These days, a studio would’ve had a good chance of following a film as successful as Snow White up with a hastily assembled sequel* – direct or spiritual – to cash in on the prior film’s popularity. Walt Disney was one who did things differently, though in fairness the studio always had several projects on the unfinished pile that were in several states of completeness, including ideas for stories based on other fairy-tales, to those based on books like Alice in Wonderland – a story that had long interested Disney – and Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series (suggested to Disney by Burroughs himself).†
Bambi was originally scheduled to be the follow-up to Snow White, but Disney didn’t think his team up to that task just yet – the film would have to wait. In it stead, we got Pinocchio.
Carlo Collodi’s children’s story about a living and rather bratty, mean-spirited, almost antagonistic puppet was a strange choice for a film, let alone as the follow-up to Snow White. The original story was a dark, bleak piece by any standards. Within the world of the text, Pinocchio has had his feet burnt off, is beaten, thrown in prison, turned into a donkey – that the buyer attempts to drown – and comes close to being incinerated alive in the fires of Stomboli the puppet master. Indeed, the original ending of the story saw Pinocchio hanged on a tree, supposedly dead. Collodi was asked by his editor to keep the popular character alive and ret-coned the story, introducing the Fairy With the Azure Hair and the notion of behaving in the hope of becoming a real boy.
Though he gets better, it is somewhat hard to root for the wooden marionette in the novel, he’s obnoxious, sometime callous and is the initiator of his own misfortune more often than not (and given the numerous villain he comes across, that’s no mean feat).
Certainly, the puppet as writ would be a difficult character for Walt Disney to accommodate into a feature film. Indeed things evidently didn’t go smoothly, as Disney decided, five months into production, to restart the project.
Yes, the whole film was redesigned from top to bottom whilst in the middle of production. Walt feeling that the film, insofar as he was concerned, had a few distinct problems. The first problem was Pinocchio himself, now much of a puppet should he be, how much he should be his own enemy. The solution was to make him a babe in the woods, so to speak, as unaware of the makeup of the world as you might expect from something – or someone – simply dropped into it.
Another thing Disney felt the film needed was an audience surrogate, or at the very least an anchoring point. Enter Jiminy Cricket. The cricket was a minor character in the original version of the book, who warns Pinocchio that his wicked ways would come back to haunt him. The puppet not wanting to hear this, throws a heavy iron hammer at the insect, killing the bug dead. In the retcon, the cricket reappears as an associate of the fairy, giving her an account of the puppets actions and indeed acting as a dark lecturer to the marionette.
The design for the cricket was assigned to Ward Kimball, partly as compensation for an entire scene from Snow White that Ward had animated being axed‡. Ward worked his way through dozens of designs, inspired by the grasshopper in the Silly Symphony The Grasshopper and the Ant, but found that he couldn’t make him appealing enough. Ward finally designed a little human-like creature with an egg-shaped head. Walt liked the design and noted that the audience would accept that he is “a cricket because we say he’s a cricket” a note on the concept of suspension of disbelief.
Jiminy Crickey narrates the story of Geppetto the toymaker who makes a wish on a star that his wooden marionette would become a real boy and his son. The Blue Fairy comes and grants the puppet the gift of life, due to Geppetto’s toys bringing so much joy to the world. Yet Pinocchio is still a puppet, but must prove that he can be brave, truthful and unselfish before he can become true flesh and blood. To his end the Blue Fairy recruits Jiminy to be Pinocchio’s guide in the matters of right and wrong, but temptations lurk around every corner.
In many ways Pinocchio is the polar opposite to the work that preceded it. Whereas Snow White was a wash of hope with a tinge of darkness in the vein of the evil Queen, Pinocchio is a cloak of darkness with the slightest glimmer that things will work out in the end for the title character. It goes by the mantra of creating interesting, likeable characters and then putting them in the most terrible of dangers. In that it succeeds immensely. The stakes are higher than before, the principles are outnumbered by the antagonists and the narrative is deeper.
Although the story does cut an immense amount of the original story (this is a film after all and the novel was quite long), the most iconic parts are at least still present and correct. Pleasure Island is as nightmarish a place as intended, its secret evil underlining the fun to be had there, and yes, the transformation of Lampwick sequence was always intended to be frightening (I vaguely remember reading somewhere that the initial animation was rejected for not being scary enough).
Disney’s adaptation leaves quite a bit of original’s cruelty intact, certainly enough to be potentially frightening to some of its audience. Yet it is also a lighter affair in comparison to the novel, with an injection of some much needed light humor to break up the darkness which does wonders to bring it away from the original story’s almost relentless bleakness.
Of course at the start of the film, Pinocchio really is just a marionette puppet, which allows for some fun animation with Geppetto and Figaro – which also shows off Disney’s seemingly lack of fondness for cats, as Figaro is promptly booted by a Geppetto powered Pinocchio. While a puppet he moves mechanically, his eyes blankly staring into nothing, devoid of focus. It serves as a contrast between the lifeless and inanimate puppet, to the animation and spirit of Pinocchio the little wooden boy (to borrow from the Fox’s vernacular).
It is important that we buy into the puppet being alive from the very start the Blue Fairy makes it so. The first thing to change is indeed the eyes, going from vacant (with white surrounding the irises), the puppet blinks them into focus, where they stay for the majority of the film, never staring blankly at any other point in the picture. It’s actually an old animation trick, or more a quirk, as an animated character’s pupils always tend to move to the edge of the eyes in a way that in real life would make someone look painfully cross-eyed.
Another film that the film’s makers had to keep tabs on, is Pinocchio’s personality, while’s he not the obnoxious character from the book, he is hopelessly gullible and naive to the point where, in lesser hands, he could’ve become intolerable. Yet he never crosses the line towards becoming saccharine, instead the animation sells you and makes you feel sorry for the cruelty he endures, even when it’s the result of his own doing.
Part of this is due to the juxtaposition between the absolute innocence of Pinocchio and that of the dark and cruel world that he exists in (besides the safety of Geppetto ‘s house). When Pinocchio makes bad decisions, they come back to hit him hard and with little mercy, dragging the puppet down to earth with a crash and shoving him into outright misery. That he is a puppet – and is able to survive things no flesh and blood character could – just means that he can be thrown around even more violently by the other characters.
Pinocchio is a waif, an innocent aboard, even more so than the studio prior main character; Pinocchio probably wouldn’t survive very long on his own, without his conscience. While he’s easily led astray and doomed to suffer as a consequence of his own actions, he does strive to be good, even if he has little to work with in terms of past experience. He’s just been dumped into this world and is dealing with the deck life’s given him. His act of heroism at the end is brought about by the love of his father, the only human in the film to be genuinely nice to him and to who he knows that he has let down.
Said father, Geppetto, is more of a foppish oaf and comedy relief than a wise human, a man of foibles and stupidity just like any other. The only reason we know of his kindness in the movie, is because we are told he is kind to others, indirectly by the Blue Fairy. To be fair, the man does seem to have his heart in the right place, as flawed as he may be, at least when he’s not being overly mean to his pet cat.
Figaro and Cleo are also used to lighten the otherwise dark mood of the film. Cleo really isn’t much of a character, a small fish who dances around and flutters her eyes, her presence probably wouldn’t go missed if she wasn’t there. Figaro a spoiled little kitten, was apparently based on his animation director’s nephew mixed with cat behaviors. Initially jealous of Pinocchio, the cat quickly learns that the living puppet is a lot nicer under his own conviction that when Geppetto was controlling him. Figaro is also used by his master, Geppetto, forced into having to open the window and subjected to a bit of animal abuse ranging from physical to the depriving of food. Starting a strange tendency in Disney films to look at felines with a dim point of view.
Though Jiminy Cricket was thrown into the film at a rather late stage in its development, he certainly helps to keep the film from diving too deep into bleakness. A cricket of contemporary – circa 1940 – times with anachronistic colloquialisms to match. Jiminy starts of the proceedings, acting as the opening narrator, as if he’s going over his memoirs.
The cricket carries much of the narrative weight of the movie, as both its narrator (technically, we are viewing the film through his recollection of events) and an anchor of reason. While for the most part a likable character, he sometimes comes across as being more interested in himself than that of his appointed charge. At least while he’s not ogling the ladies, which he does constantly, pretty much all of which range from clockworks ornaments, to French marionettes doing the Can-Can.
He even flirts with the Blue Fairy at every opportunity were he think he can get away with it, even bartering with her about his reward before he’s even started the job (to be fair she flirts and teases him right back).
His small size gave the animation plenty of headaches when drawing him as a tiny figure against even Pinocchio, but it also allowed plenty of great opportunities to play with scale, which they do with relish. He’s a jolly little fellow, but he also has the temper on him, walking out on Pinocchio when he succumbs to temptation and threatening to knock Lampwick’s – a kid ten times his size – block off after being insulted by him.
The Blue Fairy is the only female character in the film with a speaking part. As part omnipresent goddess and at others a caring maternal figure, she is there to give Pinocchio the gift of life and to decide his ultimate fate. She is smart and canny, getting Jiminy to volunteer the position of Pinocchio’s conscience and later she teaches the puppet a lesson by making his nose grow when he tells her lies (which is the way I read the scene in both the film and book). Yet, as she says, she cannot help Pinocchio is he doesn’t prove worthy.
The villains start with one J. Worthington Foulfellow, the fox who, laughable calls himself Honest John. Like his animal form might suggest, he is a trickster. In the original story the fox tricks Pinocchio into burying his coins to grow a money tree, with the intend of stealing the money whilst the puppet waits for the tree to grow. The film version is also out to con Pinocchio in order to make a quick buck or two.
The fox’s demeanor is that of faux-sophistication, from the strive in his step suggesting a higher opinion of himself than he deserves, to the way he holds his cigar, with his pinky outstretched, as if he’s at some form of elaborate tea party. He also attempts to come across as a higher class than his raggedy clothes would suggest. Using a gentlemanly voice he convinces others of his honesty; his act only faltering when his outward calm is flustered (momentary when he tries to spell Pinocchio’s name, or when trying to get his head unstuck from his hat and most visibly when the Coachman reveals the extent of his plans,).
His cat friend Gideon, is a figure of comedy, his criminal tendencies seemingly borne more due to his association with his fox friend that any genuine animosity of his own accord. Although saying that his preferred methods for dealing with any and all trouble is to smash it with his mallet – which he uses seemingly without much provocation.
Gideon was originally going to be voiced by Mel Blanc, but the decision was made later on to make him a pantomime character, perhaps to capitalize on Dopey’s popularity. Strangely, or perhaps not, it has a similar effect, it’s hard to feel as if Gideon’s actions are wholly his own, or a result of the company he keeps.
While the fox and the cat are played as relatively harmless, in spite of their actions and deeds putting Pinocchio in extreme danger, Stromboli and the Coachman are more closer to that of actually dangerous villains.
Stromboli is a raging volcano of emotions (appropriate, given the name), animated with immense energy by Bill Tyler. A showman by trade, Stromboli is as flamboyant as he is volatile and he certainly volatile, close to exploding at a moment’s notice. He is the only character in the film to treat Pinocchio as if he was a piece of mere property; which insofar as Stromboli is concerned, the puppet might as well be (the fox treats by comparison, only treats Pinocchio as a mark for his schemes). When Pinocchio mentions leaving to see his father, Stromboli laughs at the concept of a puppet with a father, before violently throwing the puppet into the cage.
The coachman though, is just a being of malevolence from the darkness of animated nightmares. A notion not helped when his face contorts to look more devil-like when he assures the Fox and Cat that the child stupid enough to be lured to Pleasure Island “never come back as boys!”.
He is a demon and a predator of disobedient children, bringing a very adult fear to the movie with his introduction. That he otherwise talks in such a business-like manner only underwrites the horrific ramifications of his “work”.
The last obstacle, Monstro the Whale, for all his size and power, is really nothing more just a force of nature, albeit one with a mean temper. Drawn as an immense sea animal, his only goal is to eat and live. The animators were told to visualize him as a moving three story building, and were given oil-painted models of him to study (the oil-paint acting as a guide to how light would reflect on him). His bulk lends a fitting climax to the film, as an unrelenting foe that cannot be reasoned with.
Alongside the villains is the notion that not one of them receives any kind of punishment for their terrible actions whatsoever, drills the kind of world this is (all the punishment is reserved for the titular puppet – and well the other boys). One can see the fox and cat going off to con other gullible people of their money, Monstro continuing to ravish the oceans and yes, the coachman plying his trade collecting children to turn into donkey to sell to the salt mines without fear of being caught.
The animation in Pinocchio shows a level of commitment that the company would strive for in their next few films before the fiscal rug was pulled out from under them. Dense and filled with loving details. An early scene shows off numerous clocks, each one fully rendered and with an interesting – if sometimes morbid – way of striking the hours. Full size, working models of each toy in Geppetto’s workshop had a real-life counterpart for the animators to study. The level of detail is held out throughout the film’s runtime.
Look indeed at the progression of Pinocchio as he sings in the puppet show, going from nervousness brought from stage fright to quickly getting into the scene. A perfect example of acting through pure character animation, which also works to contrast him against the lifeless marionettes he’s performing with.
There are many prospective shots during the runtime. The camera hangs high in the rooftops, looking down on the fox, the cat and Pinocchio during the “An Actor’s Life for Me” number one scene as it pans across and then later flips to Jiminy’s point-of-view as he catches the group up. The ease of which they seem to work only belies the difficulty the animator must have had in their execution.
There are some moments of the film are that wonderfully realised and were, at the time, unsurpassed in terms of the level of detail involved. Like the morning after the first night, where the camera pans through the rooftops of the city. Were we see numerous townsfolk going about their daily lives; an elaborate piece of work. Created with the multi-plane camera, the sense of depth is staggering. You could say the scene has little to do with the movie, and you could even call it irrelevant. In many ways, yes, the scene is throwaway, but it just helps to set up the world that Pinocchio is a part of, it is there to give a sense of scale.
The multi-plane gets used throughout the film, bringing its impressive field of depth to the film to give an almost live-action feel to the proceedings. Of course the device was expensive, with the aforementioned town scene cost around $45,000 on its own. Yet the sense of place it provided must have been a revelation in 1940, in the days before Disney’s CAPS and even Xerox.
The cage that Stromboli locks Pinocchio in moves constantly with the motion of the wagon, with Pinocchio reacting to the movements of the cage in turn. A live action cage was shot moving, with the resulting footage rotoscoped – traced -over; the traces where then given to the animators to draw in Pinocchio trapped inside the cage, being flung around whilst acting. The result is layers of animation playing off of each other in a manner that hadn’t been achieved before and is staggering to contemplate these days, in a world where such a sequence would he aided by computer assistance. The wagons that Stromboli rides are also rotoscoped models, which goes someway to explaining how weird they look, but are just as passable.
The Blue Fairy was also rotoscoped, bringing with her aspects of the uncanny valley. Yet even here, it is somewhat passable. The Blue Fairy is an ethereal creature, meant to be somewhat unreal, and so a dip in the valley is not necessarily a problem. The pastoral glowing effect that surrounds her, as well as her slight transparency also aid in the illusion.
The water effects in the later part of the film, both above and under the sea, are still as powerful and effective today as they were back when first aired in theaters. All done by hand, no short-cuts here, the power of the seas, and of Monstro’s violent “handbrake” turns dish out the artistry of Disney’s effects animators. Arguably, this is still more impressive than even some of the latest that computer technology has ever offered.
Yes the film feel unrelentingly dark and bleak, but the result is a strong and impactful picture that has stood the test of time with remarkable success. If you ignore some of the “modern” words coming from Jiminy’s mouth the film looks like it could have come from any time. Amazing animation, a strong narrative and a strong cast of characters all help to make Pinocchio a memorable experience from beginning to end. To some extend, it is the sum of the projects that preceded it, the final exam after the revision that was Snow White. It’s not a masterpiece, sure, it can be a hard film for some to get through, for the very same reason that make it great. Yet great films are those ones that force you to think through them about something.
Pinocchio is ultimately a film about hope. Hope that something can happen in a cruel and uncaring world. Even if that hope is born of something as simple as wishing on a star.
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Pinocchio, wasn’t an initial success for Disney. Or rather, it was the second biggest film of the year, behind Gone With the Wind, but that was not enough to recoup its huge expenses. Much of Europe by this point was also becoming cut-of due to outbreak of the Second War World five months prior to its stateside release. A disaster for a company that relied on nearly half their income from foreign markets. The debts that Disney brought up, forced them to sell $3.5 million worth of stocks.The film has since made it money back and more, through re-releases to theatres and home videos.
Jiminy’s opening number “When you Wish Upon a Star”, become the company’s signature fanfare for the company’s revamped logo, starting in 1983, something it holds to this very day. the song also won Disney a best song Oscar, he received a second for the score.
Jiminy would later play host to Disney’s in Fun and Fancy Free, and play the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past in Mickey’s Christmas Carol. He would also make appearances on various early Disney TV shows.
Virgin Interactive would created a videogame adaptation of the puppet’s adventures in 1996 for the Super Nintendo, Game Boy and the Sega Mega Drive.
Studio/Distributor: Walt Disney/RKO Radio Pictures
Runtime: 88 mins
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Genre: Musical, Adaptation
Technique: 2D Animation
Country of Origin: USA
Director: Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen
Producer: Walt Disney
Pinocchio © The Walt Disney Company
- At the start of the film, hardcover copies of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland sit in the background, both of which were in some form of contention for future feature projects at the time.
- What happens to Alexander and the other Donkeys that can talk? While their fate is left to the viewers mind to make up – maybe they’re turned into the Coachman slave creatures – the book was a bit more obvious with their fate. Pinocchio is warned by the Donkey he rides to Toy Land that no good will come of him if he goes to the land before he is silenced by the coachman.
- Don’t feel too badly about Figaro’s plight, the rambunctious feline would soon go on to star in three of his own animated shorts (Figaro & Cleo, Bath Day and Figaro & Frankie), and be a major character in the Pluto shorts First Aiders and Cat Nap Pluto. In the majority of the shorts, he became the pet of a nicer owner, in the form of Minnie Mouse.
*To be fair Hollywood at the time saw sequels as somewhat beneath them, a notion that changed completely up about the release of The Godfather Part II.
†Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation would have to wait until 1999.