Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Disney’s Pinocchio (1940, movie review)

       It’s been called one of Disney’s greatest animated treasures, the late great Roger Ebert called it his absolute favorite animated Disney movie he grew up with, and on the popular movie reviewing website “Rotten Tomatoes”, Disney’s “Pinocchio” is still the only one that has a perfect 100% ratting out of all the other animated films. This was Disney’s second animated feature, and even though it was initially a box office failure, it’s gained lots of respect and admiration over the years. It’s even regarded as a landmark film achievement in general. I personally didn’t like “Pinocchio” that much as a kid, and even to this day it’s not one of my personal favorites to come from the studio, but I have grown to admire the film over the years, and I definitely see why so many regard it as one of the best, if not the best of Disney’s animated offerings. First of all, this was a very ambitious project, when Walt Disney could have played it safe with another fairy tale like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, he decided to make a movie adapted from a novel that was actually really dark and twisted. Sure the movie isn’t without its dark moments, but the film has a heart at the center, and it conveys some genuinely strong morals that kids should be exposed to at a young age.  

       Our story begins with a carpenter named Gepetto, an old man who makes wooden toys and clocks for children. One day he creates a wooden puppet named Pinocchio, and wishes it could be a real boy, that way he would no longer be a lonely old man. One magic night, a mystical Blue Fairy rewards Gepetto for his kindness by granting his wish and placing a spell on Pinocchio. The puppet is giving the ability to move and talk, but he can’t become a real boy until he’s proven himself brave, selfless and several other things that would make him a good kid. Enter a little insect named Jiminy Cricket who volunteers to be Pinocchio’s contagious and guide on his journey to be a real boy. For lack of better terminology, I love how this movie humanized Pinocchio and made him feel like a real child. He’s bright eyed and innocent, but he doesn’t always make the right decisions and doesn’t even know the differences between right and wrong. It’s a great coming of age story, and a perfect way for young viewers to learn some meaningful life lesions as they follow this character who gets himself from one situation into another.  

       Let’s look at the characters, starting with Jiminy Cricket who’s become one of Disney’s most iconic and well known characters. Personally, I never liked him that much, even as a kid I found him kind of dull. But I do like what he represents, and I wish more animated Disney films would feature characters like this. The only other two I can think of are the mouse Timothy from “Dumbo” and the crab Sebastian from “The Little Mermaid”. These are genially likable side kick characters that will be there for moral support, but convey it through their own charm and charisma. I honestly think current day Disney films rely too much on over the top comedic relief characters and wacky sidekicks. Jiminy Cricket would return in the animated 1947 Disney movie “Fun and Fancy Free”, and his status as one of the most iconic animated characters only progressed from there.

       Aside from Jiminy Cricket, we also have some colorful side characters. There’s the gold fish Cleo, and a mischievous little cat named Figaro. This character somehow escaped the confines of the movie and became a classic cartoon character often featured in both Mine Mouse cartoons and her own individual cartoons. To be honest, I keep forgetting that Figaro came from “Pinocchio”, I always think of her as Mine Mouse’s classic pet, which is wired now that I think about it ... a mouse has a pet cat. My favorite character in this movie is Gepetto himself. Despite being an old man, he still has the heart and spirit of a kid, and he’s just a real joy to have on screen. He also has some really funny reactions, and I especially love the scene when he discovers his wooden puppet has come to life. I almost wish that this was Gepetto’s movie, because he’s almost more interesting than our title character.

       As is tradition with these animated Disney films, there has to be a villain. However, “Pinocchio” might just be the most unique in this regard. There isn’t one main villain, there’s actually several that change with each act of the movie. In act 1 the villain is a traveling performer named Stromboli, who kidnaps Pinocchio and forces him to perform in his show. In act 2 the villain is the Coachmen, who makes money off of children he's collected, and I’ll talk about that in more detail later. Then in act 3 the villain is the giant whale Monstro, who’s eager to make a meal out of Gepetto and his family.
Stromboli is the only antagonist that’s considered part of the official Disney villain line up, but personally, I actually found him to be the most boring and forgettable of all the characters. My favorite of the films villains by far is actually a character named Honest John, a swindler who always steers Pinocchio down the wrong path. This is the guy I always think of when it comes to “Stranger Danger”. He’s soft spoken and charismatic, but you just know you shouldn’t trust the guy, and I think it delivers a good message to kids. I especially love the design of this guy, in contrast to all the other human characters seen in the film, Honest John and his cat side kick are the only anthropomorphic characters featured in the film. I always took it as a metaphor, the other characters may actually see him as a person, but we the audience see Honest John for what he really is ... a tricky and deceptive Fox.

      Ironically, I’ve always remembered “Pinocchio” as one of the scarier animated Disney films that I grew up with. There are some tense situations like when Pinocchio is kidnapped and caged by Stromboli, and there’s some really freighting imagery. That evil smile from the Coachman always kept me awake at night. On that note, lets finally talk about the wicked Coachman. This guy takes advantage of some juvenile children, has them transformed into donkeys, which are then turned into his slaves and prisoners. While Pinocchio is lucky to escape, the coachman is never defeated, and the kids he has imprisoned are never set free, which really bothered me as a kid. That makes the scary imagery and child transformations all the more disturbing with no happy ending, at least for them. The film also features some suggestive themes and content that I don’t think would fly so well today. For example, this movie shows in detail children smoking, drinking, and the word “Jack Ass” is thrown around a lot. Yes, I know there referring to jack ass donkeys, but even before the donkeys were featured in the film we had characters saying “Jack Ass”.  

      This may seem like a really big problem for the film, but all the darkness actually works to the films advantage, and it helps children respect the messages in the movie even more. When most people think of the message from “Pinocchio”, they think of “make a wish, and your dreams will come true”, but there’s actually a lot more to this movie then just that. This is a coming of age story that teaches children the values of being truthful, being selfless, never trust strangers and the visuals used to convey these morals still stick with us to this day. Pinocchio’s nose growing longer when he lies, the kids turning into donkeys when they're selfish, these are all memorable moments that convey a sense of wisdom and helps make the movie a more valuable experience rather than a time waster with some pretty visuals.

       On that note, the artistry on display in this film is very impressive, especially for an early animated film. There’s a scene when Pinocchio is submersed under water and explores the ocean world, and while the layout is very colorful and lively it also introduces some new techniques. This was the first time an animated character was ever featured under water, which meant new challenges for the animators to convey the illusion. They would draw individual bubbles when both the character and fish moved, and they’d also play with the lighting. This whole under water section was probably a big influence on the next generation of Disney artists that worked on “The Little Mermaid”. The locations all have a lot of detail and personality that brings this magical world to life. Gepetto’s work shop for example is one of the most colorful and lively locations I’ve ever seen in a Disney movie. Seeing all his detailed wooden clocks and musical toys come to life is just a real treat. The world of the “Pinocchio” is also very unique. It’s not exactly a fantasy world, but it’s a world where anything can happen, whether it’s a magical blue fairy or an anthropomorphic fox person, and I always love films that can just have strange things happen.  

     I also think the movie is a lot more exciting then we give it credit for. It may not be a swash buckling action adventure or anything, but the thrilling moments in this film are still really good.  The climax with the giant whale Monstro is very intense and exciting to watch. Actually, the more I think about it, this was the very first big action scene to be featured in an animated movie. The beast itself is one of the most frightening creatures to ever come from Disney, in fact I’d say that Monstro is just as thrilling as the giant squid from “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. Something about the design, the deep sounds he makes, and those burning eyes of his that really set the intimidation mood. 


     Now let’s talk about the music, as that played a big part in “Pinocchio’s” longevity. In fact the movie won two Oscars for both original song and instrumental music. Well, the instrumental music is wonderful, those first five notes heard during the opening title screen always get me in the warm nostalgic “feels”. The songs themselves are very memorable, but I’ve never really loved them either. I liked them more for the individual scenes as opposed to the songs themselves. For example, the musical number titled “Little Wooden Head” is very colorful and shows off how lively Gepetto’s workshop can get, but the song itself does nothing for me.  I think most of us remember the musical titles like “I’ve got no Strings on me”, or “Give a little Whistle”, but we don’t really hum them to ourselves, and there just not as fun as other classic Disney song numbers. I will say that Honest Johns villainess song titled “Hi-Diddle Dee Dee” is extremely upbeat, and it has that kind of bouncy melody that still plays in the sub-continues of my head. Of course there’s that classic Oscar winning song “When you wish Upon a Star”, which shouldn’t be taken too seriously, and just appreciated as a wholesome and deeply nostalgic tune. This song is practically Disney’s anthem, and it’s still a really good one that just takes me back to my child hood every time I hear it.  


     Overall, “Pinocchio” still isn’t one of my absolute favorite Disney offerings, and it’s not one that I watch often, but it is special, and the movies positive reputation is well earned. I think children can gain a lot from the wisdom conveyed in the film, and it can definitely spark the imagination in viewers both young and old alike. It’s a film that I’d want kids to see at a young and impressionable age. I didn’t love this movie as a child, but it still left a small impact on me, and I still remember it as I’ve grown up. Ranging from bright and colorful, to dark and sinister, going from fun and adventurous, to beautiful and uplifting ... “Pinocchio” may not be a personal favorite, but it’s a well disserved Disney classic that I sincerely hope continues to be discovered by children of each changing generation.

                                                I give “Pinocchio” 4 stars out of 5.         

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