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Disney Sundays: Pinocchio (1940)

               Okay, there may have been dark imagery and situations in Snow White, but Pinocchio is just twisted. What’s scary is it’s not half as twisted as the book it’s based on.
                Oddly enough Pinocchio feels like more of a Grimm Fairy Tale than Snow White does, in that it’s trying to get across a good moral by telling a story that shows the harshest alternative consequences. It’s also a much less traditional story throwing twists and turns and building on each successive conflict with a greater one.
                The story is about a wooden puppet called Pinocchio brought to life by a mysterious Blue Fairy as reward for the good deeds of his craftsman an old childless man called Gepetto who’s been wishing his puppet was a real boy (just go with it, it wasn’t so creepy back then). She appoints an intelligent if meddling vagabond Jiminy Cricket to be Pinocchio’s conscience and promises Pinocchio that he will become a real boy if he proves himself brave, honest, and unselfish. Gepetto is happy beyond his dreams to have had his wish come true and the next day sends his new son off to school (odd, you’d think education could take a back seat a little longer in favour of some more bonding time). And thus Pinocchio is sent out into the world where he encounters a malady of temptations, villains, and dangers leading him to learn some tough lessons.
                One of the things I like best about this film is how it portrays its characters. Pinocchio aspires to be a real boy throughout without realizing he is a real boy. He’s just as naïve, just as susceptible to temptation and vice as any other kid which makes him instantly relatable. He wants to do the right thing most of the time but keeps getting misled, proving he has a good heart but is just a gullible, impressionable kid. Everyone’s familiar with the nose growth scene, it’s one of the things always associated with Pinocchio, because it demonstrates his first big development, the first time he learns something. And because he learns from his actions, there’s nothing wrong with the mistakes he makes, something the film doesn’t stress enough, but that I’ll get into later. The film boasts a solid supporting cast as well. Yeah Gepetto and his pets aren’t that interesting but they’re serviceable and the Blue Fairy is just sort of kind and didactic without much character. But then there’s Jiminy Cricket who though may be mistakenly the audience surrogate (it probably should be Pinocchio) is a clever and comforting character to watch even if he may be a little too condescending at times. And there are some great villains in the movie, even if their dialogue is too obvious about it (in fact a lot of the exposition in the film is a little too obvious and clumsy). Honest John and Gideon the randomly anthropomorphized fox and cat, are entertaining con artists whose scenes work as comic relief reminding me of Looney Tunes. Which is interesting considering Mel Blanc was originally supposed to be the voice of Gideon. But the menacing villains start with Stromboli, and his tendency to be warm and jolly one minute and the next a cruel kidnapper who implies he’s just exploiting Pinocchio until his popularity wanes and then will chop him up for firewood. This and the fact that he’s Pinocchio’s first experience with a sinister world gives him quite a fear factor. What about the Coachman? He’s fairly one-note but it’s a very disturbing note. Not only does he have a creepy face but he lures children to the unsettlingly named Pleasure Island where he turns them into donkeys. Finally Monstro has the colossus factor going for him and because of his size, design, and anger is pretty effective, and actually kinda makes me wish Disney had given Moby Dick a shot around this time. One thing’s for sure this is a pretty awful world Pinocchio lives in. You could even make an argument all these obstacles, dangerous characters, and situations were purposely thrown his way by the Blue Fairy as some kind of test. It’s a world that doesn’t really make sense, but is certainly gripping, where creepy men lurk behind every corner, no one questions two anthropomorphic animals walking about, and everyone but Gepetto seems to have a negative impact or bad influence on Pinocchio. Even Lampwick, another child, is a jackass …literally!
                Good god that scene was disturbing! Finding out all the children on this island (again, Pleasure Island…ughhh) were being turned into donkeys was horrifying enough, but seeing Lampwick’s transformation (while calling “Mommy” as if it wasn’t bad enough) was like an animated, less gory version of a scene from The Howling! Though I like how Pinocchio at first reacts by looking at his cigar as if to say “what the hell have I been smoking?” What’s even darker is that while Pinocchio escapes, these other kids don’t, leaving their fates ambiguous and haunting. Lampwick and the other kids couldn’t have met a good end. The film goes down a number of these dark avenues that really push new boundaries. The moment Pinocchio steps out Geppetto’s door he is bound for hardship encountering temptation, exploitation, incarceration, and even ingestion before the films end. Each event is episodic which I understand is akin to the book, but the grimness of Pinocchio’s situation keeps building. Each time he tries to get back to Gepetto or safety something happens to throw him into even more dire circumstances winding up further and further away from his father. It actually reminds me of one of my favourite animated films, Don Bluth’s An American Tail whose protagonist Fievel also has danger upon danger thrown at him before he reunites with his family. But Pinocchio does balance it out with some moments of whimsy which though a little overly schmaltzy, are a welcome retreat from the darkness and terror in every other scene. And again, the fact Pinocchio clearly learns from these experiences gives them greater meaning and importance to his development, rather than just be a pointless attempt to look mature, which is certainly not something Disney was going for at this time.
                The big criticism I have though is similar to Snow White, in that there’s outdated notions around the moral. The story’s moral revolves around following your conscience to determine right from wrong and while I like Jiminy, personifying someone’s conscience gives the film a definite bias. Pinocchio makes mistakes in his decisions as most young boys do and there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t like the films’ assertion that there is. It shows making the wrong decisions resulting in the most horrifying consequences, which I fear might just make some kids afraid and uncertain how to act in the real world. And the regular use of the word “temptation” makes it come off as very conservative and operating on a certain set of values. It’s good to show kids that tempting vices such as misbehavior, peer pressure, and a desire for fame won’t always work out (you could even argue likely won’t) but a little balance is necessary. What the film should be saying is you should think about what’s right and wrong and let that influence your decisions, let your personal conscience be your guide. Again a hard thing to get across when including an externalized and sometimes irritating figure in that role. Luckily by the end of the film he becomes a real boy in another death fake-out scene (how did he die by drowning anyway? We saw he could breathe fine underwater earlier? And while on the subject, what happened to Geppetto’s crewmates? Does he own a ship? If he could survive in the stomach of Monstro, couldn’t they? How long was he even in there before Pinocchio came? Maybe he resorted to cannibalism until he could get hold of some fish. Something the movie maybe DID shy away from?) He gets his reward, lives happily ever after, and learns enough that he may forge a conscience of his own. Maybe Jiminy will be out of the job.
                Other than that, the film is animated brilliantly. It’s not quite as stunning as Snow White, but really conveys the necessary darkness and terror of a lot of the tone while still maintaining a wonderful heart. The music plays a part in that too. Most of these songs are just sorta cute like “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” and “I’ve Got No Strings”. Then of course there’s “When You Wish Upon A Star” the future Disney anthem, and which I think is terrific and perfectly encapsulates Disney. It’s full of heart, charm, and whimsy even if it’s not getting across a practical message. But come on, no one thinks wishing on a star’s going to make their dreams come true. It’s not like I’ve tried…
                Pinocchio certainly upped the ante of what Disney could do and it’s terrific for that. As a dark and weird story I think it works and will keep you invested the whole way through. It’s probably not as brilliant as it’s often hyped to be, but it’s still a great outing that showed even when putting a protagonist through the darkest and scariest of circumstances, Disney could still produce an entertaining, memorable, and even invigorating movie.

Next Week: Fantasia (1940)

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