Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940) movie poster

directors: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts
viewed: 06/23/2012

Walt Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio has long been my favorite of the original Disney feature films.  I’m far from alone in this.  The film is cited by many historians/critics/fans as the possible apex of the studio’s heyday.  It was the second feature film the studio released, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and was produced during the period where Disney had hired up many of the best animators of the time and had set a standard for art education and quality that is resoundingly evident in the film to this day.  What brought me back to the film now was an increasing interest in “fantasy films,” a genre in which I had recently seen Pinocchio listed, and I realized that I had never watched it with Felix and Clara.

Though I’m not personally familiar with the source material for the film, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, it’s clear from some basic gleaning that even in his earliest feature films, which have also tended to be darker than later films, the “Disney-fication” of material was already in heavy use.  For its darkest elements, the film has softened the story a great deal and made everyone a lot cuter and more even-tempered.  While “Disney-fication” is synonymous with cloying sweetness, the fact is that in the hands of the master animators, the characters and the visual effects are superbly realized.

Interestingly, we had just seen Pixar’s new film Brave (2012) in the theater earlier in the day and for all its lush design and technical beauty, the new film paled in comparison to the Disney masterpiece of 70 years before.  The kids both really liked the film a lot, but Felix very clearly stated that it was a much better movie.

They were a little annoyed with Pinocchio’s incessant naiveté.  Carved from wood and painted then given life by the Blue Fairy, the kid was just “born yesterday,” after all.  Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards) is a timeless creation, though admittedly, I grew up with him in all those wonderful “I’m No Fool” cartoons.  He’s imprinted deeply in my psyche.

The music has a number of stand-outs, from “When You Wish upon a Star” (now almost a Disney jingle) to the cute “Give a Little Whistle” to “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)”  and “I’ve Got No Strings,” Disney’s early penchant and success with musical numbers started with truly catchy and memorable music (before it became merely a color-by-numbers template for films).

But the highlight, the really dazzling aspect of the film, are the wonderful animation of scenes like Monstro the whale or the creepy Pleasure Island, where kids are turned into donkeys, stripped of their identities, and packed up for sale by black shadow figures.  The critique of the sins of life there include smoking, drinking, and shooting pool, but also fighting and vandalism.  It’s a moralistic tale, when you boil it down.  “Stick to the straight and narrow path.” or “Be good, or you and your whole family will wind up paying for it.”

Pinocchio is a remarkably beautiful film and a very enjoyable one.  And in my opinion, one of Disney’s best.

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