Today’s cinema adventure: Pinocchio, Walt Disney’s 1940 animated feature, based on the classic children’s story by Carlo Collodi, about a puppet bestowed life in answer to a kindly woodcarver’s wish for a son. As the follow-up to Disney’s first foray into feature-length animation, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, it represented an enormous leap forward in the development of the art form, with the animators taking huge strides to overcome the difficulties they encountered- and correct the mistakes they had made- with their first effort, resulting in a visually stunning masterpiece which has, in many ways, never been surpassed. In particular, Pinocchio represents a watershed moment in the advancement of effects animation (as opposed to the character animation at which Disney’s artists were already adept), with its extensive depiction of such elements as fire, smoke, magic, and especially water, creating a dazzling and fully realized environment in which this metaphorical fairy tale can be played out. Additionally, thanks to the use of live action footage and articulated models (maquettes) as a reference for the animators, the film incorporates a level of realism which enhances its ability to engage and transport its audience, as well as featuring inventive angles and perspectives which would directly influence the advancement of cinematic technique in live-action filmmaking. Finally, Disney’s development of the multi-plane camera, which allowed the combination and separate manipulation of different layers of imagery within a single shot, yielded an illusion of depth which prefigured the use of 3-D technology, and helped to narrow the gap between live-action and animated filmmaking- a gap which grows ever smaller to this day.
Of course, it could go without saying that Pinocchio, as with all of the Disney features released during the initial Renaissance of the studio, has become a classic, revered as an iconic milestone in the genre of animation and beloved by generations of audiences as a cornerstone of family entertainment; indeed, critical appraisal of the film has been almost universally positive from the moment of its release, though the outbreak of WWII prevented it from becoming financially successful until it was reissued several years later. However, though its status as a pinnacle of animated art has never been questioned, there have been numerous dissensions over the years regarding its content. Much of the criticism revolves around the divergences Disney made from the source material in order to make a more marketable film: Pinocchio was transformed from a sarcastic, mischievous hooligan into an inexperienced, innocent naïf who is only led into trouble through his good-hearted gullibility, and his design was softened to resemble less the pointy-nosed, spindly marionette of the book than the real boy he will eventually become; the cricket, a minor character in the original story, was developed into a central figure and anthropomorphized to the point that, in the words of his supervising animator, Ward Kimball, “the only thing that makes him a cricket is because we call him one;” and a number of bizarre and/or gruesome incidents and characters were either removed or revised in order to present the story more as a heart-warming fable than as a cautionary tale. The objections to this sanitization of Collodi’s novel stand alongside countless protests surrounding the studio’s similar treatment of other classic sources, fueling the long-standing criticism of the studio for “Disney-fying” its material- producing films that subvert the original intention of the authors and sugar-coat their messages for the sake of appealing to the broadest possible audience.
Thankfully, it is not my role to determine the validity of either of this viewpoints here; though it seems to me they are criticisms based on opinions of what the film should be, rather than reactions to what it actually is. Pinocchio is, first and foremost, exactly what it was intended to be: a visually stunning and highly entertaining work of art. Whatever social or literary obligations the Disney artists might have disregarded, they succeeded beyond reasonable expectation in their goal to create a finished project that holds up to every standard of excellence- not only does Pinocchio exhibit a still-breathtaking mastery of technical skill, it features an intricate, meticulously executed artistic design that is evident in every frame. From the dozens of whimsical clockwork devices on display in Geppetto’s humble cottage, to the rustic Italian Alpine village in which the story is set, to the garish and foreboding over-stimulation of Pleasure Island, to the wonders of the undersea world where the climactic segment takes place; the entire film vibrates with a life and personality that can only result from the passion and enthusiasm of its creators. Even more remarkable is that all this dazzling work is never gratuitously applied, but is wholly dedicated in service to the story: the quantity and humor of Geppetto’s constructions speak volumes about his character, the lurid excess of Pleasure Island clues us into the menace lurking behind its surface, the painstakingly immersive depiction of the ocean environment transports us there with Pinocchio- every tiny detail serves a purpose, and instead of overwhelming us and reminding us of the artificiality of our experience, the richness and variety on display here draws us in and gives us the feeling that the world of Pinocchio is just as real as any place we have seen in our own lives- and perhaps even more so.
Of course, no matter how fully-realized this spectacular world may be, it must be populated if the story is to be told. The characters in Pinocchio– even the minor ones- are as richly developed as the elements which surround them, designed and animated to such specific perfection that the breadth of their characterization is visible in every frame they inhabit: Jiminy Cricket, with his instantly likable blend of gentility and earthiness; Honest John the Fox, the picture of tawdry pretension and avaricious hunger, and his mute sidekick Gideon the Cat, a sort of skeevy Harpo Marx; Stromboli, a menacingly immense combination of flamboyance, volatility and mean-spirited cruelty; Lampwick, the ultimate hoodlum, cocky and uncouth, yet ultimately pitiable as he suffers the direst fate of any character in the film; even Monstro the whale, aptly personifying the unstoppable, chaotic wrath of the universe; and, of course, Geppetto, lovably dotty and infinitely kind, with his pets, Figaro and Cleo, the lovable kitten and goldfish pair that provide gentle comic relief with their yin-and-yang interplay as they respond to the various events taking place around them. As for the star of the show, Pinocchio is crafted as the epitome of innocent boyhood; his sweet nature and his excitement for the brave new world before him are his defining characteristics, and he is in a constant state of action, exploring possibilities, embracing experiences, and honestly seeking to please- even when he lies to the Blue Fairy, we get the sense he is doing it as much to save her from disappointment as to save himself from trouble. As a result, he comes off as a plucky and enthusiastic young hero, instead of the cloying and disingenuous brat he could so easily have become if his creators had chosen to make him deliberately cute or precocious.
The personalities of all these now-iconic characters are a completed by a collection of carefully-chosen voices. Pinocchio was the beginning of a long Disney tradition (now standard for animated productions but at the time unprecedented) of utilizing seasoned and recognizable talent to provide the vocal contributions to their films, featuring Cliff Edwards (as the cricket, a then-popular singer well-known for his work on Broadway and early talkies), Walter Catlett (as the charlatan fox, another Broadway actor familiar to audiences at the time for a string of high-profile character roles in films like A Tale of Two Cities and Bringing Up Baby), Christian Rub (a distinctive and much-loved radio and film performer who not only gave Geppetto his voice but was used as a physical model for the character as well), Evelyn Venable (a popular screen ingénue renowned for her beauty, austere but warm as the Blue Fairy), and Dickie Moore (as Pinocchio, a seasoned child actor with several high-profile live-action roles under his belt). All of these, as well the other, lesser-known voices, fit their parts to perfection, as definitively as any live-action cast embodies their characters. It is impossible to imagine any other voices coming from the figures onscreen in Pinocchio– which is yet another testament to the gifted artists who brought them to life, incorporating the nuances of the already-recorded dialogue into their final rendering of the film, an effect that is perhaps not too unlike that of a motion-capture suit of today transforming an actor’s personality into an animated form.
As if all this sublime artistry were not enough, there is still the perfection of the musical score. Music plays an important part in every Disney classic, and it has never been better than in Pinocchio; the background score by Paul J. Smith is an indispensable part of the film’s character, as are the songs of Ned Washington and Leigh Harline, which are interwoven seamlessly to it throughout. Though all of these songs are well-known by generations of children who have grown up with them, one in particular (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) has become not only the signature tune of the Disney empire but an anthem for optimists the world over; as crooned by Edwards over the film’s opening credits, it sets a tone of wistful longing and lets us know that in the end, though there will be much adversity to be faced, everything will come out right.
It’s hard not to gush about Pinocchio: by way of disclaimer I have to admit that it was my favorite Disney movie as I was growing up, with its metaphor of “becoming a real boy” providing me with much food for thought on my way through childhood and adolescence. Despite this personal bias, I feel completely justified in my enthusiastic assessment of this film. It is still, over 70 years later, consistently listed as one of the top ten animated films of all time, and it has provided immeasurable influence not only on the art of cinema, but throughout popular culture in general. It is widely considered the pinnacle of achievement by the studio that created it (no small feat, considering their impressive track record) and it set a high standard for so-called “family films,” providing stimulating entertainment at all levels of maturity rather than just presenting formulaic pablum designed to occupy juvenile minds for 90 minutes- an egregious cheat still perpetrated by far too many so-called artists who churn out such sub-par, straight-to-DVD fodder. Though today’s high-tech animators can render remarkable imagery that looks far more realistic than anything in it, Pinocchio can hardly be called crude or primitive- it is a work of pure art, exquisitely produced using techniques which have fallen out of fashion in an era that seems only impressed by the newest innovations in a rapidly accelerating parade of obsolescence. Thankfully, it hasn’t gone anywhere: it is still out there, in home video cabinets the world over, captivating yet another generation of young minds and reconnecting parents to their own childhood, and thanks to painstaking restoration and the ready availability of high-resolution formats, it looks as good as new- perhaps even better (see, I do like technological advancement).
As for those who complain that the movie is not an authentic representation of Collodi’s novel, I think it is only right to point out that several other screen versions have been made of Pinocchio, many of them striving to remain much closer to the source material. Without exception, they have all bombed, both critically and financially. Perhaps the latest incarnation, currently in production and starring Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, can break that unfortunate cycle; but until it, or yet another attempt, succeeds, the Disney version will continue to reign supreme.