An Appreciation – Pinocchio
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) may have proven that Walt Disney could make a feature length animated film, but it was Pinocchio (1940) that showed the medium reaching high art. In just the second outing from his studio, Disney shaped a flat out masterpiece. No longer was animation relegated to short entertainments, they were now open to fully developed stories about human nature. Doubters believed that audiences wouldn’t stand long form cartoons – that the bright colors would hurt the eyes and that people couldn’t become emotionally tied to the characters. Disney, with his progressive mindset and backed by a team of talented artists, established a brand new standard for storytelling.
What makes Pinocchio so unique (and strange) is how unconventional the story is. This was released early in the Golden Age of Disney Animation, where the tropes and clichés were not yet cemented. There are no princes or princesses, or a great romance at play. Events unfold episodically, each existing within a vacuum. At its heart, the story is simply about a boy coming of age and learning about the joys and horrors of the world. Pinocchio (Dickie Jones) is such a charming and lovable character because he is just a kid. How often have we seen children in movies know way more than they should and outsmart the adults? Pinocchio works as a character because he is so naïve – he makes mistakes and falls for temptation. He doesn’t realize the consequences of his actions until it’s almost too late, but we root for him to grow and do the right thing.
People sometimes forget how far Disney and his team pushed the limit in terms of story elements. The studio has gained a reputation for sugarcoating the complexities of real life. Obviously, the production couldn’t bring the same dark tone of Carlo Collodi’s story to screen if they wanted to appease a wide audience, but to say that Disney didn’t test the boundaries of what they could do is a fallacy. Here, we see Pinocchio succumb to evil forces. He’s manipulated for the benefit of others, and has to learn his lessons the hard way. The surprising thing to realize is that all of the villains – not just some, but all of them – get away scot-free. There’s no epic battle where we see them fall. Stromboli (Charles Judels) gets away with his money, The Coachman (Judels) still brings young boys to Pleasure Island, and Honest John (Walter Catlett) and Gideon (Mel Blanc) continue swindling unknowing victims. The idea being that the world will always have darkness in it, but it’s the choices we make to do good that truly matters.
The technical innovations of the animation are outstanding. After the financial success of Snow White, Disney and his team took an ambitious leap forward, creating a big budget canvas to work on. The world of Pinocchio feels large and expansive. Colors are bright and vibrant; backgrounds are given intricate details. Disney and his technicians pioneered the multi-plane camera, allowing a depth of field not seen. One of the most famous shots has the camera not only track into Pinocchio’s town, but pan to the sides as well, creating a sense of immersion. In a modern time where computer animation makes the process much faster and cost efficient, to think that everything we see was hand drawn is mind-boggling. No wonder it took nearly four years to complete. But it was that level of perfectionism that makes the work so impressive. Compare the style here to Disney’s output from the 1960s. Compromises had to be made in the budgets, leading to a Xerox style that helped the process move faster but brought the quality of the animation a step down.
Almost every option available was taken to achieve the desired effect. Roto-scoping (an early form of motion capture) helped distinguish human-like movement. Charcoal was used to amplify scale, specifically with Monstro the whale. This all came together to provide weight and bounce to the characters. Animating human movement was already difficult enough, but doing it with a wooden puppet was almost unthinkable. Examine the early scene where Geppetto (Christian Rub) plays with Pinocchio before being given life by The Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable). Notice that despite moving like a human, the puppet is clearly lifeless. Yet, after his interaction with The Blue Fairy, Pinocchio moves and acts like a real person, with expression and body language. It may not seem like much now, but back then the impact must have been largely felt.
Examples of this kind of creativity are littered throughout. When Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) goes to bed in a matchbox – lifting the box cover like a blanket – it feels organic and spontaneous, but that moment had to be thought of, planned, and executed. Another instance has Pinocchio, Honest John, and Gideon walking down the road. The scene is shot from a high angle, possibly on top of a building. The camera pans left to right as we see the three characters marching together as Honest John sings “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee.” It’s such a peculiar shot, because it resembles a shot done in real life than in animation. When Pinocchio sings “I’ve Got No Strings” in Stromboli’s traveling show, he exhibits nervousness and then gradual confidence as the song goes on, all done through physicality. It’s these little bits that make all the difference. The fact that someone had the mind to think them up, articulate them to Walt Disney’s approval, and have them animated goes to show the level of genius being displayed in the production.
The Pleasure Island sequence remains one of the darkest and most disturbing scenes in Disney Animation history, the shock value rivaled only by the death of Bambi’s mother. I remember as a child seeing Pleasure Island and being shaken to the core. The imagery leaves a lasting impact, from the ominous style of the backgrounds to the transformation of the naughty boys into donkeys. It plays similarly to a horror movie. When the boy Lampwick (Frankie Darro) transforms into a donkey, his despair mixed with Pinocchio’s reaction is not so different from a person turning into a werewolf. There are two key images. The first is the close up of Lampwick’s hands grasping for Pinocchio, and then suddenly changing into hooves. The jerky motion looks unnatural and violent. We follow up with the shot of Lampwick’s shadow against the wall as he completes the change. There’s no reason for a spotlight to be there, but it amplifies the overall effect.