Three years after Snow White revolutionized animated filmmaking, Walt Disney released his second animated feature, Pinocchio. Unlike Snow White’s runaway success, Pinocchio was actually a box office disaster when it first released. I’m guessing part of that had to do with the fact that World War 2 was on. When they re-released it in 1945 however, it more than made its money back. It also became the first animated movie to win a competitive academy award, winning two for best original score and best original song for “When you wish upon a star”.
Also I’m aware of the irony that the movie I’m talking about on mother’s day is more about a father/son relationship and that there are no female characters in it at all. That wasn’t planned. So happy mother’s day not only to my own mom, and to any mothers who happen to read this post today.
In my previous post, I kind of tore Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for its paper thin story and its equally thin characters. Perhaps unfairly so. Snow White can be seen as a movie purely based on emotions and there is an audience for that. Personally, I much prefer movies about characters. I like movies where characters learn something, grow as people or at least overcome a personal weakness. Unlike Snow White where nobody seems to learn anything, Disney’s Pinocchio movie is about characters.
As much as there are still weird fairy tale elements like the blue fairy, and a fox and a dog that walk the streets like it’s perfectly normal, it’s as down to earth as classic Disney movies get in terms of character work and themes. Its characters are working class, its settings are urban and it even touches on runaway delinquents and the dangers they unknowingly put themselves into. Even the villains mostly get away with their crimes and manipulations, something that doesn’t often happen in kids films.
In case you somehow didn’t know the story of Pinocchio, the title character is a wooden puppet built by his father, Gepetto. Gepetto is a toymaker who’s brought a lot of joy to kids around town, but he lives alone with his cat and fish. He doesn’t have a known family. He’s a generally happy man, but you can tell he’s a bit lonely. After wishing upon a shooting star that Pinocchio would become a real boy, the blue fairy gives Pinocchio life. In order to become a real boy however, he must learn right from wrong.
The movie doubles as an emotional tale of a father and son separated because of Pinocchio’s own mistakes, and a simple morality tale. The morality tale is great for kids, while the emotional father and son story is well-written enough to keep the attention of adults as well. That’s what makes the movie work so well. Pinocchio is a generally nice, naïve kid who makes mistakes. Once he has one, Gepetto cares about his son more than anything else in the world. The action is also kind of intense at times, especially with the giant whale at the end. That’s the point where Pinocchio shows how much he’s learned morally, and how truly brave he is when he risks his life to save his father. The humour in this movie is also cleverer and less slap-sticky than in Snow White. It makes for an overall great story that stands the test of time a lot more than I expected.
Jiminy Cricket, who ends up being dubbed Pinocchio’s conscience, is less interesting than the other two characters. He’s fine in that he tries his best to guide Pinocchio, yet he’s not flawless in that regard himself. Part of the problem is that the voice acting behind him is kind of boring, as is his own forgettable ‘Give a little whistle” jingle. Other characters include Honest John, the aforementioned walking fox, who acts as the primary temptation for Pinocchio.
Because the story is more complex, there’s also less music than in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and most of the music helps move the story along … usually. Even if it’s a touch wishy washy, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is a simple tune that’s hard not to emotionally respond to. It’s so famous that it’s arguably Disney’s anthem. “I Got no Strings” is famous for a good reason – the lyrics are fun and the tune itself is memorable, in addition to its deeper meaning that ties directly to the story. No wonder Marvel used it in Avengers: Age of Ultron. “Hi Diddle Dee Dee” is a fun jingle about the actor’s life. There are still some songs in the movie that are purely meant to entertain children, and there is the forgettable “Give a little whistle”, but the creative visuals behind them should at least keep the attention to adults.
Speaking of the visuals, Disney’s team took everything that worked in Snow White and improved on it in pretty much every way. The variety of toys and gadgets in Gepetto’s workshop is astounding for a movie made during the rising global tensions of the late 1930’s. The animation isn’t just smooth, but it plays on Pinocchio’s puppet anatomy in creative ways. The movie also innovated animation techniques for realistically moving vehicles, natural looking rain, smoke, shadows and moving water. You could make a strong argument that the visual effects in this movie, for its time, is the most impressive work the Disney Corporation has ever done. For hand drawn animation, it still looks good today.
With all that said, I doubt this movie would be rated G if it were released today. Not because it’s scary – Snow White has a lot more scary imagery than this movie. It’s because there are scenes of kids smoking and drinking beer. These scenes directly play into the morality tale, and the results are horrific for the delinquents, but it amuses me now rating systems have changed over the years.
After re-watching Pinocchio after all these years, I can easily see why I enjoyed this movie as a kid. It’s a great story with visual effects that still look good today. While I partially ignored some of the weaker musical numbers, they’re still pleasant background noise with interesting stuff to look at. This is an example of classic Disney at its best, with a story that feels timeless. Because it released shortly after the Second World War began it didn’t do too well in its initial theatre run. The European market was completely closed off. It’s since more than made its money back, and it did very well with critics regardless.
Disney’s next animated feature is Fantasia, the first of their many animated movies I’ve never seen. I’m looking forward to seeing it though.