Director: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske
Cast: Dickie Jones, Cliff Edwards, Christian Rub, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro, Evelyn Venable, Charles Judels
Plot: A woodcarver (Rub) makes a puppet who he wishes to life. However, if Pinocchio (Jones) wants to become a real boy, he must stave off temptation and show true selflessness.
The great Disney films are the ones that still hit you today. The older the Disney film the harder it is to achieve this feeling. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is a testament to film-making as a whole, being the first animated feature, but do we still respond to the bland leading lady or the prolonged slapstick gags? The other Disneys I have looked back on, Dumbo and Aristocats, didn’t quite live up to the memory of themselves, still great pieces of children’s cinema, but for me, they were missing something that my younger self didn’t pick up on. I was worried that this would be the same experience waiting for me with Pinocchio. We all know the story. A mannequin comes to life, when its creator wishes him real from a passing shooting star, but in order to become an actual human boy, rather than his wooden self, he must prove to the shooting star that he can follow the moral path of other young boys, always being good and never getting overcome by temptation. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong, when a sinister-looking stranger pulls him away from school to become an actor (oh yeah, don’t watch this film if you are planning on becoming an actor – it is a constant slap to the face). The easy life doesn’t live up to its merits however, dragging Pinocchio into the clutches of an evil puppeteer and also Pleasure Island.
Right from the off, it becomes clear what the Walt Disney game plan is. Pinocchio, if we ignore the fact he is made of wood, is a young boy, starting off his life and venturing out into the world. Seeing as he was technically born yesterday, the world is a mysterious and exciting place to him, unaware that just because something is beautiful and charming, does not mean that it isn’t dangerous. This movie is about growing into an adult and adjusting your morals and conscience accordingly. Pinocchio, in many ways, is just as passive a hero to spend time with as Snow White was. He is easily persuaded, goes along for the ride throughout the entire story and it isn’t until the final act, where he stands up and takes control of his fate. However, unlike Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, you cannot help but feel that this makes a stronger point here. While Pinocchio is almost always abandoning or disappointing people, it is hard to see him as a negative character, merely one too young to understand the ways of the world. Besides, the whole story is about him straying from the path, an insight to the younger audience what happens if you decide to abandon or ignore the morals society has given to us. Sure, the easy way out might seem appealing at first, but the end of that road is one you would rather not take. The story might later on suffer from the addition of the fairy behind the shooting star who conveniently gets Pinocchio and his conscience, Jiminy Crickets (the best name for a movie character ever), out of most of their tricky situations, but the appearance for the first half of the film helps ground the stakes. If you want to achieve your one, true wish, you have to earn it and be a good person. Once you’ve deserved your wish, in this case to be a real boy, then only then will it be granted to you.
The thing that most surprised me with Pinocchio is how dark it gets. While Snow White and the Seven Dwarves did the opposite and surprised me with the levity of it all, despite being based on a Grimm fairy tale, Pinocchio gets very grim in its closing acts. We all remember the scene where Pinocchio ends up in Pleasure Island, the haven for all kids that get up to no good, and ends up playing pool while drinking beer and smoking cigars. What you might not remember is quite how horrific that scene gets. It turns out that the boys have been harvested to be transformed into donkeys, and then be sold off to the salt mines. The metaphor is, of course, don’t make a jack-ass out of yourself. But, as that scene opens up, it gets pretty heavy-handed. As the newly-transformed donkeys plead for their mother, as they are taken to be disposed of, and the speechless donkeys are trapped, without a voice, to be sold into captivity, it gets a little gloomy. Worse is the transformation we actually see. Lampwick, the foul-mouthed no-good teenager who Pinocchio ends up befriending, might be a character we dislike, but as he begins mutated into a donkey, his terrified screams for help transforming into intelligible ‘hee-haws’, is a horrific watch. The worst thing about the whole situation is that as Pinocchio and Jiminy flee from Pleasure Island, that entire plot-line becomes a loose end. Sure, redemption for the boys who chose criminal activities over school would have damaged the reading of the story, but it doesn’t make it any less unsettling. Like this scene or not, it does keep Pinocchio one of the more memorable of the older Disney films.
And then there is Monstro. The closing twenty minutes of Pinocchio will always be some of the greatest pieces of cinema my childhood knew. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Monstro plays the gigantic Sperm whale that sits at the bottom of the ocean. While Pinocchio goes on his misadventure in Pleasure Island, his father, the woodcarver, tries to rescue him, getting swallowed by Monstro in the process. As Pinocchio realises what his actions have caused, he launches a rescue mission to save his father and redeem himself. For one, the whole ocean scenes are gorgeous, showing off that old-timey yet wonderful animation that made Snow White such a pleasure to sit down and enjoy again. Then we get to the whale in question. He could be my favourite Disney villain, the one-minded cruelty of this beast so terrifying to behold. At first, we are only given glimpses of the monster, wondrous sketches of the unmoving creature, sleeping on the ocean floor. The first time we see him awake we are introduced to Monstro from inside his belly, the inside of his jaw being the body part that personifies him. Those teeth will be the first few minutes of imagery we will get of Monstro, perfectly building him up as the antagonist that will send the movie off. And when we see him in person, in a brilliant chase through the ocean, he is a power to be reckoned with. Unstoppable, formidable, beautiful… Monstro will always be a pillar of Disney for me, even if these days, he is all but forgotten lost in the mountains worth of great Disney characters to choose from. Maybe it is because my one criticism of Pinocchio is partially Monstro’s fault. Pinocchio doesn’t really have a set antagonist, the character straying from bad guy to bad guy, without a lasting threat to his character. The story seems to drift rather than go anywhere logically, too lost in its own discussion of morals to really bring any other form of plot to the table. However, maybe Monstro makes this flaw only a passing annoyance, as he definitely gives the impression that Pinocchio gets better the further you get into it.
Final Verdict: A great children’s tale about doing the right thing. Great characters, beautiful animation – it still holds up to today.