“Get ready to wish big.” That was the phrase that advertised Pinocchio’s Platinum release. If I had to say one phrase that summed up the experience of Pinocchio, I could not come up with something better than “wish big.” If Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the quintessential Disney movie as far as an emotional experience goes, Pinocchio is the film that established several long running Disney images, traditions, and themes.
Wishing and dreaming had been thematically a part of Snow White, but it was here in Pinocchio that they took front and center as being the crux of the story. “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which originated out of this film, became Disney’s anthem and one of the greatest songs of cinema of all time (AFI ranked it number seven, the highest of any Disney film). It also introduced two themes that would occur in Disney films time and again: the underdog story and transformation. Though Snow White also dabbled in these two themes (Snow White being the underdog, and the Queen’s transformation into the old peddler woman), it is here in Pinocchio that the themes are established fully and become the signature Disney touch.
Pinocchio is little more than a block of wood who gets the good fortune of having the opportunity to become real if he can prove that he is capable of being more than just a blockhead. He is transformed into a walking, talking puppet but he can’t seem to stop making blockheaded decisions. The audience begins to wonder if he is even capable of becoming a real boy, making him an underdog. This talk will come up in later films as well.
Pinocchio has touched almost all of Disney since it came out in 1940. Like I mentioned earlier, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is Disney’s anthem; it’s impossible to listen to that song and not automatically (or should I say, auto-magically) think Disney. During the nighttime performance of Wishes at Magic Kingdom, this is the song that accompanies the show as it lights up the sky and it is Jiminy Cricket who narrates the proceedings. Pinocchio, Geppetto, and Jiminy Cricket are parade staples, and have even earned their own quick service dining establishment (Pinocchio’s Village Haus) in Fantasyland. By the way, if you’re craving pizza on the cheap while you’re in the Magic Kingdom, this is a very good way to go. But the Fantasyland over in Disneyland did one better: Pinocchio has his own dark ride on the west coast called Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, recreating the story from the film.
|Figaro acting like a kitten...|
|... And Figaro acting like a jealous brother.|
The animation was definitely sharper and more refined than what it had been only a few years prior in Snow White. Standouts include the animation of the title character himself. Milt Kahl beautifully renders Pinocchio’s physical limitations that come from being made of wood, and yet his expressions are so vividly real. I believe that the animators watched Dickie Jones as he was performing because the two look a lot alike. Figaro was also amazing to watch; he’s very much a kitten from the way he bats his little paws, but his facial expressions are very much that of a jealous sibling.
If I had to pick one character that was perfect on both halves of his performance, it was Jiminy Cricket. Cliff Edwards was an amazing voice matched to some amazing character animation, done by none other than the inimitable Ward Kimball (Jiminy Cricket was his compensation for having his big soup eating scene in Snow White cut from the final film). Edwards’ rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” is a classic for a reason. The comedic moments - that I suspect Edwards improvise many of - are some of the highlights of the film. My favorite is Jiminy dancing with a music box lady and saying, “how about you and I sit out the next dance?” or something to that effect. Yet when the time comes for Jiminy to be serious, Edwards delivers in strides making Jiminy the heart (and yes, the conscience) of the film. Kimball did not animate a cricket admittedly, but he animated an expressive little creature in a top hat that could serve as the voice of reason in an otherwise corrupt world that our innocent little hero has to navigate through.
And what a corrupt world it is. There are more villains in Pinocchio than in any other Disney film. Stromboli, Honest John, Gideon, the Coachman, and Monstro all present a different kind of villainy. Honest John and Gideon are the slimy, cowardly sort, conmen that will do anything for a few gold coins. Stromboli is big and loud and doesn’t see Pinocchio as a living creature but as something to be owned and controlled. Monstro is an imposing creature whose name has the power to strike fear into the hearts of common sea animals. For my money, the most chilling villain of Pinocchio was the Coachman. He did not have as much dialogue or screen time as the other villains, but what we knew about him was enough to assume that he was a sadistic bastard who preyed on boys behaving in a way that many boys do. Even Honest John knew enough to be scared of the guy.
What’s truly dark about Pinocchio is that no villain received comeuppance by film’s end. Here the audience is left to assume that Honest John and Gideon lived to con another day, that Stromboli continued to put on his puppet shows, Monstro still roams the seas, and that the Coachman went on to sell all of the jackasses he collected to the salt mines. We have to talk about the jackasses. Though you could say that the boys had it coming to them for the way they were acting (smoking, drinking, causing destruction), you can’t help but feel bad for them upon seeing what becomes of bad boys on Pleasure Island. It’s hard not to feel a pit of sympathy in your abdomen when you hear these boys - who were so destructive and bigheaded only a few scenes ago - suddenly sound scratchy and childlike as they call for their mothers.
Watching the transformation of Lampwick, who really is an obnoxious punk for the brief time that we know him, actually gave me chills. We hear that really annoying laugh seamlessly go to the familiar call of a donkey. We see his hands held in a pleading motion suddenly transform into hooves and his last words are cries for his “mama.” Like I said for Snow White, Disney was Hitchcock before Hitchcock. It’s a very classic fairy tale move of having the characters learn their lessons in the most harsh, unforgivable manner, but the fact that this fate befalls children (not innocent children, but children nonetheless) is especially troubling. Knowing what kind of man the Coachman is, I get scared for the boys who couldn’t be passed off as donkeys. The film never tells us what happens to them, but I doubt that it’s happy.
But I think this is what elevates Pinocchio above mere family entertainment. It’s a very realistic fairy tale, if that makes sense. No the bad guys don’t receive justice in the end and the main character makes several mistakes along the way and the moral lessons are taught to him in a harsh and permanent manner. But all of this makes Pinocchio a better person in the end and makes the ending more resonant and satisfying for the audience. When he runs into the ocean after Geppetto without the slightest hesitation, you can’t help but smile and say, “Pinocchio, you’ve grown up.” This is, after all, the same kid who earlier ditched school to become an actor. And it’s Pinocchio who devises a way of escaping Monstro when Geppetto has lost all hope, showing that he’s become smarter over the course of the film. And despite Geppetto’s wishes that Pinocchio saves himself, Pinocchio risks his life to save his father.
And yes, I am crying right with Geppetto, Figaro, Jiminy, and Cleo over Pinocchio. When you watch this scene, watch the shot where Jiminy is leaning on the candle as he cries. I didn’t notice it until I watched Snow White and Pinocchio so close together, but for sad scenes they often do close ups of lit candles that have wax dripping down their sides. The drops of wax look a lot like tears, almost implying that even the candles are sad. But the tears transform into tearful smiles when Pinocchio wakes up, not a carving of wood, but flesh and blood. Say what you will about the kid, but if you ask me, he’s more than earned that real boy status.