This week for Saturday Morning Cartoons, we’re taking a look at Walt Disney’s second full-length animated feature–the best production of his animation studio’s early years, in my ever-humble opinion–the wonderfully magical Pinocchio, released by RKO in 1940.
In this film, more so than in its predecessor, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, everything comes together as an overwhelmingly satisfying whole. The story, the music, the animation … each element of Pinocchio contributes to an excellent viewing experience all around. The sticky-sweet romanticism of Snow White is replaced by the love of a father for a son–still sentimental, certainly, but not as gimmicky, and definitely more moving than the prior film.
The story is familiar even to those who have never seen the movie–a lonely wordworker, Geppetto, crafts a wooden boy and wishes upon a star that the boy could be real. His wish is granted by the benevolent Blue Fairy, but his naive new “son” is easily led astray by conniving tricksters, getting into all kinds of trouble that even his “conscience,” in the guise of one Jiminy Cricket, cannot prevent: he joins a marionette show run by a domineering, maniacal old puppeteer; he becomes dissolute and nearly finds himself turned into a donkey; and he is swallowed by a mean, gigantic whale. And on top of all that, conveniently, Pinocchio’s nose grows every time he tells a lie, because it’s not enough that he’s, oh, also a FREAKING TALKING PUPPET.
Disney’s version of the tale is based on the Italian children’s book The Adventures of Pinocchio, written by Carlo Collodi and published in 1883. The original story is much darker than Disney’s take on the tale (as per usual): for starters, in Collodi’s version, Pinocchio is not so much mischievous as downright cruel. Among other things, the little bastard viciously kicks Geppetto and throws a hammer at the cricket, killing the hapless insect.
That cricket, by the way, was unnamed in Collodi’s tale, and was simply referred to as “The Talking Cricket.” His Disney-granted name, Jiminy Cricket, is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the epithet “Jiminy Cricket!” which was, itself, a less-salty version of the oath “Jesus Christ!”
Additional changes include:
- In the original story, Geppetto and Pinocchio are not swallowed by a whale (called “Monstro” by the Disney folks) but by a shark, which Collodi calls “The Terrible Dogfish.”
- Pinocchio is initially hung from a tree by the Fox and the Cat (called “Honest John” Foulfellow and Gideon by the Disney folks) and thought to be dead (Collodi originally wanted the marionette to die and have the story end there, but that ending was deemed too dark for his young audience).
- The Blue Fairy (who is called “The Fairy with Turquoise Hair” by Collodi) plays a much larger role in the original story, really functioning as Pinocchio’s mother more so than mere benefactor.
- In Collodi’s tale, Pinocchio becomes a full-on donkey, instead of just gaining donkey ears and a tail as per the Disney version. He is transformed back into a wooden boy when he is tossed in the ocean and the fish eat the donkey fur off of his body (yum).
- Collodi’s original tale includes villains and adversaries left out of the Disney version. The most notable of these may be “The Green Fisherman,” an ogre-ish creature who coats Pinocchio in flour and attempts to fry and then eat him before being thwarted by one of Pinocchio’s allies, a dog named Alidoro whom Pinocchio had previously saved from drowning.
- The endings of the two versions are different. In Disney’s version, Pinocchio sacrifices himself to save Geppetto and dies, before being brought to life as a “real boy” by the Blue Fairy. In Collodi’s version, Pinocchio and Geppetto escape the shark and go to live with the Talking Cricket (who is “resurrected” from the whole hammer incident earlier in the story). Pinocchio works as a farmer to support his father but ultimately gives his earnings to his “mother,” the Fairy, when she is supposedly in need. As a reward, she appears before Pinocchio in a dream and transforms him into a real boy while he is sleeping.
Even with the more frightening aspects of Collodi’s original story excised from the animated version, there are still enough thrills to scare the little ones. I particularly remember being horrified by the image of Monstro swallowing Pinocchio. I mean, look at it–
–that’s a massively monstrous maw right there!
And don’t get me started on the whole boys-turning-into-donkeys thing. If Disney’s intention was to scare straight an entire generation of ne’er-do-well punks, all I can say is, mission accomplished. At least, from my perspective–I certainly didn’t want to be sold to Pleasure Island to work in the salt mines … and as a friggin’ donkey, no less? No, thank you.
The movie functions primarily as an educational allegory, teaching children the value of making conscientious decisions and listening to their parents’ wise counsel. Using Jiminy Cricket as the stalwart outward manifestation of Pinocchio’s conscience, the film depicts the internal, universal human struggle to do what’s “right” in the face of the “easy” path. And I think this is why the audience–particularly younger viewers–can easily grasp the lessons of Pinocchio–everything is spelled out for you, not in a “geez, you’re so dumb” kind of manner, but a “wow, this cute little bug really knows what he’s talking about and maybe I should listen to him” sort of way.
Anthropomorphic bugs are so helpful when it comes to understanding human behavior.
The allegory functions on a religious level, too; in the Monstro sequence, it’s easy to see the Biblical parallels to the story of Jonah, and the Pleasure Island sequence is, in many ways, equatable to Hell, as the boys are punished for their “sins” (i.e. wastrel-type behavior) by being transformed into beasts of burden. The Blue Fairy is a God-like figure, or perhaps the Madonna, who “births” Pinocchio immaculately. But the similarities seem to end here; Pinocchio is far from Jesus-like, for while (like Christ) he faces a kind of metaphorical “temptation in the wilderness,” Pinocchio succumbs quite easily to it in the end.
Regardless of how you look at it, Pinocchio, though not quite human, nonetheless comes into being with all of our unfortunate little frailties fully intact, doesn’t he?
Pinocchio features the most annoyingly catchy tune in the Disney songbook–“I Got No Strings.” I hate this song. Hate it, hate it, hate it. And it’s not because it’s a particularly bad song. No, in the grand scheme of things, it’s quite an innocuous little tune. But it burrows into your head like a freaking earwig and will.not.let.go. (I bet you’re singing it right now, aren’t you? Good luck getting it out of your head today.)
On the opposite side, this film features one of the best Disney tunes, and one of the most recognizable songs in the history of music, if only for its rampant use as the theme song for all Disney enterprises. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is just a beautiful song, no matter how you look at it. It perfectly fits the hopeful feeling of the film, and as sung by Cliff Edwards (who plays Jiminy Cricket), it remains one of my all-time favorite movie tunes (and though many have tried, no one has ever sung it better).
Has anyone ever penned more hopeful, optimistic lyrics? Every time I listen to this song (forgive me for a brief, cheesy interlude), I feel my heart swell. If there is one singular theme to the movie, it is faith–faith in the wisdom of Fate, faith in your dreams, and faith in oneself–and “When You Wish Upon a Star” sums up that theme in utter perfection.
When it was first released, Pinocchio was critically adored, and it would go on to win two Academy Awards, for Best Song (the aforementioned “Star”) and Best Score. Still, the movie did not make money on its first run at the box office. Part of the blame for that rests on circumstance–the movie premiered as World War II was in full swing, not long before the United States would find itself drawn into the conflict as well.
Subsequent re-releases throughout the next several decades finally saw the film turn a profit for The Walt Disney Company. Today, the movie is recognized as one of the best in the Disney canon, and many (including myself) view it as the pinnacle of the early Disney repertoire, surpassing even Fantasia (and it kinda pains me to admit that, because I loves me some Fantasia, as you will see–again–next week).
I love everything about this movie. I love the story. I love the innocence of the Pinocchio character, and his heartfelt desire to be “good” even as he gets sidetracked from his chosen path. I love the supporting characters, particularly Geppetto’s pet cat, Figaro, and his smart-ass goldfish, Cleo (I once had a goldfish named Cleo in honor of this film).
I love the animation; it’s crisper and clearer than in Snow White, beautifully rendered and even haunting at times. The voice work is peerless, especially that of young Dickie Jones, who is utter perfection as the title character, and Edwards, who imbibes Jiminy Cricket with personality and verve–there’s a discernible twinkle reverberating in his voice. The film also features Walter Catlett, whom some (including myself) remember fondly as the constable who throws Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in jail in Bringing Up Baby, as Foulfellow. And Evelyn Venable, who provides the voice of the Blue Fairy, was the model for the Columbia Pictures logo and also starred in films such as Alice Adams (1935) with Hepburn, Death Takes a Holiday (1934) with Fredric March, and The Little Colonel (1935) with Shirley Temple.
And yes, perhaps most of all, I love the happy ending. I never fail to shed a tear when Pinocchio’s (and Geppetto’s) dream comes true, and he finally becomes a real, live boy.
After all, if a piece of wood and an old Italian dude can find happiness and build a true family together in this crazy world, there’s just that much more hope for the rest of us, don’t you think?