Imagine it’s 1937, and you’re an animator working for Walt Disney. ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves’, the first full-length animated film ever made, and an artistic achievement that pushed the medium and you and your fellow artists to the limits, has just opened and become a runaway critical and commercial success. You’re riding the euphoria of success but exhausted from the herculean effort. Now imagine your boss Walt Disney enters the room, with his trademark cheeky smile and a terrifying provocation: we can do better than that. And in his hands is the next project, the story of a little puppet brought to life whose only wish is to one day become a real boy.
‘Pinocchio’, the second feature film from Walt Disney and his animation team, was a production that dwarfed ‘Snow White’ in every way. A more complex narrative with a much wider scope in terms of character, locations and emotion, it would require artists who had already pushed the medium to its apparent boundaries to do the same again, inventing techniques and technologies to bring Disney’s vision to life. If you compare ‘Snow White’ and ‘Pinocchio’, the difference is staggering; it might be the most impressive leap in terms of artistry in the history of animation. Today, ‘Pinocchio’ is quietly acknowledged as a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of animation ever created on film. It might not have had the enormous cultural impact of its predecessor or the Disney films of the post-war era, but it’s almost impossible to downplay its importance.
Working from the episodic tales of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, the film begins with clockmaker Geppetto, a childless old man who carves a beautiful puppet in the shape of a little boy which he names Pinocchio. As he goes to sleep, he wishes on the wishing star that Pinocchio might one day become a real boy. His wish is granted while he sleeps by the Blue Fairy, who brings Pinocchio to life - with one condition. He isn’t a real boy yet, he must learn the lessons of right from wrong and prove himself worthy of becoming one. To help him along, she enlists a conscience for him, a small cricket named Jiminy. Together, they go through a series of adventures that test Pinocchio and whether he has the capacity to understand the responsibilities that come with being a good person.
It might seem a tad moralistic, certainly by today’s cynical standards, but its the messages at the heart of the film that make ‘Pinocchio’ so timeless, so endearing and so emotional. The film wears its heart unreservedly on its sleeve, and we connect with Pinocchio because we relate to the complexity of what it is to be good and bad. Early on, Jiminy tries to explain the concept to him, but the poor puppet ends up even more confused. His innocent desire to do good is the launching pad for a series of episodic adventures, most of which involve him making all the wrong decisions and putting himself and those around him in danger. Poor Jiminy spends most of the film chasing after him, telling him off and trying to cover his mistakes. Disney saw his role as an artist for children to impart wisdom and ideals that children could take on, but most important of all, that they could actually relate to. Unlike most of his films, where the protagonist is a young woman, ‘Pinocchio’ is distinct in that it’s essentially about a little kid, which gives the film greater emotional scope and far more comedy to play with.
All these ideas at the heart of the film are vital to its lasting quality, but they’d be useless if the film wasn’t so damn entertaining. The film barrels along from set-piece to set-piece, with some of Disney’s finest characters, from the legendary Jiminy Cricket (who looks nothing like a cricket but who cares!) to Geppetto’s pet cat Figaro and pet fish Cleo, to the delectably deceptive comedy team of conniving fox Honest John and his silent sidekick cat Gideon. Each is as beautifully developed and gloriously animated as the last, and cracking with a surprisingly mature wit. And sitting at the heart is the absolutely beautiful Pinocchio, a triumph of character animation and the vocal performance of Dickie Jones. You just want to jump into the screen and hug the little guy, he’s so endearing and innocent and relentlessly optimistic. I remember revisiting the film for its 70th anniversary, and having an instant emotional reaction to him because I had a little brother around the same level of maturity as Pinocchio. He might be a puppet without strings, but he’s almost the most human character of those early Walt Disney classics.
It’s the perfect construction of the narrative and the characters that give the animators the permission and challenge to reach new heights, and for audiences in 1940, this film must have hit them for a six. It’s hard to believe this was only three years after ‘Snow White’ - every department, from character animation to backgrounds to special effects to sound to music is operating on a level that puts most animated films today to shame. Just watch the climax, where Pinocchio and Geppetto are escaping from the terrifying whale Monstro. You have crashing waves, a giant whale, smoke, rocks, wind and water, a mad chase that has to suggest genuine danger, and all within a setting that has to be executed as realistically as possible. Every frame of the sequence is breathtaking and terrifying. There’s also the horrifying sequence on Pleasure Island, where bad little boys are taken and turned into donkeys, rendered in a way more akin to Hitchcock than Saturday morning cartoons. Or the giddily wonderful clocks at the beginning of the film, a symphony of movement and colour and sound.
Today, ‘Pinocchio’ is quietly acknowledged as a masterpiece, one of the finest pieces of animation ever created on film.
Oh hell, I could literally just list every single sequence of the film as an example, every moment created by many hands and wild imaginations. And don’t even get me started on the Oscar-winning music or the now-immortal ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, one of the most beautiful songs ever written for any film, let alone an animated one. All these many qualities culminate into something truly special, a film that dazzles the imagination, pulls at the heart strings, sends shivers down your spine and fills you with joy. Where ‘Snow White’ excels as the furious first attempt filled with mountains of ambition, ‘Pinocchio’ shows the medium maturing, understanding better what it can do and how it can connect with an audience.
Unfortunately, ‘Pinocchio’ was not a commercial success on its first release, which came as a financial shock to the studio. Rather than being a reflection on the quality of the film, this probably had more to do with being released at the start of the Second World War, and not being sold for foreign distribution. By that point, the studio was already engaged in crafting three more masterpieces, ‘Fantasia’, Dumbo’ and ‘Bambi’, and while the modestly-made ‘Dumbo’ went on to success, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’ suffered the same fate as ‘Pinocchio’. Because of this, the studio were forced to downsize, creating much smaller films before returning triumphant with the commercial success of ‘Cinderella’ in 1950. The disappointment of that initial release though is mostly forgotten, and as with ‘Bambi’ and ‘Fantasia’ (which also celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and which Brent will look at later this year), all three are now regarded as the apex of animation during the 20th century.
I’ve written a lot of lofty words about it, but when it all boils down to it, none of that matters when you see just how perfect ‘Pinocchio’ is. I’m a huge Disney fanatic and can wax lyrical about all those great classics, but ‘Pinocchio’ is something truly special. I can’t not watch it without my eyes welling up or my heart leaping with joy, always with a big dumb smile on my face. Pinocchio has no strings to hold him down, and neither does this magical little film. Disney always acknowledged it as one of his favourite films, and I’d have to agree. ‘Pinocchio’ might be one among many of his masterpieces, but it sits very comfortably near the top.