The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Pinocchio (1940/USA/prod. Walt Disney) appeared at #51 on my original list.
What it is • A little puppet wants to be a real boy. Or rather his creator Geppeto wishes he could be, and once this wish is granted by the Blue Fairy, the boy himself wishes to take this all the way. He can talk, walk, sing, and dance, but he's still made of wood, not flesh and bone. His humanity will be granted, and his nose will remain its proper length, only if he can obey a moral code, for which a cricket - named Jiminy in this film - offers his services. In the nineteenth-century fable by Carlo Collidi, on which Pinocchio is based, the puppet responds be squashing and killing his pesky wannabe conscience. That's not the only difference between source and adaptation; the original, serialized version of the story concluded with little Pinocchio's body hanging lifelessly from a tree where two villains had hanged him (though Collidi later updated the book to create a happier ending, at an editor's requests). Naturally Walt Disney changed these plot points; nonetheless, Pinocchio is one of the darker, edgier features his studio released, shadowed by the ferocious Monstro, the vicious puppet trafficker Stromboli, and especially the sin-happy, hellfire-tempting (or rather donkey tail-tempting) Pleasure Island where little boys scream for their mothers before being mutated into animals who will be sent to slave away in salt mines. If the content is rather mature, the style is even more so: a beautiful advance on the already striking form of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with rich colors, layered visuals, and frames bursting with complex activity. The film flopped in 1940 but has been treasured ever since, not just by the children it was directly targeted towards, but to adults who still shiver at its haunting images and delight in its imaginative tapestry.
Why I like it •
I'm a sucker for the world creation instinct of Walt Disney - a legacy most acutely realized in his theme parks - and this film has that in spades. To start with, Pinocchio's cozy but sprawling village is multifaceted, glimpsed occasionally in wide overhead shots that capture its eclectic range (both in beautiful nighttime and cheerful morning vistas). There are taverns where villains sneak about, dirt paths through fields leading out to the open road, houses and little roads with nooks and crannies we feel we can wander down and explore. But that's not the half of it. An early scene crafts a bustling universe inside the tight confines of Geppeto's woodshop, with dozens of wall clocks enacting little automated scenes, disrupted by the confused Jiminy. It's as if all of Disney's Silly Symphony visions were woven into a single web. The film's most infamous location, however, is the brilliant Pleasure Island, home of the Rough House where boys can beat each other up, Tobacco Row with free cigars for all the kiddies, and the "Model Home" open for the trashing. And then...off to the salt mines. This Dark Disneyland manages to be a warped mirror reflection of the sunnier, more innocent theme parks spun off from this and other fairy tale films...but also a foreboding harbinger and blistering critique of the studio's sinister, world-dominating turn in the post-Walt era (perhaps with roots in the Walt era), when it became a corporate behemoth exercising iron control over every property and every creator invited to its playground. All that and the film includes perhaps the most iconic, poignant Disney song of all - it's a ghoulish tale of terror and a wistful journey to an enchanted land.
How you can see it • Pinocchio can be rented on blu-ray/DVD from Netflix and is surely available at your local library. Disney being fond of scarcity (for its actual content, not its merchandise), it doesn't seem to actually be in print at the moment - good luck finding a cheap hard copy online. The film hasn't been mentioned much on this blog before, but a brief clip does appear in my 7 Rooms guide montage.
What do you think? • Is this the strongest animated Disney feature? Which is your personal favorite? Do you find the film's moral instructive for your own children?
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Yesterday: Mean Streets (#52)
Tomorrow: A Walk Through H (#50)