Posted November 14, 2010 by editor in Retrospectives

Disney: Pinocchio

Disney is widely recognised as the most prolific cinematic creator of firm childhood favourites, with songs remembered long into adulthood and whimsical characters that parents are eager to share with their children. There’s an entire world of princesses, woodland creatures and fairies that are synonymous with the name ‘Disney.’

Their 1940 release ‘Pinocchio’ is a bona fide Disney classic, yet is actually rather darker and more sinister than you may expect a children’s film to be. The charming but dated opening credits immediately tell us two things. One: this film is old (the strained, almost classical music is the biggest age indicator). Two: this is a fairytale (there’s italic script and a book emblazoned with the film’s title where the story unfolds from). Today’s audiences may find these credits boring as often in more modern films, there is action behind them and less information (most details are saved for the end credits – i.e. when people are leaving the cinema or switching off their Blu-Ray player). There are usually more effects than fade-out, too, but there’s something pleasantly nostalgic about the old-fashioned grandeur credited to those involved and rather being busy or distracting, it’s wonderfully simple.

Disney is also renowned for putting a unique and magical spin on existing stories from around the globe and, true to form; Pinocchio is adapted from an old Italian story. Disney’s incarnation of the protagonists are as memorable as they are adorable in appearance and in global consciousness have surpassed author Collodi’s original characters. Our first encounter is with Jiminy Cricket (a cricket named Jiminy, an amusing literal manifestation of an old-fashioned saying) singing the opening song in top hat and tails. His presence as the narrator is a reassuring reminder that this is only a story and makes children feel involved with the action, as he talks directly to the camera as though confiding in his viewers. It’s also a clue that there’s a happy ending, as when the story begins he is dressed as an archetypal hobo, right down to his fingerless gloves.

Gepetto, Pinocchio’s ‘father’, devotes his time to lovingly creating his puppet, flanked by his faithful pets Figaro, the sulky cat and Cleo, the flirtatious fish. An elderly man with a red nose (could Disney be suggesting he likes a drink?) who spends his time surrounded by animals, ornaments and toys sounds creepy out of context, but somehow he is portrayed as a heart-warming, grandfatherly type in this picture, a man who wants nothing more than a son to love. (If you’re still in doubt, just think: the glamorous Blue Fairy grants his wish. What better character reference could you ask for?)

The anthrop morphology of Disney animals sometimes means that they come alive more than some of the ‘humans’ featured in the films, who as a result are secondary characters somewhat dehumanized by the vivid personalities of the animals. In Pinocchio, the action centres around a puppet, taking the action outside the human world in another way. Talking puppets and animals in clothing add to the fantasy element, but could mean there is limited identification between viewers and characters – not so with Pinocchio. It’s filled with fundamental morals and life lessons that children will carry throughout their life; how do people learn what a conscience is unless they’ve seen this film?!

Jiminy is nominated to be Pinocchio’s moral compass, and like any normal child Pinocchio doesn’t always find it easy to behave. Soon after he is brought to life, he is put to the test by a conniving fox (‘Honest’ John) who leads him away from school to become an ‘actor’. The villains of this piece are easily identifiable as ‘evil’ – they are ignorant, with cruel voices and ugly features. The piece’s first human “baddie”, Stromboli, who owns the show Pinocchio makes his acting debut in, has thick, grotesque lips, a bald head and an oversized nose. The Coachman, who Pinocchio meets later on the misleadingly-named ‘Pleasure Island’, is gnarled from bearing an eternal frown. Both have enormous wobbly guts, which may be deemed rather politically incorrect today, but which adds to their imposing appearances.

Honesty is a very strong moral theme – everybody knows if you tell lies, your nose will grow, like Pinocchio’s! When our eponymous puppet lies to the Blue Fairy, his enchanted nose gets longer and longer because as she says “a lie keeps growing and growing, ’til it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” There is also a lesson to be learned from his experiences on the importance of attending school and getting an education – as an actor he is kidnapped, exploited and made a laughing stock. If only he had gone with all the good boys and girls to receive an education!

Emphasis is placed heavily on the importance of friendships and family – the only place Pinocchio is secure is with Gepetto, and both must fight their way back to a reunion with the help of their beloved animal sidekicks. Stromboli treats Pinocchio atrociously and The Coachman is a monster, proving that the grass is definitely not greener outside the home. The dark side of this movie is strongly associated with ignoring the above values and is particularly notable in the scenes on the island. In fact, these scenes are downright frightening, and akin to a bad hallucinogenic ‘trip’ (not like the comedic ‘Pink Elephant’ scene in Dumbo!). Pinocchio and the other boys indulge in gluttony, vandalism, drinking and smoking – activities which children may fail to understand entirely, but the ominous atmosphere will them that no good can come of Pinocchio being there. Some parents may not appreciate their offspring witnessing Pinocchio smoke a cigar, but it is portrayed as wrong and sickness-inducing, so fragile minds are unlikely to be swayed in favour of such behaviour – especially when they see how Pinocchio risks being punished!

It is even possible to read far enough into this film to see it as suggesting that leading a morally ‘good’ existence is liberating – when Pinocchio joins the Marionette Show he is somebody else’s tool, being manipulated even though he’s “Got No Strings”; in order to be a ‘Real Boy’ he must choose a good and virtuous path for himself (with a little help from Jiminy) and not let others lead him astray.

Moral guidance aside, there is also the very uplifting message attached to this movie; that hope is a powerful tool. The lead song (“When You Wish Upon A Star”, used on both the beginning and end credits) and Gepetto’s earnest wishing on a star insist that dreams really can come true. Pinocchio’s soundtrack is one area that may disappoint Disney fans who’ve yet to see it. It’s not bursting with sing-along favourites as with some later Disney films (think “I Wanna Be Like You” from the Jungle Book – to which you’ll undoubtedly remember the words!) because the songs are implemented in delivering morals (“Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide”).

So, it has deeper moral messages than Aesop’s fables and a host of carefully-rendered characters…but has Pinocchio stood the test of time? Is it still enjoyable in a new millennium?
It’s got to be a yes. The simple but important lesson it delivers – be good! – is still entirely relevant. It’s probably more important than ever in today’s world, where children are accustomed to luxury and face temptation from all sorts of new-fangled technologies. It’s communicated in a child-friendly but elegant way, with songs and characters that will capture and engage young minds so they won’t know they’re learning. Those of you who haven’t seen it since your childhood may enjoy it more now than ever before, as there’s a wealth of ‘grown-up’ jokes you may have missed…Jiminy’s enjoyment of some of the saucy puppets and ornaments in his surroundings, and some of the allusions to Gepetto drinking (keep an eye on his clocks!) sail over innocent heads but will be enjoyed by whoever’s supervising their viewing! An hour and a half seems an optimal time for a family movie – it goes over remarkably quickly but is long enough to keep the kids occupied from tea-time till bedtime, without cutting into your evening routine too drastically.

Even though we know it’s going to be a happy ending (it’s Disney!), there’s tension and suspense; will Jiminy desert Pinocchio and leave him at Stromboli’s mercy? Will Pinocchio ever become a Real Boy? Where does Gepetto disappear to? The attention to detail and rich textures, from the intricate clocks in Gepetto’s workshop to the exotic array of colours under the sea, are visually stunning and to this day unequalled. Even sixty years on, Pinocchio puts to shame lazy effects seen too often in recent years (such as the frequent reuse of backgrounds and plain outfits in cartoons). The voice casting is the icing on the cake – they’re reminiscent of the voices your parents tried out when reading bedtime stories and are full of light and enthusiasm.

Disney set the bar early – it’s a shame the man behind the name did not live to see whether or not his high standards were maintained!

Lauren Felton