Pinocchio — 1940, 88 minutes.
Pinocchio is a masterpiece. There is no better word for it, and no film deserves the title more. The opening shots of Jiminy spying on Geppetto in his shop are so wondrous, with such beautiful music, imaginative toy designs, and gorgeous animation, you know something great is happening. Geppetto playing with Pinocchio as a marionette in this scene is so playful, so innocent and sweet. Even Cleo and Figaro, the fish and the cat, are cute and full of life, that comparing them to the simple animal buddies in Snow White shows us how far the studio advanced in character animation in a mere three years.
The adventure Snow White took us on was grand, but predictable. Through a modern lens, the film almost seems like a simpler version of Sleeping Beauty, with the beats of “true love’s kiss” ringing through the film’s final moments. While it may have defied expectations at the time, its imitators and successors have made it seem a bit obvious by today’s standards.
In Pinocchio, everything is a surprise. I watched the film several times as a child, and a few times as an adult, and there are still entire plot points I forget about every time. Based on an episodic novel that was initially printed piece-by-piece in a children’s literature journal, the movie’s three acts almost feel like they are separate stories. First, Pinocchio comes to life, and gets tempted by Honest John. In act two, he joins Stromboli’s puppet act and gets wooed to Pleasure Island, and in the harrowing third act, Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket must save Geppetto, whose trouble is the result of an attempt to save Pinocchio himself.
Not only is the animation a major step up from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but Pinocchio also boasts a much stronger protagonist. Pinocchio’s journey is a much more sympathetic one. He is tempted by Pleasure Island and Honest John, and his naiveté in these scenes is heartbreaking. It takes seeing his friend transform into an honest-to-God donkey in front of his eyes to truly see the error of his ways.
Jiminy Cricket was a brilliant addition as the narrator, lead singer, and assigned moral center of the film. The introduction of the film, When You Wish Upon a Star is so good it became the theme song of the entire Walt Disney canon. He is played brilliantly by Cliff Edwards, a vaudevillian actor from the 1930s. His lack of frustration, and the fact that he does not give up on Pinocchio at any point shows how perfect a character he is.
It’s easy for us to look at Pinocchio and see why he enjoys acting so much. The terrific sequence in which he sings the boisterous I’ve Got No Strings — joined by several traditional, stringed, puppets — is the highlight of the film’s gloomy second act. Everyone loves him, they throw their money on stage, but he quickly finds out that being the star performer, or rather, prisoner, in a crooked, evil puppet show isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Which leads us to the film’s most disturbing, and wonderful sequence. The film’s truest antagonist is revealed at the film’s midpoint, and while he only briefly appears, he is possibly the most hateful villain Disney has ever created.
The average Disney villain is motivated by vain, selfish reasons, and typically are going after one character out of vengeance. Lady Tremaine undermines Cinderella at every turn, but never attempts to kill her. Captain Hook is out for revenge against Peter Pan. But the Coachman is pure evil. The Coachman is motivated by money, and has already sacrificed the lives of countless young boys. I don’t know what the livestock market was like in 19th century Italy, but somehow, he can apparently make infinite money by transforming infinite children into infinite donkeys.
No matter how many horror movies I’ve seen — it doesn’t matter if it was Halloween, Carrie, or The Conjuring — there has never been a scene in American film as terrifying as Pinocchio and Lampwick turning into donkeys and screaming at each other. It is a thrilling, horrifying conclusion to the most disturbing scene in any Disney picture.
The final act starts with perhaps the most fun part of the entire film. Pinocchio and Jiminy attach themselves to some rocks and scale the ocean floor, looking for the whale that swallowed the elderly toymaker Geppetto. The bubbly vocal effects, warped visuals and the beautiful reflections on the seafloor make this scene stand out from the rest of the film as being plain weird. It is perhaps the most beautifully animated underwater sequence until Finding Nemo came out more than sixty years later.
Monstro is a Disney villain much the same way that every human in Lady and the Tramp is a villain, or even the confused, idiotic inhabitants of Wonderland are villains. He simply is acting the way he always does, and it hits us as a villain simply because of his place in the story. He’s swallowed Geppetto and his fishing vessel, but he does not act in a particularly evil way. When he is chasing them, it is because he is mad, but they did after all, just light a fire in his mouth. Pinocchio’s redemption comes in this scene, as his resourcefulness allows him to save his father Geppetto and prove himself brave, truthful and unselfish, just like the fairy asked him to. Jiminy Cricket decides to move on, after seeing how happy Geppetto is with his now flesh-and-blood son. He is a drifter after all, and his current odd job is done.
Pinocchio’s emotional journey is one of great transformation. The reason we love his character so much is his naiveté allows us to empathize with his plight, and not damn him for being wooed by Honest John and the Coachman. It takes a bit to realize that all he wants is to be with his father, but once it hits him, his actions become much nobler, and his brain seems to clear up.
Pinocchio is the gold standard for animation. The film is the best looking I’ve ever seen, bar none. The rainstorms, the whale, Pleasure Island, the dizzying puppet show, every single scene in this film is perfectly drawn. Each character has such rich facial animation, such power and reality to it. Take Figaro, for example. His fur, throughout every scene, has this beautiful feathering effect around the edge. This is a technique known as “dry-brushing,” where you would use an almost-dry paintbrush around the edge to feather the color and give it a nice texture. It is a rarely used, but beautiful technique, visible not only on Figaro but several of the animal characters.
The scene with Pinocchio in the birdcage shows the feeling of weight that the animators give Stromboli’s character, as he marches around the trailer, causing virtually everything in frame to shake. I think the best single piece of animation in the whole film, though, is at the beginning. Before he comes alive, Geppetto plays with Pinocchio as a puppet, and its floppiness is so much like a real marionette. It is a playful scene of innocence, and seems rather innocuous and simple compared to the rest of the film, but it is this simplicity that allows the animators to breathe such great life into pencil drawings, and set the tone for the rest of the film.
There are several set pieces that are impressive, and each is larger than any scene in Snow White. There is a giant sweeping shot where the camera moves through the town and finally, into Geppetto’s house. It simply shows the town, but the way the camera moves throughout the shot, knowing it was all done by hand, is completely spellbinding. Take Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee, when Pinocchio first meets Honest John and Gideon. It starts with standard camerawork, but halfway through the song transitions to an overhead shot, requiring each character to be animated from a video game-like, ¾ top-down perspective. The number of strange angles and warped perspectives each character is drawn with in this film is staggering. From the iconic fishbowl shot of Pinocchio in the beginning of the film, to a warped mirror shot of Jiminy where he is animated twice, once from the front, once from the back, each major scene of the film impresses with something new.
Inspecting each element of Pinocchio separately shows us why it is still a measuring stick against which all future Disney films are measured. It is a technical marvel, a wondrous story, and a gorgeous soundscape. It is funny, heartbreaking and terrifying all in equal measure. All of this in a brisk 88 minutes. It is a bold claim to call Pinocchio the best film of the studio’s Golden Age, but it may boast a much better honor: It is possibly the best hand-drawn animated film the world has ever seen.
Up Next: Fantasia