetto states he hasn’t caught any fish in days and is on the verge of starving, but the film makes it clear Pinocchio and Jiminy were only away from home for two days tops (they escape from Stromboli, hop on a midnight barge to Pleasure Island, spend a day there and rush home) and Gepetto almost certainly set out looking for them on the second day, so when did he find time to starve?
Why can Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket breathe underwater? (Pinocchio, I can understand, he doesn’t have lungs). Presumably it’s because of cartoon physics, but if that’s the case then why does Pinocchio later die by drowning? (At first I thought it was because he’d been fatally throttled by Monstro, but upon rewatch it was death by drowning). The whale chase sequence is one of the most thrilling and well-animated climaxes in the Disney canon, but the circumstances surrounding it are more than a bit contrived. Along with this movie being a dark fairy tale, the fact that Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio” was an episodic novel and Disney had trouble tying the story together for film probably explains the cracks in the film starting to show in the last twenty minutes. It’s a mark against the movie, but far from a deal breaker.
One of the most notable departures from the source material is Pinocchio’s characterization. While Collodi’s Pinocchio was a cold, cruel and sociopathic creature, the titular character of Disney’s second film is a lovable, enthusiastic, naive child trying to maneuver his way through a new, unfamiliar world and often stumbling along the way. Due to “Pinocchio” as a movie having a surprisingly great understanding of children and containing a lot of childhood fears (some adult fears as well), the living marionette’s character arc throughout the film winds up encapsulating a lot of the experience of being a young kid. Looking up to your parents, being tempted to blow off school, ignoring the advice of grown-ups, getting in way over your head, lying to avoid disappointing others, being afraid of losing your family, gaining friends who are a bad influence on you and learning to value the really good ones you’ve got. Despite his frustrating failures, time and again, to stick to his convictions, the audience is always reminded that Pinocchio is a good kid and during the last act of the film he shows a heroic and determined side to him. He ultimately proves himself worthy of being a real boy by using everything he’s learned throughout his journey and doing everything in his power to make up for his mistakes and save his father’s life. Mind you, a lot of this movie’s plot could have been avoided if Gepetto had walked Pinocchio to school himself on the boy’s first day existing, but where would be the fun in that?
Pinocchio is guided along the way by vagabond-turned-conscience, Jiminy Cricket; his wry, sassy, and supportive sidekick who more than earned the expanded role he was given in this film. Jiminy is an older fellow with a good head on his shoulders, and is more than a bit quirky; a passing drifter who unexpectedly gets drawn into things. Jiminy sometimes feels like a cross between a father-figure and a minister, gently admonishing Pinocchio for his failings and warning him about the dangers of earthly temptations (for modern viewers, the lesson about staying on the straight and narrow can sometimes feel a bit heavy-handed). Despite being the voice of reason and morality in “Pinocchio”, Jiminy is far from perfect and has his own flaws and shortcomings as a person he needs to navigate through. He abandons Pinocchio twice, once out of self-doubt and once out of temper, and he’s also kind of vain at the start: desiring a badge from the Blue Fairy and deciding not to seek help from Gepetto, which could have saved them both a lot of trouble, in favor of not being a ‘snitch’. Still, Jiminy is as true a friend as you can get (especially for a recent one), following Pinocchio through all sorts of nightmarish scenarios like Pleasure Island, all the way to the bottom of the sea. Amusingly enough, Jiminy also has quite an eye for the ladies, particularly human women, and sometimes tries to put the moves on them, despite, y’know, being a cricket.
Being the first of several single fathers in the Disney canon, the kindly, absent-minded woodcarver and toymaker Gepetto brings a strong, paternal warmth to the film. Gepetto lives alone with only his pets and his inventions for company, and he wishes for a son that he’s far too old to have naturally these days. He gets his wish, and he treats Pinocchio with plenty of love and care. Once we get into the second act, Gepetto grounds an otherwise fantastical movie with the comfort and familiarity of home, just waiting to be found again by our hero. Despite the sentimental old guy not appearing much outside the first act, he ends up being one of the more memorable and loving father figures from the House of Mouse. Gepetto is accompanied by his faithful pet, the stroppy, long-suffering kitten Figaro, who acts as Gepetto’s second-in-command and is quite the scene-stealer with his short-tempered antics. It’s easy to see why the mischievous but devoted kitten was later made a recurring character in the mainstream Mickey Mouse shorts, as Minnie Mouse’s cat. The enigmatic but benevolent Blue Fairy, who animates Pinocchio, only appears in person twice in the film, but her magical, motherly influence reaches throughout. Curiously enough, she looks like Snow White all grown up (and apparently they shared the same animator). She’s the closest thing Pinocchio has to a mother figure in the film, and her standout scene has to be the cute but sad sequence where she disciplines Pinocchio for lying and teaches him a lasting lesson about honesty.
Instead of a single, overarching villain, “Pinocchio” has a string of increasingly dangerous antagonists, many of whom have a certain kind of charm to them but prey upon on Pinocchio’s lack of worldly experience in a manner most disturbing. From the line-up, you have two illiterate, manipulative, small-time conmen, Honest John and Gideon, who sell Pinocchio out for a profit; a greedy, bombastic, child-abusing showman, Stromboli, who pretends to be Pinocchio’s friend and then traps him to try to exploit him as a puppeteer; a crass local bully and ruffian who lives a hedonistic lifestyle, Lampwick, who at the same time, does become a genuine friend to Pinocchio; a satanic slave driver in the Coachman, who probably has the blackest heart of them all (not bad for a second act villain); and a colossal, fearsome sperm whale with serious rage issues, Monstro. While poor Lampwick is sentenced to a fate worse than death when his lifestyle choices catch up to him, about half of these guys never have their storylines wrapped-up neatly or receive any sort of comeuppance / justice for their evil. Monstro beams himself to death on some rocks and Honest John receives some preemptive, well-deserved abuse from Gideon with a mallet, but guys like Stromboli and the Coachman simply carry on with their lives after their brief encounters with Pinocchio, free to cause even more damage. In some ways, the lack of closure these figures receive makes them even more real though, and ties into some of the more cynical acknowledgements the movie makes. These characters do have lives beyond being villains in a little wooden boy’s story, and in real life, not every villain gets their due. Not every one can. It’s just one more reason why you’ll want to be careful who you put your trust into.
If there’s one thing you can say about the animation in “Pinocchio” it’s that it has plenty of character. “Pinocchio” was produced during the golden age of animation, a time when much of a character’s personality was portrayed non-verbally through the animation, with longing stares, thoughtful, precise movements and sharp double-takes (in fact, not long after this Disney would try their hand at an experimental film where the animation does most of the work telling the story, “Bambi“). There are times when the film catches you off-guard with the sheer craftsmanship and ingenuity of the storyboarding, like the detailed pan-ins of Pinocchio’s luscious, bustling village, Jiminy Cricket’s energetic POV shots, all the designs of the dozens of projects in Gepetto’s workshop, and Monstro’s entire, massive girth crashing and barreling across the screen in a murderous rage – almost like a storm. When it comes to the character designs of the humans, Disney has improved from their first attempt in “Snow White And The Seven Dwarves” and their designs look much more complex and natural this time around, though there are still a few cases here and there that wander into Uncanny Valley territory, like human Pinocchio at the end (who ironically looks stranger than puppet Pinocchio).
When it comes to the soundtrack, “Pinocchio” is one of those Disney works where the songs and the score blend well together, to the point where the songs feel more like an extension of the score than an interlude. I’m especially fond of how the score in the first act keeps returning to the melody of Gepetto’s lullaby, “Little Wooden Head” (along with how that moniker / term of endearment is later juxtaposed with Stromboli’s sneering taunt at the puppet, contrasting unconditional kindness with cruelty). I also like how several of the songs involve characters scatting or improvising, like the old school performances, “Give A Little Whistle”and “Hi Diddly Di (An Actor’s Life For Me)”. “I Got No Strings” is the most fun song of the lot, for how crazy and unpredictable it gets as Pinocchio performs alongside several other non-anthropomorphic puppets. The most famous song of the bunch is of course Disney’s anthem, “When You Wish Upon A Star”, which I honestly never knew was performed by Jiminy Cricket himself before discovering this movie. Lastly, I want to commend the foley work done in this movie, which I don’t usually draw attention to, for arranging such a diverse and authentic cacophony of sounds for Gepetto’s workshop at the start.
So all in all, “Pinocchio” is a surprisingly early smash hit from Walt Disney Animation Studios and a great morality tale. As I said, the quality starts to drop a bit in the last twenty minutes with an ending that doesn’t make much sense, but it’s easily one of the strongest films produced by the studio during their golden and silver age, and a tour-de-force of quality animation.
* There is a surprisingly large amount of butt jokes in this family film from 1940 (Stromboli could teach Ursula a few things about “body language”), and this honestly made me smile. Some things never change.
* ‘My pets, you don’t like the name I picked for Pinocchio? Well, screw both of you, I’m keeping it’.
* “Oh, Figaro. I left the window open” Why are you so lazy, Gepetto? Close it yourself, bro.
* As I live and breathe, a real fairy. Mmm-hmm!”.
* “I’m dreaming in my sleep! Wake me up! Wake me up!” Alright.
* I sometimes wish we could have seen more of the culture of Pinocchio’s little Italian village. What bit we do see looks pretty neat.
* “Go ahead! Make a fool of yourself! Maybe then you’ll listen to your conscience!” Jiminy Cricket feeling salty.
* Stromboli actually freaking screeches and reeeees when Pinocchio face-plants. Oh my god.
* “I guess he doesn’t need me. What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?” Dat burn.
* “Buck up, son. It could be worse. Be cheerful, like me!“.
* It’s funny how Pinocchio’s nose growing is considered a signature part of this story, when it really only happens once and is never mentioned again.
* “Goodbye Mr. Stromboli!” Pinocchio, no!
* Why do I feel like Pinocchio is always going to have a distaste for actors from now on?
* A rather disturbing background detail (that it took me a while to catch) is Gideon being prepared to clobber Pinocchio with his mallet if Honest John doesn’t win him over his lies. On that note, I’m really glad the two cart him off and practically kidnap him (not like that), because if Pinocchio had willingly gone with them after they had already set him up with Stromboli before, he’d have gone from being a naive puppet to a really thick one.
* Lampwick gives zero fucks about Honest John, Pinocchio.
* Children get labeled jackasses several times in this movie. Add that to the growing list of things Disney could get away in the past that they never could now.
* I felt compelled to share these because I think they’re cute. Lampwick was only a part of this film for fifteen minutes, but like Figaro, the miscreant left quite an impression and I found myself almost missing him for the remaining twenty.
* So Pinocchio and Jiminy are going to at least try to do something about Pleasure Island after the film, right? Because now that they know the secret of what goes on there – child trafficking – it would be pretty messed up if they just kept that to themselves forever.
* “Father! Wait, he ain’t my father. Mr. Gepetto!”
* Gepetto hugs that fish and then tosses it to the side. What a master of mixed signals.
* When Pinocchio tries to outswim Monstro and leaps out of the sea, he gets so much air. That puppet was trying his best to get away. Likewise, Pinocchio wastes absolutely no time thinking up an escape plan and putting it into action (he learned about fire in Act I and his pal Lampwick taught him how to wreck some shit in Act II), since he has no intention of staying inside a whale’s stomach for longer than five minutes. Good lad.
* “Father, why are you crying?” “Because you’re dead, Pinocchio” “No, I’m not” “Yes you are, now lie down”.
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