by Brandie Ashe
Three years after Walt Disney produced the first full-length animated feature film, 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, RKO released the follow-up to that mega-hit, Pinocchio. Originally intended to be Disney’s third film, its production was accelerated when the studio ran into trouble with the animation of Bambi (that film was eventually completed and released in 1942).
The story of Pinocchio is familiar even to those who have never seen the movie—a lonely wordworker, Geppetto, crafts a wooden boy and wishes upon a star that the boy could be real. His wish is granted by the benevolent Blue Fairy, but Geppetto’s naive new “son” is easily led astray by conniving tricksters, getting into all kinds of trouble that even his “conscience,” in the guise of one Jiminy Cricket, cannot prevent: he joins a marionette show run by a domineering, maniacal old puppeteer; he becomes dissolute and nearly finds himself turned into a donkey; and he is swallowed by a mean, gigantic whale. And on top of all that, Pinocchio’s nose grows to gigantic proportions whenever he tells a lie. Can the pseudo-kid ever catch a break?
Disney’s film is based on the Italian children’s book The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi and published in 1883. The original story is much darker than Disney’s take on the tale (as per usual): for starters, in Collodi’s version, Pinocchio is not so much mischievous as downright cruel. Among other things, the little bastard viciously kicks Geppetto and throws a hammer at the cricket, killing the hapless insect (who is, nonetheless, eventually brought back to life). The movie’s version of the puppet is much more innocent—his troubles come not from a mean streak, but from curiosity and a bit of stubbornness. Collodi’s Pinocchio also faces many more challenges than the Disney-fied version; in the interests of saving time and creating a more cohesive storyline, Disney’s crew greatly streamlined the narrative. In the end, a number of villains and adversaries were not included as part of the animated film—for example, Disney (perhaps wisely) decided to leave out the incident with “The Green Fisherman,” an ogre who batters Pinocchio in flour and tries to fry and eat him.
Even with the more frightening aspects of Collodi’s original story excised from the animated version, there are still enough thrills to scare the little ones. I first saw the film as a kindergartner, and I remember being particularly horrified by the image of Monstro swallowing Pinocchio. The enormous, black cavern of his jaw filled the screen, and it felt like the whale was swallowing the viewer, too—not a pleasant experience for a five-year-old. And it’s not the only moment of terror in the film: the Pleasure Island sequence, with boys being turned into donkeys right and left, is simply horrifying. In many ways, with Pinocchio, Disney (whether intentionally or not) crafted the perfect cautionary tale for youngsters, implicitly telling the young audience, “Be good, or else bad things could happen to you …”
Despite the darker themes at play, in Pinocchio (more so than in its predecessor Snow White), everything comes together as an overwhelmingly satisfying whole. The story, the music, the animation (just check out those underwater scenes—brilliant!) … each element of Pinocchio contributes to an excellent viewing experience all around. The sticky-sweet romanticism of Snow White is replaced by the love of a father for a son—still sentimental, certainly, but definitely more moving than the prior film.
But the biggest difference between Snow White and Pinocchio lies in their respective presentation. I’m not speaking merely of the animation—though the latter film’s imagery is undoubtedly crisper, clearer, more beautifully rendered, and even haunting at times. But while Snow White is a diverting fairy tale, content to merely tell a timeless love story, there is something much deeper at work in Pinocchio. This film is no mere cartoon—it is a multi-layered snapshot of what makes us “human,” and ultimately stands as one of Disney’s most effective coming-of-age stories. Throughout the film, Pinocchio wants nothing more than to become a “real” boy, but there are lessons he must learn and troubles he must endure before that can happen.
Pinocchio’s primary function is as an educational allegory, teaching children the value of making conscientious decisions and listening to the wise counsel of their elders. Using Jiminy Cricket as the stalwart outward manifestation of Pinocchio’s conscience, the film depicts the internal, universal human struggle to do what’s “right” in the face of the “easy” path. And I think this is why the audience—particularly younger viewers—can easily grasp the lessons of Pinocchio—everything is spelled out for you, not in a “geez, you’re so dumb” kind of manner, but a “wow, this cute little bug really knows what he’s talking about and maybe I should listen to him” sort of way (because, as we all know, anthropomorphic bugs are so helpful when it comes to understanding human behavior).
The allegory functions on a religious level, too; in the Monstro sequence, it’s easy to see the Biblical parallels to the story of Jonah, and the Pleasure Island sequence can, in many ways, be equated to Hell, as the boys are punished for their “sins” (i.e. wastrel-type behavior) by being transformed into beasts of burden. The Blue Fairy is a God-like figure, or perhaps the Madonna, who “births” Pinocchio immaculately. And while Pinocchio, with all his unfortunate “human” frailties, seems far from Jesus-like—like Christ, he faces a kind of metaphorical “temptation in the wilderness,” but succumbs quite easily to it in the end—the ending of the film, in which Pinocchio sacrifices himself and is then “reborn” in a “true” form, is reminiscent of Jesus’ sacrifice and subsequent resurrection. Such elements may not be evident to younger viewers (I certainly didn’t see such parallels the first dozen times I saw the movie as a kid), but are indicative of Disney’s tendency to craft films that speak not only to children, but to an audience of all ages.
The music in Pinocchio serves to both lighten the movie’s sometimes-dreary mood and convey some of the deeper emotions at work within the film. On the lighter side of the coin, we have what I believe to be the single most annoyingly catchy tune in the Disney songbook, “I Got No Strings.” Performed by Pinocchio in the marionette show, as he interacts with stringed international costars before the number dissolves into chaotic slapstick, it is somewhat charming. And then this seemingly innocuous little tune burrows itself into your head, and you find yourself singing it all day long (I bet you’re singing it to yourself right now, aren’t you? Good luck getting it out of your head today).
And on the more emotional side, this film features one of the best Disney tunes, and one of the most recognizable songs in the history of cinema, if only for its rampant use as the theme song for all Disney enterprises. Still, despite its ubiquitous presence, “When You Wish upon a Star” is just a beautiful song, no matter how you look at it. Has anyone ever penned more hopeful, optimistic lyrics? The song perfectly encapsulates the heart of the film, for if there is one singular theme to the movie, it is faith—faith in the wisdom of Fate, faith in your dreams, and faith in oneself.
Other tunes on the soundtrack include “Little Wooden Head,” sung by Geppetto, “Give a Little Whistle,” featuring both Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio, and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)” by Foulfellow. Incidentally, the latter song was not the only one intended for the character of Foulfellow; a song called “As I Was Saying to the Duchess” was composed for the movie, but was ultimately left out, as were several other tunes. One of these, “I’m a Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow,” sung by Jiminy Cricket, eventually appeared at the start of the 1947 “package film” Fun and Fancy Free.
The score for Pinocchio was largely composed by Leigh Harline, who began his film career scoring Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” shorts throughout the 1930s. Along with Paul J. Smith, Harline composed the music score for Snow White, and teamed up with Smith once more to compose the tunes for Pinocchio. Harline crafted the music all of the songs in conjunction with noted lyricist Ned Washington. Though Pinocchio marked Harline’s last collaboration with Disney, Smith would work for the company for another two decades, going on to compose tunes and perform on the soundtracks for such films as Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Cinderella (1950), and The Parent Trap (1961) as well as numerous 1940s “package films” (including the aforementioned Fancy Free) and cartoon shorts.
While we’re on the subject of music, it’s important to note the peerless voiceover work in Pinocchio, especially that of young Dickie Jones, who is nicely effective as the title character, and Cliff Edwards, who imbibes Jiminy Cricket with personality and verve—there’s a discernible twinkle reverberating in his voice. The film also features Walter Catlett, whom some (like me) remember fondly as the constable who throws Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in jail in Bringing Up Baby, as Foulfellow. Evelyn Venable, who provides the voice of the Blue Fairy, was the model for the Columbia Pictures logo and also starred in films such as Alice Adams (1935) with Hepburn, Death Takes a Holiday (1934) with Fredric March, and The Little Colonel (1935) with Shirley Temple. And one notable vocal performer’s role was ultimately left on the cutting-room floor: Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and a slew of other characters for Disney’s animation rivals over at Warner Bros., originally voiced Gideon, but the filmmakers decided that the character should not speak after all, and the only note that survived of his performance was a drunken hiccup.
When it was first released, Pinocchio was critically adored, and it would go on to win two Academy Awards, for Best Song (“When You Wish upon a Star”) and Best Score. Still, the movie did not make money on its first run at the box office. Part of the blame for that rests on circumstance—the movie premiered as World War II was in full swing, not long before the United States would find itself drawn into the conflict as well. But subsequent re-releases throughout the next several decades finally saw the film turn a profit for The Walt Disney Company. Today, the movie is recognized as one of the best in the Disney canon, and many (including myself) view it as the pinnacle of the early Disney repertoire, surpassing even Fantasia. In the past decade, the AFI has recognized Pinocchio as the second-greatest animated film of all time (behind Snow White), and “Star” was named the seventh-greatest film song. And as recently as this summer, Time’s Richard Corliss placed Pinocchio at the top of his list of the twenty-five greatest animated films of all time (though let’s not talk about some of the other “great” films on his list).
Pinocchio is a sterling example of the power of animated film, showing just how adept animation can be at examining and depicting human emotion and behavior. It is, in my estimation, a virtually flawless piece of cinematic art. I love everything about this movie: the story, the music, the gorgeous animation … and yes, perhaps most of all, I love the happy ending. Even in my cynical old(er) age, I never fail to shed a tear when Pinocchio’s (and Geppetto’s) dream comes true, and he finally becomes a real, live boy.
After all, if a piece of wood and a lonely old Italian dude can find happiness and build a true family together in this crazy world, there’s just that much more hope for the rest of us, don’t ya think?
How did ‘Pinocchio’ place in the Elite 70?
Pat Perry’s #44 choice
Allan Fish’s #52 choice
Greg Ferrara’s #72 choice