03 April 2009

Pinocchio (1940)

d. Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen / USA / 88 mins.

Many argue Pinocchio is as close as Walt Disney came to technical perfection, and, although it is not my favorite film of his, I find it difficult to disagree. Of all the animated features he produced, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938 to The Jungle Book in 1967, the art of Pinocchio feels the most alive. Its location in the canon — as Disney's second animated narrative feature, released the same year as his first avant-garde film, Fantasia — seems to contribute to this sense. The excitement of feature animation hadn't yet become standardized, and the exuberance of his animation crew (which had honed its skills on Disney's Silly Symphonies and ultimately Snow White) is still radiates. Now remastered in preparation for its seventieth anniversary, it looks crisp and new. The artwork pops from its careful detail, and patented multi-plane camera produces its best work here, creating an illusion of depth that is almost as convincing as it is visually stunning.

They still make films this beautiful, but rarely do they animated films this frightening. Its parable is as subtle as its carnivorous whale: "good" boys get respect and love and become something, "bad" boys are cast out, isolated, punished, abused, and transformed into donkeys. Pinocchio (voiced by Dickie Jones) is a marionette made by the kindly and lonely old Gepetto (voiced by Christian Rub), who longs for the wooden boy to be flesh and blood, someone to love and someone who will love in return. Then, as these things are wont to happen in the world of animation, the Blue Fairy visits and anthropomorphizes the toy, giving him the chance at experiencing life and the opportunity to become a real boy. As a guide he has Jiminy Cricket (voiced by the magnificent Cliff Edwards), his insectoid and de facto conscience. But Pinocchio soon finds himself in the hands of villains.

Naturally in this realm we're stretching the limits of credulity and lacks almost any semblance of realism. So how does Pinocchio manage to still be disturbing? I think the answer lies in the boy's anxiety-inducing innocence. Even when he is lured by a walking-talking fox named Honest John and put into the hands of a Russian sideshow tyrant, he's all smiles. Pinocchio's famous number "I've Got No Strings" — performed on the sideshow where he dances with other puppets — is done with a smile. Sure, he's confused a little bit and very curious, but the film wisely (and nervously, for me) never imbues its character with any adult characteristics; the mission is to become a real boy. Pinocchio only realizes how much danger he is on until he is locked in a cage hanging from the ceiling. It helps too that Jones, the voice of Pinocchio, was only thirteen at the time, his light and cheery falsetto layered gently in the background of otherwise bizarre and suggestive imagery, which, let's not forget, is unsettling on its own. The bad children on Pleasure Island, who smoke and drink and gamble, are transformed into donkeys, stripped of their ability to speak and are eventually put to work on the salt mines. Even as an adult, it can give a chill.

When Pinocchio won Best Score and Best Original Song at the 1941 Academy Awards, it was the first animated film to win in a competitive category. It has truly wonderful songs — there isn't a dud in the bunch — and no doubt that comes from the fact that the film is economical with its music. Although it's 90 minutes long, there are only five songs in Pinocchio (and two reprises). All of them are catchy and appropriate to the film, and Disney front-loads them — we make our way through all five songs before plot of Pinocchio-gone-missing actually begins. They're all well known today: the lovely "When You Wish Upon a Star," frequently covered but never as tender as when Edwards sang it; Gepetto's "Little Wooden Head," Jiminy's "Give a Little Whistle," the aforementioned "I've Got No Strings," and Honest John's snappy "Hi Diddle Lee Dee (An Actor's Life For Me)."

Ironically, for all its stranger and unexpectedly twisted elements, Pinocchio is still often dismissed for sentimentalizing the sketches of Italian writer Carlo Collodi, whose fairy tales of a boy marionette became collected as the book The Adventures of Pinocchio. It's undeniable that the film has heaping spoonfuls of sugar in traditional Disney fashion, but the effect is remarkably balanced. One of Disney's purest talents (in addition to his visionary genius and knack for selecting engaging stories) is a striking sense of pace. If you'd asked me years ago what I thought of Pinocchio (or Snow White or many of the other golden age films), I'd have told you it was boring. Half-hour television might be to blame for why I remember these slim animated features as overly long, but when you enter adulthood, it's nearly impossible not to feel how fast the story gets underway. I've been watching animated films literally since I was an infant, but I was well into my teen years before I truly began to appreciate them. Re-watching Pinocchio, boring was the furthest thought from my mind. The film is slim, yes; stunning yes; terrifying, yes; but hardly boring.


Sam Juliano,  03 April, 2009  

Lovely remembrance, and timely too with the release a few weeks ago of the first-ever two disc edition on DVD. I have a special place in my heart for this film, as it was the first film I ever saw in a theatre in the late 50's at a VERY young age. My father (who is still alive and well at 78) took me to see it one evening in a local movie palace, which has since been razed. I had nightmares for days, and I think your explanation as to why the film is so terrifying is dead-on. In any case, who can ever forget those beautiful songs, that stunning animation, and the unforgettable tale. SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS and FANTASIA rightly challenge it as the greatest Disney feature ever, the slightest edge may well lie with this film, which for the reasons you espouse, is timeless.

Films.... 04 April, 2009  

Hi! T.S.,
I haven't watched Walt Disney's
(1940) yet, but I plan to seek it out!...What a very detailed and interesting review as
usual...of this Disney animation.

Dcd :-D

Daniel Getahun 06 April, 2009  

"They still make films this beautiful, but rarely do they animated films this frightening."

So true - and to think, this was the very first movie I remember seeing in a movie theater, upon the rerelease in 1984. I was only 3 or 4 and it haunted me. And I loved it. Thanks for this recap, I ought to see it again.

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