Discovering Disney: Pinocchio (Film, 1940)

There comes a time when a child, once so full of wonderment and awe, grows into an adult, hardened by life’s numerous lessons, perhaps even made cynical. As the years go by the adult becomes jaded and loses touch with what they once found magical. Through all of this, art ceases to amaze as it once did. This is especially true in an age of CGI, where animation and reality have blended together so seamlessly (at least when the money’s spent on it) that the naked eye can’t distinguish between real and fake. I bring this up because to look at Disney’s earliest films with modern eyes, one can easily dismiss them as cartoons. But just as the hardened adult can turn their nose to such childish excursions, the film Pinocchio still echoes with wonder and delight, amazement and thrills, and above all else, homespun American values.

At first glance, Pinocchio comes across as a simple tale. This was one Disney’s greatest strengths, with the best stories lean and trim. In fact, Pinocchio is less than an hour and a half long takes place over the course of two days and contains just the simplest of morals. But make no mistake, the film is rich and rewarding, with a message so simple but earnest and true that any kid would find value in it. More than one adult could too.

Everyone knows the story. Pinocchio is a wooden doll created by the old and loveable Geppetto. Geppetto lives with his anthropomorphized pet cat and fish. One night, Geppetto looks at a star and wishes that Pinocchio was a real boy. Later that night, when everyone is asleep, a blue fairy appears and transforms the lifeless doll into a living creature. She tells Pinocchio that if he proves himself to be brave, truthful, and unselfish, she’ll make him a real boy.

The moral implications are cornerstones of American, and more importantly, middle-class values. Coming on the heels of the Great Depression and the dawning of World War Two, the message couldn’t be more pertinent. Just look at the wonderment of a child’s eye as they watch Pinocchio’s nose grow as he tells lie after lie, eventually growing a bird’s nest and flowers, only to see them wither and die as he pours on another lie. It’s such perfect imagery for a child to take in. Of course, it’s bad to lie, a fact children find out as they find themselves in the same situations as Pinocchio. The blue fairy hits the point home when she says, “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

If that message wasn’t clear, the film takes a sharp turn from delight to terror. Pinocchio, after being conned by the nefarious Foulfellow and Gideon (Great names, right?), finds himself in the company of fellow mischievous boys on the misleadingly titled Pleasure Island. There he befriends Lampwick, who shows him how to smoke a cigar, drink beer, and shoot pool. Again, these are bad behaviors that children often find themselves in, usually as they imitate the adults around them, but the fear of God is put in them when they first see little boys transformed into donkeys, with one squealing, “I want to go home to my momma!”

What’s really great about the sequence is Pinocchio’s reactions as Lampwick transforms. First Pinocchio throws away the beer, then the cigar. The implications are clear as day, and most likely had many kids kicking any habits they might have had after seeing the terrifying sequence.

As great as the moralizing is, boiling down the film to just its themes does injustice to the technical perfection that the Disney animators achieved. First, there were the two now-famous shots using the multiplane camera, which allowed the creators to make the appearance of a camera following the action through a 3D environment. I’d love to show a clip but YouTube has failed me at the moment.

Another famous sequence involves the dreaded whale Monstro. Thankfully,  I found some footage.

Most modern viewers will claim this is nothing new, but at the time this was groundbreaking stuff. To add to the point, the animation still adds up to today.

I could easily go on and on about the animation, like the groundbreaking depiction of rain and lightning, but this will be beating a dead horse. The simple truth is that Pinocchio isn’t just a Disney classic, it is the quintessential Disney classic by which all others should be judged by. As we make our way through the Disney animated features, we’ll see a case of diminishing returns. I’d make the argument that Disney has never matched the heights that were the first three features (up next is Fantasia), but that’s like holding all films that came after Citizen Kane to the impossible standards Orson Welles set. Until next month, adiós.


About Michael Medlen

My name is Michael and during my free time I avoid having a day job. Strangely enough, this gives me the freedom to run this blog. I write just about anything that can be considered art. I also occasionally post articles that may or may not be relevant to the theme of this site. You’ve been warned.
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