A Study in Disney: ‘Pinocchio’ (1940)

| November 16, 2021

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Pinocchio (1940) Movie Summary and Film Synopsis on MHM

Kid’s movies don’t deal with consequences anymore.  In the age of safe spaces and nanny states, we are so afraid of scaring kids that we avoid hard lessons, particularly in our media.  Notice how few modern movies made for children really deal with the issues that they face, or the consequences of ignoring the warning signs.  Child characters nowadays seem to borrow the model of Kevin in Home Alone by being so supremely confident that there’s no real concern for their well-being.  They are presented as wise-cracking pint-sized adults who have things all figured out while parental figures are just a source of misunderstanding frustration.  I feel like this is a method of trying not to be too harsh.  We don’t want to show them the consequences of being bad.

The enduring quality of Pinocchio is that it isn’t afraid to travel the darker spaces of growing up.  It’s a scary film, but certainly not without purpose.  Walt Disney and his writing team wanted to pry a message from this material, to show kids the consequences of bad behavior, telling a lie and following a bad crowd.  This is a movie that takes place largely from a child’s point of view and so, by diverting the clean narrative structure that flowed through Snow White, Pinocchio’s journey is more episodic.

Pinocchio experiences much the same dangers that we all faced: he tells lies, he plays hooky from school, he hangs with a bad kid, and he talks to strangers – all things that our parents warned us about, but he is not himself a bad kid.  He is led into temptation, but through good fortune and a mindful conscience, he is thankfully delivered from evil.  Oddly enough, though, his chief parental figure remains very hands-off.  The Blue Fairy knows that he has the potential for mischief but she is willing to let him fail just enough before pulling him back.  She allows the lesson to be learned but won’t allow him to sink too much.

Times change, people grow old and new ideas become old and outdated.  Yet, the most valuable asset to Pinocchio is that it remains a timeless parable that every kid of every generation can come back to.  It’s fun and entertaining but it teaches them something about their own identity and what is expected of them out there in the world.  Be a good person, be a responsible person.  Listen to your conscience.  Listen to your heart.  I don’t recall another film that drove those lessons home like this one did.  It was in the grace of the storytelling that the lessons remained.  “A boy who can’t be good,” The Blue fairy says, “might just as well be made of wood.”  Ain’t it the truth.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.