#252 Pinocchio

(1940, Ben Sharpsteen & Hamilton Luske)

“Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and someday, you will be a real boy.”

I’ve covered a lot of Disney movies, it seems, although in actual fact very few movies from Disney’s Animated Canon are on the 1001 Movies You Must See list. In fact, I believe this may be the last one we’ll see. Disappointed that many of your favourites weren’t included? So am I, but there you go.

Pinocchio, as you may know, is the story of a puppet made by the eccentric Geppetto, brought to life by the Blue Fairy and accompanied by the quirky Jiminy Cricket. Pinocchio must learn to be brave and kind and other positive character traits in order to become a real boy and not be taken in by tricksters and turned into a donkey, and mustn’t tell lies otherwise his nose will grow to enormous proportions. Someone gets eaten by a whale too. It’s a weird story.

Pinocchio’s inclusion is another odd one that I’ve yet to figure out, much like Dumbo. While Snow White was Disney’s first feature, and Fantasia was an experimental piece that influenced many, these other two 1940s Disney Canon choices seem to be less obviously justified.

Much like Dumbo, Pinocchio feels like a whimsical experiment by a studio still trying to find its feet. It’s a movie that has very good animation, like all Disney movies, but struggles to hold itself together in a seamless way. Unlike Dumbo, however, Pinocchio’s issues go beyond just the plot.

In fact, the animation itself feels pieced together. There are times that it feels that the characters occupying the world weren’t just animated by different people, but were animated in different styles by different studios altogether. While much of the cast have a very thick-lined “zany” cartoon style, the Blue Fairy has a much more subdued, more realistic art style and the whale towards the end exhibiting a more abstract scribbled style, and none of these art styles blended particularly well.

Which is a shame, because apart from that, the movie is extremely well-animated. But then again, that’s to be expected from a Disney production. It’s just a shame this element brings it down a little.

Pinocchio also suffers from Disney’s early Ultra Whimsy Syndrome, where Disney animators were so determined to appeal to kids and make their animation look as magical as possible, they inserted scenes that merely increased the length of the film in a way that didn’t really advance the plot. Thankfully, many of these whimsical scenes involved Geppetto’s cat, and I can accept whimsy if it typically revolves around a cute kitten doing the kinds of things that make kittens cute.

But then you have sidekick and later Disney mascot Jiminy Cricket, whose entire role is to make jokes and break the fourth wall, and allegedly act as Pinocchio’s conscience, and sometimes his appearance is whimsy too far. This is largely because his role as sidekick is diminished somewhat when he ultimately doesn’t really do anything of note. While he could be entertaining, there were times when I wondered exactly why he was there at all. Clearly I’m in a minority because of his enduring popularity, but there you go.

The whimsy does affect the plot. Pinocchio’s growth goes from naïve puppet-boy with no knowledge of the world to smart, resourceful action hero without any kind of middle ground, and it’s a little jarring. Scenes often feel like short clips pieced together to vaguely make a narrative. Basically the same kind of issues that all early Disney movies suffered from, then.

Where Pinocchio definitely succeeds, however, is in sheer, unbridled terror. Pinocchio is possibly the creepiest Disney movie ever made, and it’s not even due to changing values. This was meant to be terrifying in the 40s, and is still terrifying today.

Stromboli, who kidnaps Pinocchio and forces him to dance for him, is a genuinely messed-up character that will probably haunt my dreams (probably not as much as Alice’s…well, everything, but getting there). But even he is nothing compared to basically everything surrounding the Pleasure Island sequence, where young boys are scooped up off the streets and turned into donkeys, meant to be sold off for profit to the salt mines.

Everything about this sequence is horrifying. The creepy implications of strange men gathering up young boys for their own ends, the dark and moody art design of Pleasure Island itself, the gruesome transformation sequences and the sight of all the sad donkey-children crying in their cages all combine to make possibly the most unsettling thing in any Disney movie. And you know what? I approve of it. The best Disney sequences are always the ones designed to give children nightmares, after all.

So, overall opinion of Pinocchio? I liked it for the most part, mostly because of its uncompromising horror, but it is as flawed as many other early Disney outings and certainly still isn’t as good as Bambi, which still remains missing from the 1001 Movies You Must See list for some unknown reason. Get your act together, guys!

Starring the voices of Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc, Walter Catlett, Charles Judels, Evelyn Venable & Frankie Darro
Written by Carlo Collodi (novel) and Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner & Aurelius Battaglia
Produced by Walt Disney
Music by Leigh Harline & Paul J. Smith

Favourite Scene: Have to hand it to Disney for being able to make the donkey transformations genuinely uncomfortable.
Scene That Bugged Me: The whole thing about lying leading to an enormous nose is famous, despite the fact it never really leads anywhere on the whole.

Watch it if: You want to watch Disney be creepy
Avoid it if: You’re still allergic to that old Disney whimsy

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Posted on January 14, 2014, in 1940s, Animation, Family, Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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