The Persistence of Disney, Part 2: Pinocchio (1940)

| July 17, 2016


Kid’s movies don’t deal with consequences anymore.  In today’s society, we are so afraid of scaring kids straight that we avoid it all together, particularly in their media.  It’s important to notice how few modern movies made for children really deal with the issues they face, or the consequences of ignoring the warning signs.  Child characters nowadays 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.

Walt Disney’s Pinocchio is one of the rare American films that doesn’t have that attitude.  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.  That’s a stroke of genius because the movie has, for four generations, been showing kids a broad-lined example of a kid who does bad things and gets into trouble.  Of course, he learns his lesson and is rewarded, but what a dark twisted journey this is!

In diverting the clean narrative structure that flowed through Snow White, Pinocchio’s journey is more episodic.  Moving out into the world, his journey is more a series of events and smaller bite-sized adventures than an over-riding arch.  In that way, the story is more familiar to a child’s experiences.  Lessons are learned as the events build rather than one lesson that carries us through.  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.  These episodes lead to near-consequences.  When The Blue Fairy asks about skipping school, Pinocchio (in one of the most famous scenes in movie history) finds that his nose is growing.  Disney, in a brilliant stroke of genius, uses this moment to literalize the lesson; the Blue Fairy tells him “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

Of course, the ultimate lesson comes with talking to strangers.  Twice, Pinocchio is faced with grave circumstances.  First, he is kidnapped by the gypsy puppeteer Stromboli and told that he will perform or else he will end up as firewood.  Second, he accepts an offer to Pleasure Island, a grand carnival of misbehavior where bad boys are promised free reign; they can smoke, drink, play pool, vandalize a house etc.  The ruse of course is that The Coachman is turning them all into donkeys to be sold to the salt mines and the circus.  Never has any kid’s movie laid out the dire consequences in such disobedience in a scarier fusion (to this day I’ve never smoked a cigar).  Pinocchio manages to escape, but did you ever notice that he’s the only one?  The other boys apparently met their fate and never returned.  Neither were the villains ever punished.  That’s a hard lesson.

The tougher strains of Pinocchio’s journey are the difficult tugs at his conscience.  He’s pulled in both directions.  On one side are the swindlers who want to lead the boy astray.  On the other side are the more benign figures that want what is best for him.  Geppetto is ostensibly Pinocchio’s father but he’s less a fixture of lessons then he brings about the manifestation of his origin.  Actually Jiminy Cricket is more of a father-figure, knighted as Pinocchio’s conscience he has his work cut out for him.  In that way, represents the frustration of all parents who have to steer a child in the right direction.  He sermonizes and gives advice, but there are times when he wants to (and does!) simply give up and walk away.  Faced with a problem, Jiminy tries and tries to pull Pinocchio back to common sense.  My favorite quiet moment comes when Jiminy gives Pinocchio a sermon in morals when the boy is faced with an offer from Honest John.  Jiminy stands in the middle of a species of flower called a Jack in the Pulpit.  The mother figure, of course, is The Blue Fairy who brings Pinocchio to life – she’s also is the only female character in the film aside from Geppetto’s goldfish.  She’s a nurturing figure but she makes no excuses for Pinocchio’s behavior.  She lets him get into trouble, but pulls him back just when he gets to the point of no return.  She’s permissive, but she’s also restrictive.  There has been a lot of discussion about whether or not she is a far too convenient deus ex machina.  While it is true that she springs him out of the cage in Stromboli’s wagon, and later brings him back to life, it is only after he has discovered something important.  Her getting him out of a jam is really a reward for his progress.  Actually, in that way, I think the The Blue Fairy may be a more well-rounded character than Snow White.  She’s an integral part of the story; she has more of an independent spirit.  She wants Pinocchio to discover things for himself.  She has a hands-off approach to the young puppet.  He learns because he is allowed to experience things.

That speaks volumes about Pinocchio’s maturity.  Throughout the story, he is basically naïve and given the less cynical hardware that kids develop as they get older.  After his adventure on Pleasure Island, after he sees the horror of Lampwick transformed into a donkey, something in his perspective changes.  He isn’t led around but he does the leading.  When he returns home to Geppetto’s shop and finds it empty, The Blue Fairy drops him a note to inform him that his father has been swallowed by Monstro the whale.  Without a thought he runs out into to street on a mission to bring his father back.  That shows a lot of growth.

Pinocchio’s developing maturity was a construct that Disney had to give to the film.  The original source material presented the character in a way that no one would have been able to accept.  Pinocchio is a fairy tale that was wrought from a serialized tale (and later the famous book) by Italian author Carlo Collodi about a puppet who is granted life and then does very bad things.  Pinocchio in the book is a bad boy who does awful things (including killing Jiminy with a hammer!) until he gets himself in so much trouble that he needs help to get out of it.  It was a dark story that troubled Walt Disney because it had no heart, no soul, no love.  Pinocchio was a repellant character that no child would identify with.  So, when the story went into production, the character was brought down from his miscreant ways and given more of a human dimension, despite his wooden orientation.  That makes him more relatable.  If he were simply a bad kid, like say Lampwick, then the journey would be harder to care about.

If the movie had been simplistic then it would also have been hard to care about.  Disney could easily have made just a simple-minded kids cartoon with basic line drawings and no real depth.  That would have been okay but I don’t know if the movie would have had the staying power.  The reason that the movie stays with us is due to his conviction that the movie be something more than just line drawings.  He wanted to elevate a simple kids movie into a work of art.  This is one of the most beautifully drawn movies I’ve ever seen.  The details in Geppetto’s workshop show the work of animators who wanted to take simple drawings to the next level.  The clocks, the toys, the music boxes all are given an extra dimension and when they go off they play a jingly symphony all their own.

One beautiful detail that I noticed early in the film takes place before Pinocchio is given life.  Jiminy approaches Geppetto’s work table and we can see the lifeless Pinocchio sitting on top.  On the floor is a bucket of wood shavings, some of which have spilled on the floor.  That tiny detail tells a story.  It wasn’t necessary and the scene would have continued without it, but to have thought to add that touch shows the generosity they had.

Another detail: One of Geppetto’s cuckoo clocks features a mother spanking her son.  I’ve seen that shot at least a dozen times but it was only this time that I realized that the child has his hand stuck in a cookie jar while the mother is spanking him.  That tiny little shot tells a story in itself.  I love details like that.

That spirit is wrought from the early years of animated features.  Disney and his direct competitor Max Fleisher (the creator of Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons) had the vision to bring the characters off the screen, to give them dimensions that earlier short-subject cartoons didn’t have.  What they created was a style of mirroring the real world without copying it.  It was a sort of stylized reality that we could relate to while still feeling as if we were in a fantasy.  They experimented with giving the characters gravity and weight, for example in the scene when Geppetto dances with the lifeless Pinocchio puppet.  The little wooden puppet bounces and jitters just like a real puppet.  Later when Pinocchio dances on Stromboli’s stage, the other puppets have the bouncy movements of puppets but they are given just enough free movement that they don’t feel like carbon copies.

As with Snow White, the animators proved themselves the masters of the extra step.  That is, they took one idea and added something extra to it to make it extraordinary.  Yes, Pinocchio’s nose grows, but as it grows, it sprouts branches then leaves, then flowers, then a bird’s nest, then birds.  They kept the moment growing and kept adding inspiration after inspiration.

The Disney animators in these first few features were pioneers of experimenting animation techniques, especially in figuring out how to work with the space within the screen.  They could easily have just put characters in front of a colored background, but these animators wanted to put the characters inside of a three-dimensional space.  As with Snow White, they made use of the multi-plane camera, which allowed objects in the foreground and the background to move independently of one another and independently of the central action.  It also allowed the objects to move at various speeds and various distances to create a three-dimensional feel.  The most famous shot in the movie is an establishing shot when we see the town the Geppetto lives in.  The camera moves in past the rooftops and down into the street.  The objects in the foreground move independently of one another so we feel that we are closing in on the space that Pinocchio is occupying.  Think about that, and now imagine that in 1940, most live action movie sets had doors at both ends so that characters entered and exited, there was no depth, no deep focus.  And also remember that Pinocchio came out a year before Citizen Kane employed deep focus!

Sadly, this inspiration wouldn’t last very long.  Disney had such a massive will to push the animated form forward and explore its horizons, but the business end of filmmaking and the world situation were not in his favor.  In the same year that his studio produced Pinocchio it would also produce Fantasia and both films were examples of how art sometimes fights for control over commerce.  Money is always the key objective but in Disney’s case, his art outweighed his finances.  Pinocchio cost a fortune but it failed at the box office and wouldn’t recoup that loss until several reissues in the years to come.  Plus, with the war coming, it would take much of his staff overseas leaving him shorthanded.  Yet, the movie would stand as a prime example of what the animated form was capable of even if the business wasn’t able to keep up.  His later films were great but few had the full sense of really grabbing the art form and shaking it up.  He made it timeless and unforgettable because he wanted to create something great.  The films you’ve been watching, the animated films and the special effects pictures?  Those all owe something to Pinoccho.

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 teaching 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 quite 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.



Bambi (1942)
Dumbo (1941)
Fantasia (1940)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

About the Author:

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