Film Review: Pinocchio (1940)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

Disclaimer: This blog is purely recreational and not for profit. Any material, including images and/or video footage, is property of their respective companies, unless stated otherwise. The author claims no ownership of this material. The opinions expressed therein reflect those of the author and are not to be viewed as factual documentation. All screencaps are from Disneyscreencaps.com.

Cast

Mel Blanc –Figaro, Donkeys, Gideon (for one hiccup) and Marionette Soldiers

Don Brodie – Carnival Barker

Walter Catlett – J. Worthington Foulfellow (Honest John – yes, that’s his full name!)

Frankie Darro – Lampwick

Cliff Edwards – Jiminy Cricket

Dickie Jones – Pinocchio (and Alexander, one of the Donkey-boys)

Charles Judels – Stromboli and the Coachman

Clarence Nash – Roughhouse Statue and Donkeys

Patricia Page – Marionettes

Thurl Ravenscroft – Monstro

Christian Rub – Geppetto

Evelyn Venable – The Blue Fairy

Sources of InspirationThe Adventures of Pinocchio, an Italian children’s novel by Carlo Collodi, 1883 (initially released as a serial in 1881-82)

Release Dates

February 7th, 1940 at the Center Theatre, New York City (premiere)

February 23rd, 1940 (general release)

Run-time – 88 minutes

Directors – Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen (supervising), Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney and Bill Roberts

Composers – Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith

Worldwide Gross – $84 million

Accolades – 5 wins and 1 nomination, including 2 Oscar wins

 

1940 in History

Food rationing begins in Britain

Hattie McDaniel wins first Oscar for an African-American

Germany invades Denmark, Norway and the Low Countries

1940 Summer Olympics are cancelled

Winston Churchill takes over as PM from Neville Chamberlain

First McDonald’s opens in California

Infamous Nazi death camp, Auschwitz, opens in Poland

Dunkirk Evacuation in France

The Battle of Britain occurs and The Blitz begins

Daisy Duck, Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny make their debuts

Charlie Chaplin stars in The Great Dictator

Births of Chuck Norris, Tom Jones, Ringo Starr and John Lennon

“Little puppet made of pine… wake!”

Ah, Pinocchio. Less than three years after the runaway success of his debut feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt’s second film was this, his masterful adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s nineteenth century moral tale. It was an interesting choice, as the original novel was by no means popular (if it weren’t for this version, the story might well be forgotten by now – have you read it? I know I haven’t!) Just as they did with Snow White, Walt and his staff put their all into this film, loading it with rich animation, stunning background art and dazzling special effects. In fact, Walt’s zeal for this feature was even greater than for his previous one, with some individual shots of the film costing thousands of dollars to produce. The production certainly wasn’t all smooth sailing. Halfway through Walt called a halt (hey, that rhymes) to proceedings in order to have the characters reworked, and towards the end of production he moved his staff into a bigger building at a new location in Burbank; helpful in the long run, but hugely disruptive at the time.

Unfortunately, the film was a major victim of circumstance upon its original release, which came just five months after the outbreak of World War II in Europe. This effectively cut off the entire European market for the film, which spelled disaster for what was, at the time, one of the most expensive films ever made. With much of its potential audience unable to see it, the film ended up losing almost a million dollars for its distributor, RKO Pictures. Naturally, after all the hard work and money that had been poured into it, Walt was crushed. Thankfully though, with multiple rereleases, the film has gone on to establish a strong reputation for itself and is now rightfully regarded as one of the greatest animated films ever made. So without further ado, let’s take a look at it!

 

Characters and Vocal Performances

The first character we meet in the film is Jiminy Cricket, a streetwise little bloke who sneaks into Geppetto’s house to get some rest and warmth. Jiminy’s an immensely likeable character, which is due in no small part to his voice actor, Cliff Edwards, who was otherwise known as “Ukulele Ike.” In addition to his heartstring-tugging vocals in the opening song, he also lends Jiminy a sense of down-to-earth relatability – he feels like the sort of guy you could run into on the bus, or in a pub. Jiminy greets us directly at the start of the picture by breaking the fourth wall, then sticks with us (and Pinocchio) throughout the rest. He’s not perfect, but this only adds to his appeal; any procrastinator can sympathise when we see him, over and over again, running late and scrambling to catch up with his young charge. He’s also a flirtatious little devil, seemingly enjoying the company of the ladies (although none of the ones he meets in the film are crickets!) At times, he gets frustrated, even angry with Pinocchio, and at one point nearly walks out on him. Luckily, he stumbles upon the awful secret behind “Pleasure Island” and cares too much about Pinocchio to abandon him. He’s always there when Pinocchio needs him (albeit just in the nick of time) and in a film which subjects its hero to so much, it’s reassuring to see him standing by the poor kid. Even as they prepare to dive off a cliff to begin their search for the missing Geppetto, he manages to keep a cheerful outlook, saying “I may be live bait down there, but I’m with ya!” (I can’t help wondering how a supposedly ordinary cricket can breathe underwater though). In addition to his reward at the end of the film, Jiminy was popular enough to land a small role in a later Disney feature, Fun and Fancy Free, as well as some shorts. Although he has seen criticism more recently, his reputation as a Disney icon is still largely intact.

And he gets all the best lines!

Jiminy
“What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?”

Pinocchio himself, like many other Disney leads, is essentially a cipher: he is a character to which things happen, rather than making things happen himself (at least until the end). He’s presented very effectively as a realistic child, with a deliberately “ordinary” voice rather than some showy child star. For most of the film, he’s charming in his exaggerated naïveté. After being “awoken” by the Blue Fairy, he proceeds to fall off a shelf, nearly burns his hand off by literally playing with fire and then innocently irritates everyone by asking “Why?” about everything, until he’s inevitably just told “Because.” As the film goes on, though, his predicaments get far less funny, as he is seduced and misled multiple times in some disturbingly real scenes that parallel horrible child kidnappings of modern times. You really can’t help feeling sorry for the poor kid; he’s “alive” less than twenty-four hours before getting sucked into a vortex of abuse. In the course of a couple of days he’s tricked, humiliated, trapped, tricked again, drugged, semi-transformed, nearly drowned, nearly eaten and finally killed outright before the Blue Fairy finally turns him into the real boy he’s been longing to be. What a world! In spite of his general submissiveness, though, it is Pinocchio himself who ultimately takes control of his own fate when he risks his own safety to save his father figure, Geppetto. He does this all by himself, with no help this time from either Jiminy or the Blue Fairy, and he even demonstrates some nice character development during the Monstro scenes, where we see that he’s learned from his mistakes and actually takes charge in the escape from the whale’s belly. He certainly catches on quicker than Geppetto, anyway! Ultimately, Pinocchio’s story serves as a moral warning to real children and to their guardians, and a lesson in assertiveness (seriously, if he could only say “No” once in a while). In today’s world, being careful around strangers is a lesson children should not take lightly.

Pinocchio
“Why?”

Next, we come to Geppetto’s two pets, Figaro the kitten, and Cleo the goldfish. Of this duo, Figaro is easily the most memorable. This lovable little ball of grumpiness steals every scene he’s in, and was apparently Walt’s favourite character in the film. The poor beleaguered cat has to endure quite a bit of mischief from Geppetto, but in his loyalty to the old man he always does as he’s told and sticks to him like glue when there’s trouble. It takes him a little while to warm up to Pinocchio – he’s presented almost like a spoilt “first” child meeting their new sibling for the first time, jealous of Geppetto’s attention to the puppet. Eventually though, he comes to embrace the “little wooden head,” and is overjoyed to see him when Pinocchio finds them all in Monstro’s cavernous stomach.

Figaro
You have to admit, that fish looks pretty delicious.
Cleo
Hard to believe she’s okay with it though!

Cleo is a rather random character; she’s a goldfish with a seductive woman’s face. She’s sweet and likeable enough but lacks Figaro’s presence, being confined to her bowl for the entire film. Still, the animators managed to get a few good gags out of this, the best one being when Geppetto takes Pinocchio, his hand aflame, and puts it out in her water, leaving her coughing and blowing smoke rings. It’s pretty remarkable that her bowl doesn’t get smashed during the Monstro fiasco (why in the world did Geppetto cart her along on his search?) Cleo was presumably added to the film to try to balance the gender ratio somewhat – she is the only other female character beside the Blue Fairy. The two don’t speak to one another (Cleo being a fish, after all), so the film thus doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (unlike Snow White, which manages it due to the scenes between Snow and the witch). Cleo’s best moment is when she scolds Figaro for preparing to eat his supper while Geppetto searches for Pinocchio – although it’s kind of weird that she isn’t more upset about the fact that he’s eating a huge fish! She also looks a lot like the slinky dancing fish that would appear in Disney’s next feature, Fantasia.

All of these characters live with the kindly old Geppetto, the town clock/toymaker. His character is one of the funniest in the film, often helping to lighten the mood after another horrific episode of abduction or near-death. The key to the effectiveness of this character is in the timing: his scatty delayed reactions are priceless, especially when contrasted with a darker moment.

Geppetto and Figaro
“I never thought it would end like this, Figaro. Starving to death… in the belly of a whale.”

Of course, with a guardian like this, it’s no wonder the Blue Fairy had to appoint a cricket-conscience as backup! His absent-mindedness is what kicks off the whole mess in the first place, when he foolishly lets his naïve little “son” head off to school alone on his very first day. And of course, when the boy and Jiminy finally make their way back to his home, they find that he’s (somehow!) managed to get himself, Figaro and Cleo trapped inside a whale while searching for him, forcing them to set out once again to rescue him. Despite this rather worrying beginning, he looks set to make a better guardian by the film’s end, and there’s no denying he loves his little son with all his heart. Indeed, the more you think about his backstory, the more you sympathise with the guy. All the women around his age must be long past childbearing age – could he perhaps be a widower, or a victim of infertility, or infant death? Alone with his pets, he could have been longing for a son of his own for years and years.

His voice actor, Christian Rub, provided the character with just the right blend of muddle-headed warmth, reminding me a lot of Doc from Snow White. However, there’s a dark coda to this part – according to sequence director Jack Kinney, Rub was apparently a Nazi sympathizer who drove the crew up the wall with his praise of Hitler. They got their own back during the shooting of the live-action reference footage, giving him a good shake-up on the soundstage as he pretended to “fish” inside Monstro. I don’t know if there’s any truth to this rumour, but it’s an unpleasant stain on the film’s reputation if so. The best that can be said is that whatever Rub’s beliefs were, Geppetto, at least, was not a Nazi sympathizer – he’s still the same loveable, grandfatherly guy. Rub may have come to have a change of heart with time, as he lived until long after the war, dying in 1956.

The Blue Fairy, who is more or less the only feminine presence in the film, has more character than people give her credit for. She’s much more than a blonde copy of Snow White (although, like her, she was rotoscoped). From her first appearance to her last, she has a distinctly “motherly” quality about her; a kindness mixed with sternness which ensures Jiminy and Pinocchio’s respect. She’s quite playful, whether she’s engaging in oddly flirtatious banter with Jiminy, or mischievously extending Pinocchio’s nose to prove her point that lying leads to trouble, she’s nearly always smiling and gentle. The troubled pair are nervous, even embarrassed when she finds them trapped in Stromboli’s wagon, but even then she doesn’t get angry, simply suggesting, “Perhaps you haven’t been telling the truth, Pinocchio,” as she cheerfully turns his face into a sapling.

Perhaps
“PERHAPS!?”

Her powers are intriguing; she is able to free the pair from Stromboli but warns that it is the only time she can help. In spite of this, she later sends them a mystical message (in the symbolically peaceful form of a dove) which drops the hint about where to find Geppetto and the others. Does she perhaps come from Neverland? The “Second Star to the Right” might well have been the one Geppetto sees and wishes upon, after all…

As for her design, though some have made rather ridiculous claims that she’s based on Marilyn Monroe (who was just a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl at the time), she was apparently based more on her physical model, Marge Champion (who also modelled for Snow White). She also bears more than a passing resemblance to blonde bombshell Jean Harlow, even though Walt initially didn’t want her to appear too “glamourous.” Her voice actress, Evelyn Venable, may also have provided inspiration, as she served as the original model for the Columbia Studios logo.

Blue Fairy

Now, let’s get to the first of the many, many villains in this film. Pinocchio meets “Honest John” and his sidekick, Gideon, before he even gets a few streets away from his home. Although these two are the most harmless antagonists of the film, in some ways they’re frighteningly real. In the same way that Mother Gothel in Tangled would unsettle many viewers who had experience of abusive parents decades later, Honest John and Gideon have a decidedly creepy, almost paedophilic undertone to them. Their use of deception and flattery to coax the innocent Pinocchio into the clutches of Stromboli and then the Coachman is hammy and vaudevillian, but it’s also quite a realistic scenario, one that any child could stumble into if not properly educated about “Stranger danger”. Still, they are undeniably the least threatening villains in the film, and their slapstick style makes them the most enjoyable ones, too. Honest John’s voice and design remind me of Robin Hood and Nick Wilde, two more recent Disney foxes with a similar “smooth” personality, although neither of those are bad guys. Gideon seems like a less lovable cat-version of Dopey. (Side note: Mel Blanc was wasted as Gideon! Only a few hiccups of his performance survived).

Honest John and Gideon
Keep an eye on Gideon – his gags are great!

Next, Pinocchio meets Stromboli – a fiery, temperamental and decidedly stereotypical Italian showman who runs a seedy travelling puppet show. His voice and mannerisms are hugely exaggerated and he is very entertaining to watch, but the violence of his temper makes it clear he’s not a man to be taken lightly. Selfishness and greed are this character’s driving motives; he’s quite willing to ruthlessly exploit little Pinocchio until he’s too old to be useful any more, making it only too clear what will happen to him when that day comes:

StromboliFirewood doll

What’s especially awful about him is the way he plays with Pinocchio’s naïveté, handing the grateful boy a bottle cap for “pay” after his show and then laughing along as he talks excitedly of going home to his father, before throwing him viciously into a cage and shattering his trust. Still, sheer force of his personality and the extreme mood swings make him a fun character, if not a likeable one.

However, Stromboli seems almost benevolent when compared to the deeply sinister Coachman. This affable pipe-smoking chap first appears in a scene with Honest John and Gideon, who seem to be trying to swindle him. They quickly have their asses handed to them as the Coachman makes this nightmarish face:

The Coachman
I’m not sure this fellow should be trusted.

He then discloses his despicable plans, and for a Disney film, they’re surprisingly nasty. No curses or swordfights here – instead, he is “collecting” young boys, abducting them all to his den of degradation, “Pleasure Island.” There, he lulls them into a false sense of security by letting them go completely wild, wrecking things and brawling. As you watch these scenes, with children vandalising priceless artwork, drinking, gambling and even smoking huge cigars, you have to remind yourself that this is a Disney film. Once the boys have “made jack-arses of themselves,” they are literally turned into donkeys (really hitting the moral nail on the head there), with most losing the ability to speak and being packed off to the salt mines, never to see their families again. Child trafficking! It just gets worse the more you think about it. The boys’ families will likely never find out what happened to their precious sons, and one simple fact caps the whole thing off: the Coachman is never stopped. In fact, none of the villains in this piece truly get their comeuppance; the heroes escape, but the evil is not defeated. The Coachman is simply left to continue his nefarious scheme. I wonder whatever happened to poor Alexander…

Just to ensure we’re not left in any doubt as to how agonising these unlucky lads’ fates are, we get to witness it close-up in the character of Lampwick. This clichéd, redheaded “bad boy” looks and sounds straight out of 1940, saying “gee” and “swell” all over the place and puffing on a cigar like there’s no tomorrow. He is yet another representation of the many temptations that Pinocchio is subjected to over the course of the film, perhaps also representing another real-life peril that all parents dread: the bad influence. Lampwick may start out cocky and carefree, but that’s soon brought to a dreadful end in the infamous “Donkey transformation scene.” Many Disney fans have heard of this even if they haven’t seen the film, and for good reason. It’s without a doubt one of the darkest scenes in the entire canon, as we’re forced to witness poor Lampwick succumbing to the (apparently quite painful) transformation into a donkey. Everything about this scene is perfectly executed, from the darkened lighting to the building crescendos of the soundtrack, with Pinocchio’s widened eyes shining in the darkness. The sense of panic is tangible as Lampwick paws at the utterly petrified Pinocchio, his hands slowly morphing into hooves, his final screams for his mother descending into hysterical braying as he kicks the room to pieces. And this is one Disney film where everything isn’t made alright in the end – Pinocchio may escape, but Lampwick is left behind on the island, presumably trapped with the sadistic Coachman forever, along with hundreds of other boys.

Lampwick

Pinocchio's terror
John Grant: “It all seems very unjust and curiously immoral.”

After already going through so much, the film finally pits Pinocchio and company against the very force of nature himself, Monstro the whale. The question of whether Monstro can really be considered a “villain” comes down to his motive, which starts as merely hunger but then becomes anger when the crew in his belly light a smoky fire, escaping in one of his huge sneezes. They do kind of have it coming, don’t they? I wouldn’t be too pleased if my dinner started a fire in my belly. Although Monstro is really just an ordinary whale looking to survive, this doesn’t diminish the presence he has in the film’s final act. Before he even appears on screen, his very name is enough to send the local sea life scattering in fright. Once they actually find him, there are some startling scale shots of Geppetto, Figaro and Cleo on an old shipwreck in his cave-like stomach, and miniscule Jiminy struggling to get into his mouth, the whale’s teeth towering about him. The sounds and animation used in his final furious chase to the cliff make for a very effective finale; you’re on the edge of your seat wondering if Pinocchio will manage to get Geppetto into the cave in time – given the film’s track record by this point, you can’t be too sure. In the end, although Pinocchio succeeds in rescuing his father and friends, it’s really thanks to the Blue Fairy that this tragic character ever makes it to the end of the film alive at all.

Monstro
I JUST WANTED SOME FISH AND CHIPS!

Animation

Pinocchio’s predecessor, Snow White, set a new standard for quality in animation, yet somehow Pinocchio manages to raise the bar. The animation in the film is rich and lively, with extensive (and expensive) use of the multiplane camera and lots of special effects.

There’s a great deal of complexity involved, which can only be fully appreciated when you remember the context of the film’s creation – this was created in the late 1930s, a time when all animation was done by hand. We get some fascinating imagery in Geppetto’s workshop, with dozens of intricate clocks featuring elaborate mechanisms, all operating alongside each other. Around this same point, we’re also treated to some hilariously choreographed animation of the wooden Pinocchio, who is not yet “awakened,” being “introduced” to Figaro by Geppetto. He crawls and lurches along the floor towards the nervous kitten, before appearing to literally “squash and stretch” as he’s manoeuvred towards Cleo’s bowl, in a scene animated by one of the Nine Old Men, Frank Thomas.

The first few scenes really shine with examples of stellar animation, including the famous panning shot from the Blue Fairy’s wishing star down over the town and finishing with a zoom into Geppetto’s window. This was of course achieved with the multiplane camera and was one of the most expensive shots in the film, sending the budget soaring. A similar panning shot on Pinocchio’s first day of school tracks over and through various houses, but this one is complicated even further by the presence of dozens of moving schoolchildren, all being animated in synch by the hands of the artists, with scarcely a slip-up to be seen. There’s also some fun point-of-view shots of Jiminy hopping his way over to the house, and later another of a dizzy, cigar-sick Pinocchio’s view of the room spinning.

Local kids

The Blue Fairy is given a translucent style, and the fact that her animation is the only rotoscoping among the film’s characters lends her a graceful “otherworldly” feel. The sparkly effects of her wand were done by Oskar Fischinger, who had previously worked in German abstract cinema with the likes of Fritz Lang and would go on to do some more incredible work in Disney’s Fantasia.

The animation of the various villains is appropriately done for each character. For the more vaudevillian, over-the-top ones like Gideon and Stromboli, there’s a lot of squashy, bouncy, roly-poly movement, whereas for the more subdued, Dickensian ones like the Coachman, all that’s needed are a few twitches of an eyebrow, or a maniacal grin. I love the way Honest John is done, especially when he’s running on an invisible treadmill alongside Pinocchio, who’s trying to go home, while he talks to him. Monstro really steals the show when it comes to the animation – his scenes are some of the most impressive in the whole film. His underwater home, too, is simply stunning; the whimsical animation of the sea creatures following Jiminy and Pinocchio comes just after the horrors of Pleasure Island, giving this sequence a soothing quality. It’s said that the animation was good enough that the directors of The Little Mermaid went back to it for reference when making their film, almost fifty years later! This really shouldn’t be too surprising: I might be overstressing the point here, but the level of skill involved in this production was truly incredible – every individual drop of water in the waves is hand-animated!

Under the Sea
Darling it’s betta down where it’s wetta take it from me!

Plot

The book this film is based on is said to be very convoluted and episodic, but then this wasn’t unusual for novels of the nineteenth century, which were often published in serials. Apparently, the novel is even darker than the film, if you can believe that – in it, Jiminy is actually killed by Pinocchio! Disney extensively re-worked the story, with studio screenwriter Bianca Majolie presenting Walt with a new version which he was said to be delighted with. They picked the best elements of the original and cut out a lot of filler, weaving everything together to create a tighter, more linear narrative.

The Blue Fairy is the driving force behind the story, as it is she who grants Geppetto’s wish (eventually) to make Pinocchio a real boy. Let’s hope he eventually learned to be a better parent though! The fact that he didn’t see the boy safely to school in the first place is the reason he ends up on such a rollercoaster of disaster. The tone of the film starts out quite peacefully, but from the point where Stromboli reveals his true colours to Pinocchio, it just gets darker and darker and darker, coming to a head in the Pleasure Island scenes. After Jiminy and Pinocchio escape and get back to Geppetto’s, we get to one of the weakest parts of the story, as the Blue Fairy sends a handy piece of exposition about Geppetto’s predicament with the whale. This feels like a plot hole – how does searching for Pinocchio lead to the others getting eaten by a whale? Did they rent a boat? Did Monstro then sink it? Perhaps they were given a hint that they would find Pinocchio on an island, who knows. I hope it’s explained better in the book, because in the film it just comes across as a bit random and silly. (At least Monstro’s reputation strengthens things later.) The film wraps things up with a fake-out funeral scene like Snow White (accompanied by another of Geppetto’s excellent delayed reactions) before Pinocchio wakes up as the real boy he always wanted to be.

What really makes this film stay with you is that the stakes are kept high and the pacing is very even and effective, so that when the happy ending finally comes, for once, you really feel like the character’s earned it. Of course, the fact that none of the villains are properly defeated keeps you from getting too comfortable: somewhere out there, you realise, the Coachman is still trafficking innocent children for profit…

Donkey trafficking
Good grief…

 

Cinematography

This is a really sumptuous film, with exquisite attention to detail and a highly evocative atmosphere. Just like Snow White, Pinocchio was inspired by the works of Doré and Disney artist Albert Hurter, but the major influence was Gustaf Tenggren, who gave the film a distinctive Bavarian flavour (despite the fact that it’s supposed to be set in Italy). You can see this everywhere, from the clothes worn by Pinocchio and Geppetto, with their lederhosen and Haferlschuh, to the architecture of the town. The inventive cuckoo clocks are a fun touch, too (although some of the designs are rather macabre, if you look closely – there’s even a turkey on the brink of losing its head to an axeman!).

Clocks

The influence of German expressionism is strongly felt throughout the picture, as Walt’s 1935 European tour would have still been fresh in his mind during the production of this piece. The use of light was an important factor in the days of black and white cinema and was carried over into early colour films like this, with the works of such directors as Max Reinhardt and William Dieterle influencing the design of the film. The use of moonlight and candlelight, which was so effectively done in Snow White, is even more so here – of particular note is the scene where Geppetto searches fruitlessly for Pinocchio in a storm, where we see a storytelling technique known as pathetic fallacy as the weather is used to heighten the emotional impact of the scene, with dramatic flashes of lightning mirroring Geppetto’s distress.

The town is exceptionally beautiful, apparently inspired by the real world town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in the Franconia region of Bavaria, Germany. Geppetto’s shop, meanwhile, was supposedly based on the home of Tenggren’s grandfather, in his hometown of Magra, Västergötland in Sweden.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Sieberstor(links) und Koboltor (rechts)
Rothenburg ob der Tauber

 

Pinocchio's town

Just like in Snow White, we also see quite a bit of symbolism in the film. Symbolism acts as a sort of visual shorthand in cinema, helping to quickly and efficiently convey messages to the viewer without having to spell them out. Some of it is more obvious, such as the Blue Fairy’s choice of a dove to deliver her message to Jiminy and Pinocchio, representing her peaceful intentions. However, there’s also plenty of more subtle imagery, for example in the scene when Honest John hands Pinocchio an ace of spades playing card as his “ticket” to Pleasure Island – in legend and folklore, this card has long been associated with death, giving us a dark hint of the true nature of the island.

Soundtrack

The opening song of Pinocchio has become one of the most beloved Disney anthems of all time. Even if you haven’t seen the film before, I’m sure you’ll recognise those first few bars – they’ve been turned into a motif which plays over the Disney logo at the start of all of their features. When You Wish Upon a Star is a truly iconic song, setting the film off in just the right way and providing a charming introduction to the character of Jiminy Cricket. It was hugely popular at the time and (for the most part) remains so today, though there has been some minor controversy over its message, which some have taken as being too “passive” for modern children (this even becomes a plot point in The Princess and the Frog). The lyrics for this and all the other songs were done by Leigh Harline from Snow White and Ned Washington.

The other songs in the film are nice enough, but none come close to the first and there aren’t actually very many of them overall. Give a Little Whistle is short but sweet, helping to develop the relationship between Jiminy and Pinocchio and giving Cliff Edwards another chance to show off his cheerful vocals.

Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee is the closest thing we have here to a Disney villain song, which would become so popular in later films. Although this, too, is quite brief, it has some marvellously inventive lyrics hidden beneath Jiminy’s rambling – listen closely the next time you hear it! It really suits Honest John’s personality and keeps his character from seeming too threatening.

I’ve Got No Strings is probably the second-best known song from the film, having recently been used in a marketing campaign for Dr. Dre’s Beats company. It starts out a little shrill, but it’s so damn catchy, you can’t help humming it for the rest of the day! It also features some fun vocals from Patricia Page and Mel Blanc as the foreign marionettes Pinocchio dances with (nice to see they gave Blanc something else to do after deleting his Gideon role!).

Marionette show

Although that pretty much covers it for the songs, there’s plenty more to the score and soundtrack of the film than that. The score is filled with character motifs, which do a lot to establish their personalities – Jiminy Cricket’s, for example, is a jaunty little woodwind number which perfectly complements his bright outlook; you can hear it as he strolls across the hearth near the start of the film. Honest John and Gideon get some jazzier accompaniment, which is especially noticeable in the scene where they “diagnose” Pinocchio with exhaustion, providing them with an excuse to ship him off to Pleasure Island. The score is very strong in the film’s darker moments too, particularly in the donkey transformation scene, where it builds tension with gradual crescendos until breaking out into shrieking strings as the panic kicks in.

Special effects were used here, too, some of them rather dangerous: apparently, actor Dickie Jones nearly drowned while recording the “underwater” dialogue for the scenes where Pinocchio searches for Monstro. Given that this was made in the days when film studios could go so far as to put child actors on drugs (think Judy Garland) in order to achieve the results they wanted, Jones probably got off lightly! Evelyn Venable, when recording her lines as the Blue Fairy, would record each one several times over with varying inflections; the soundmen would then choose whichever one best complemented the delivery of the other characters’ lines.

Overall, the score, sounds and screenwriting of this film have aged extremely well, standing as some of the strongest in the Disney canon. Everything you hear is deliberately included to enhance the mood or emotion of the moment it is a part of; it’s effective and creative filmmaking at its finest.

 

Final Verdict

Pinocchio is a spectacular masterpiece (I hope you haven’t gotten bored of me saying that yet, but it’s true). When you take into account the dark tone, realistic villains and haunting imagery, it’s fair to say that this is the closest Disney has ever come to making a horror film. Some have argued that this might have been another reason why it failed to do well in its original run, but whether this is the case or not, it did thankfully gain the appreciation it deserved over time. It was rereleased in 1945, 1954, 1962, 1971, 1978, 1984 and 1992, which was also the year it got restored. By that time, it had firmly established itself as a Disney classic, becoming the first one to be released on DVD in autumn 1999. Critic John Grant, writing around 1997 in the middle of the Disney Renaissance, still considered it to be unmatched.

I would definitely recommend it as a must-see for all animation enthusiasts. Just one thing, though – if you’re showing it to your children, maybe save it for those aged about eight and up. The under-fives could be in for a rough night (or several) after this one!

My Rating – 5/5

 

References

I consulted my own books to research for this review, as well as some standard web sources:

The World History of Animation (2011) by Stephen Cavalier

The Art of Walt Disney (2011 ed.) by Christopher Finch

Once Upon a Time: Walt Disney (2007) edited by Bruno Girveau

Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters (1998 ed.) by John Grant

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life (1981) by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas

Disney’s Art of Animation: From Mickey Mouse to Hercules (1997 ed.) by Bob Thomas

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3857414 – credit for film poster

By Berthold Werner – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4333052 – credit for Rothenburg photo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pinocchio_(1940_film) – Wiki article

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032910/?ref_=nv_sr_1 – IMDB Profile

 

Although I haven’t read this one myself, I’d also like to mention another J.B. Kaufman volume on the making of the movie – Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic (2015). If it’s as well-written as his volume on Snow White, I’m sure it’ll be well worth a read for any fans of the film!

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4 Replies to “Film Review: Pinocchio (1940)”

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