Few, perhaps, would call Pinocchio their favourite Disney film of all time. But even so, it manages to be one of the very best examples of Disney in their golden age, its images and music etched into the consciousness of much of the world far more than anything about the wicked, murderous little imp of the original book, and few can dispute that the film was hugely successful, and far, far ahead of anything else that any other animation studio could produce. Watching it through for the first time since childhood, with hopefully a more discerning eye, I can truly appreciate just how daring the animation here was, not just in realising those signature cute Disney characters, but special effects like lightning, the distortion of a glass bowl, motion underwater and one scene of children going to school that has the kind of wonderful complexity we’ll likely never see in traditional animation again. Then of course there’s Woolie Reitherman at the height of his ambition, animating Monstro with such bravura detail and fluidity that for my money it far outstrips even his work on Maleficent as a dragon.
The character of Pinocchio is of course familiar to almost anyone in a cultural milieu that includes Disney – which is most of the world. He’s a little puppet boy whose nose grows when he tells lies, who must learn to be good in order for a fairy to make him into a real boy. It’s also quite well-known that this film is one of the weirdest and darkest in the Disney canon – to my mind far more so than The Black Cauldron, which is often regarded as Disney going too far. The film sees a little (wooden) boy carved by a lonely old man getting waylaid on the way to school for the very first time, groomed into becoming an actor by wise-talking ne’er-do-wells, passed between various abusive ‘owners’ until he is in the bad company of other boys who teach him to smoke and drink, all the while guided by a ‘conscience’ who is endearing in part because he is – or wishes to be – a total philanderer. It wouldn’t pass today. And to this we must add that that the story is downright surreal and at times potentially terrifying for a child – getting past the idea of a wooden boy coming to life through magic, we still have a world where crickets, foxes and cats are members of regular society, where boys who are bad turn into donkeys for no other reason than that they are making jackasses of themselves, and where a monster sperm whale goes about swallowing entire boats.
But all of this is thanks to the source material, and in fact Disney have heavily toned down the original’s more surreal content. Even the part with the jackasses comes from the Italian source, presumably without that pun. And unlike Alice in Wonderland, which is similarly surreal, there is of course a genuine journey of growth for Pinocchio, from naïve newly-made little puppet boy to brave young adventurer willing to sacrifice himself to save his father. It his the right emotional points and deftly segues between its different story arcs, and though it would be nice to see some of the villains here get their comeuppance, at its heart Pinocchio has the cautionary tale.
It’s fun to watch Pinocchio and remember that it was made over seventy years ago, when Hitler was still alive, when people could still remember having been acquainted with Queen Victoria or Oscar Wilde. It’s amazing how little the quick-talking character type has changed, or the national stereotypes – listen to those Italian outbursts, that strange idea that the British say ‘hop to it, you blokes’, or that funny little Bavarian outfit on the for-some-reason now-German Pinocchio. It’s also quite amusing to hear that execrable ‘YOLO’ phrase very nearly in complete form here: ‘Lampwick says a guy only lives once!’
The studio’s system of allocating a particular animator to a specific character has never worked better than it did here, and some of the Nine Old Men are on top form. Reitherman aside, here we see Ward Kimball being given a main character for the first time (to stop him storming out after his work on Snow White got cut), and his Jiminy, while having very little to do with a cricket (as he himself liked to quip), is classic Disney expressiveness; Milt Kahl had his Miyazaki moment of offering an inspired revision and suggested Pinocchio become a cute little boy, and from then on was cemented into the studio’s hierarchy; Eric Larson puts his stamp on the cute animals, including the adorable and hilarious little cat Figaro; and Kahl worked with Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston on Pinocchio himself. Though they’re not amongst the Nine Old Men, there was also sterling work here from the creators of the two Disney Dogs Goofy and Pluto – Art Babbitt, who expertly brought Geppetto to life, and Norm Ferguson, who as well as being one of the animation directors took on the anthropomorphic fox and cat Honest John and Gideon, the latter of whom amusingly has just hiccups provided by Mel Blanc, as all his other lines were cut to make him a comedy mute character – putting the performance in line with Dopey, Dinah and the Sword in the Stone dogs.
Pinocchio also, despite its songs all being delivered in snippets, also provided some real musical signatures for the company, and its Oscars were deserved. With this second feature film, Disney established its place as the only studio capable of such spectacles, and though the War put a dampener on initial returns, it’s small wonder that the film has a place in history, and gets frequently referred to – after all, Pinocchio can be seen in Tangled and the Genie uses his face in Aladdin. Classic.