Pinocchio (1940, Ben Sharpsteen)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
It is difficult to separate oneself from Pinocchio, difficult in fact to view it as an independent work of art and not an aspect of one’s own existence; to analyze it carefully feels uncomfortably similar to a visceral self-examination. Walt Disney’s adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s surreal, playful story of a grimly unlikable wooden puppet and his angsty disconnect from normalcy upends or at least subverts its pessimistic view of humanity while also retaining its trial-by-fire deconstruction of the aggressive, dangerous real world that must confront every living child. Thanks in part to its dream-logic, smoothly episodic nature and the (Disney-trademarked) spareness of its central character, the film invites far more engagement as a purely emotive experience than it does as a rational one; this is true of all five of Walt Disney’s first full-length animated productions, but Pinocchio is the most keenly ambitious of the lot, the one most self-determined as an emotional rather than a conceptual experience, and for all the panic that seems to have colored much of its production, the one that most successfully provides a kind of storytelling unencumbered by the necessary limitations of live action cinema. Like almost no narrative cartoon made by a mainstream studio in subsequent decades, it takes complete advantage of its ability to convey the fantastic as something tangible (perhaps even helped along by what can easily be termed its overreliance on live action reference footage, which tones down its otherworldly effect while making its colorful, bold universe more instinctively believable). This seems like it should be an obvious goal of narrative animation, but one need scarcely glance at the average American cartoon of the ’60s or the typical high-budget CGI tentpole of today to understand that imagination is typically sidelined by a commitment to mundane commercialism.
In its actual heyday, Pinocchio lost money — the breakout of the War hurt it, as did the wearing out of the novelty that had greeted Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — and while it has gone on to become as culturally ubiquitous and celebrated as any of Disney’s films (and was, in fairness, greeted with raptuorous reviews by newspaper film critics at the time), it’s not difficult to understand why it might have been a more uncomfortable fit for most audiences. Snow White courted validation, the joyous illustration of universal longings; Pinocchio is a challenge, one whose actual message is initially hard to pin down. It speaks to the maturing impulses of the child, the childlike yearning and misapprehension of the adult, and resists the calm, collected framing of traditional routine. The existential experience of seeing it as a child and then returning to it as an adult is haunting because its strange, winding tale is so oddly persuasive in its rhythmic intensity to the primitive formations of a young mind, and seeing it again feels like a new forge among a just barely familiar path. In a very real way, for multiple generations Pinocchio is one of the ways we learned to be human, and certainly how we learned what fear was. But like Snow White it is not strictly or even largely a children’s film and is rather a complete experience of impatiently volleying tones and spectacles. Its universe is more expansive than the earlier film’s, and it also attains a certain striking unpredictability because its source is so much more contemporary (published in Italy in 1883) than the Grimms’ story.
In the aftermath of Snow White, Walt Disney wanted his animation studio that was still churning out short subjects on a constant basis to function as a film factory — he tried to put multiple feature-length cartoons into production at the same time to approximate the efforts of independent sub-major producer David O. Selznick in the time prior to Gone with the Wind. His team of story men began work on both Pinocchio and Bambi before it was even abundantly clear that Snow White would prove a success. Disney had misgivings about Pinocchio‘s title character and would prove skeptical of it as anything except a purely sensory experience, scene for scene, but while his involvement would prove less impassioned than his obvious zeal in regular meetings for Snow White, and while doubt plagued multiple story points throughout the two-year process of bringing the film to the screen, Pinocchio would prove an artistic triumph in large part because of the lessons (especially about pacing) learned on Snow White, but moreover because the earlier film’s success provided a license to engage even more in the presentation of animation as cinema and as art.
For Disney, as ever, art and cinema meant the pursuit of transcendence; back to Flowers and Trees and The Old Mill, he alone among the major producers of American cartoons sought experiences that approximated the joys and pains of real life. Pinocchio, even more than the largely nonverbal and ethereal Snow White, would synthesize these impulses more profoundly than any project ever released under his name save one (Dumbo, released a year later). Making use of a horizontal variant on the famous multi-plane camera that allows for enormous background vistas and more complex camera movements than were ever previously seen in animated film, the results are visually breathtaking — much more reliant on the ballooning effects department than either Snow White or Dumbo — but they are breathtaking in service of a specific psychological purpose. There is brilliant character animation in the film, including Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston’s work on Pinocchio himself, the great Vladimir Tytla’s on the wicked puppeteer Stromboli, Fred Moore’s skewed self-portrait as the troublemaking child Lampwick and even Ward Kimball’s oddly designed but engaging Jiminy Cricket — but in contrast to Snow White, this is but one element of Disney’s arsenal of tools in service to a common goal of presenting the film’s story and its world within a very specific, very persuasive point of view.
It’s obvious that Pinocchio is intended by Disney as an allegory of childhood, maybe boyhood specifically; such fables are thick on the ground of the culture that’s imparted to most of us early in our lives. But little of it in any medium resonates in quite the elemental fashion that this film does, with its formally striking adherence to the base reasoning of childhood: Pinocchio’s choices and lateral movements can feel nonsensical on paper. How can he so utterly fail to move from point A to B without distraction? How can he so frequently lose touch with the simple needs and pleasures of a loving home? One answer is that the individual directors of each sequence, supervising director Ben Sharpsteen and Disney all successfully make empathy with Pinocchio himself the goal of the enterprise. They achieve this by rendering a world of almost ceaseless excitement from everything that he encounters. Pinocchio is not really a musical — even though it contains, among other songs, perhaps the most famous tune wrought by the Disney studio, “When You Wish Upon a Star” — but its sense of rhythm and exuberance carries through virtually every one of its episodes, whether joyous (the opening among the lonely toymaker Geppetto, his pets and his numerous clocks), absurd (the dance among the marionettes) or harrowing (Pleasure Island). All the while the film demonstrates an understanding of Pinocchio’s corruptibility without totally absolving him of responsibility; in contrast to the innocence and crucial decency of Snow White, Pinocchio is susceptible to what Jiminy calls “temptation,” and his story is treated with a knowing irony that never acquires a sense of condescension because its portrait of mischief is so dynamic and colorful.
And more to the point, it isn’t just the film itself that is crucially aware of this. Many decades later the filmmakers behind Pixar’s Toy Story would confess that the character in that film they identified with most was the villain Sid, a creative and sinister kid next door who dismantles toys and pieces them back together in surreal, macabre fashion. Pinocchio suffers from no such insincerity — its depictions of evil are, for the most part, actually evil, including the downright Dickensian coachman who kidnaps children for Pleasure Island, the nefarious fox Honest John, and the boisterous, exploitative Stromboli — but it also fails to impart judgment of either Pinocchio or the audience for being fascinated by or attracted to “temptations” of the kinds that spring up throughout the film, and this is keenly validated by Geppetto’s quiet acceptance of the child Pinocchio’s transgressions once the shock of the puppet’s new donkey ears and tail wears off. Geppetto’s love for his (essentially) adopted son is unconditional; and in a sense, this is also true of the boy’s only female figure of influence, the Blue Fairy, who in one of the film’s most famous sequences illustrates for him the consequences of dishonestly by extending his nose all the way out into a tree limb with a birds’ nest then gently forgives him. It’s in this manner that Pinocchio most warmly establishes the parameters of fear as something that is most assuredly conquered by love, kindness and empathy.
Pinocchio’s various father figures are all variously defined by their adjacency to these virtues. Jiminy is the most omnipresent and ineffectual, whose existence is only particularly noteworthy to Pinocchio himself and whose advice he routinely ignores; he is also the voice we hear the most in the film, the implication perhaps being that the rite of passage of making egregious errors is an inevitable side effect of growth. Geppetto and Stromboli are handy forces of direct opposition, imparting love and abuse respectively in their roles as spontaneous caregivers. And Geppetto and Pinocchio’s eventually dogged pursuit of one another, and their all-consuming dedication to rediscovering their brief moment of peace at the start of the film, beautifully illustrates with lifelong impact the generosity of spirit that makes life worthwhile. As heartbreaking as the image is of a boarded-up workshop with fishbowl missing and all surfaces caked wth dust, it’s also a symbol of the obviousness of parental love: Geppetto will uproot his life to find his child because there was never even any question that he would. Stromboli never appears again in the film after Pinocchio escapes his cage, a counterintuitive fate for a “Disney villain,” because for all his visions of capitalist triumph in the discovery of the wooden child, his heart could never possibly have the capacity to care enough to chase after him.
If all this sounds heavy, that’s because it is — unapologetically so. Alone among American producers and not merely those who made entertainment ostensibly for children, Disney is unflinching before the boldest kinds of outpourings and expressions of matters as intense as life and death, family and growth. The explicitness of Pinocchio‘s terminology is remarkable: Geppetto does not utilize gentle or coded phrasing when Pinocchio asks why he’s crying at the end of the film and he replies “Because you are dead,” nor does the film silence the protests of one of the transformed boys on Pleasure Island who cries out in absolutely chilling agony “I don’t want to be a donkey” amid a chorus of less distinctive keening. The shot of the drowned Pinocchio after Monstro’s final attack is uglier, more mundane, therefore more terribly real than the carefully arranged Snow White in her coffin — however tender Geppetto’s words, the finality of death and the separation it implies receives no merciful cushioning. Twelve year-old Maurice Sendak would remember the directness of this lesson for the rest of his life, as he remembered in a 1988 essay for The Washington Post, but as is even evident in the clipped, unsentimental phrasing of his own work: “But it was still hot.” “Let the wild rumpus start.” When Disney refuses to dull the edges of death, his work gives life meaning; when he allows the young viewer of his films to feel despair or terror, he is introducing a life of full dimension — or to put it more loftily, a sense of wonder.
Snow White flirted with figures of terror as well; the girl’s chase through the woods has engendered nightmares for the better part of a century now. But in Pinocchio, the procession of menaces is all but relentless; only Honest John is given a slightly comedic overtone. While Pinocchio and Geppetto’s improbable confrontation with the whale Monstro is the film’s most fondly remembered dramatic climax, its interlude on Pleasure Island provides the liveliest and most concentrated shot of mature horror in Disney’s entire career. The amusement park is depicted as a bedlam of Lord of the Flies-like unchecked impulses, destruction and scuffles flowing freely alongside such adult vices as gambling and tobacco, indulgences the Coachman encourages up to the point that a curious and genuinely terrifying transformation afflicts each of the recruited boys, rendering them into literal donkeys who are then launched into commercialized slave labor. But Disney takes on this matter as anything but a strict moralist; Lampwick, the boy whose fate we witness in the most harrowing detail, is treated as a harmless goofball whose cries for his mother as he regresses to an animal state are unfathomably tragic and crushing — the exploitation of children is treated as the villainous act, rather than the easy corruptibility of the naturally naive.
There is some degree of movie-world precedent to Pinocchio, but what’s shocking is the nature of that precedent — Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage and Tod Browning’s Freaks in the haunting shots of Stromboli’s lonely, bleak caravan rollicking away on a stormy night as Geppetto calls out in vain in the pouring rain for Pinocchio, hours after last seeing him (another undiluted expression of love); Lubitsch, James Whale, Rouben Mamoulian and Josef von Sternberg in the showbiz and exploitation world of grifters, hucksters, human traffickers and pedophiles that haunts the sinister fringes in the indistinct Europe of Disney’s frame. More broadly, the film is scored, pictorially composed and performed with the dramatic weight of a live action picture, and a more deeply serious one than most of those dominating the Hollywood mainstream. Equally striking is how long and how loudly Pinocchio echoes down through cinema — most superficially in the works of Steven Spielberg, who would posit the story as baseline for a brilliant if troublesome narrative of a daydreaming man-child in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but most terrifyingly in Charles Laughton’s extraordinary Night of the Hunter which like Disney’s film explores the phenomenal self-reliance of children forced to fend for themselves and the blinding power of unconditional love, including that which isn’t enforced by blood.
A frequent criticism of Pinocchio is that the character’s modification toward being a boy with slightly wooden features as opposed to a full-on moving puppet robs the story of its central purpose — when Pinocchio finally becomes “a real boy” at the film’s conclusion, it seems less of a meaningful transition than it did in Collodi’s story. But as Sendak points out in his essay, the change Disney has made is really one that requires the character’s arc to become one of spiritual completion:
The Pinocchio in the film is not the unruly, sulking, vicious, devious (albeit still charming) marionette that Collodi created. Neither is he an innately evil, doomed-to-calamity child of sin. He is, rather, both lovable and loved. Therein lies Disney’s triumph. His Pinocchio is a mischievous, innocent and very naive little wooden boy. What makes our anxiety over his fate endurable is a reassuring sense that Pinocchio is loved for himself — and not for what he should or shouldn’t be. Disney has corrected a terrible wrong. Pinocchio, he says, is good; his “badness” is only a matter of inexperience.
For Collodi, the point of becoming a “real boy” is to become obedient and selfless. It does not matter who you are, deep down, as long as you follow the rules. For Disney, it absolutely does matter who you are — which isn’t to say that virtue is meaningless, but that the values of compassion and loyalty are self-evident with the onset of maturity: to love is to grow, to become “real” is to love and be loved. To revisit Pinocchio is to be challenged on our progress as humans — to refamiliarize ourselves with ourselves. To judge it as a film feels like a weak and superfluous act, but make no mistake — it is a great one, indeed one of the greatest ever made.