Pinocchio is both a classic and underrated Disney film, if that’s possible. The follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs took animation down new paths, but was a box office disappointment and somehow never had the same appeal for successive generations as the princess and animal movies. Maybe it was because Walt Disney pushed his animators to create something a little darker in his second full-length animated feature. Or maybe this cautionary tale about what happens if a boy misbehaves was just a little too obvious. “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face,” the Blue Fairy says, and of course everyone’s familiar with the wooden nose that gets longer with every fib.
Based on the 1883 children’s novel by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio is nothing more than an extended fable about behaving well or else turning into a jackass (literally). In this story, old world woodcarver Geppetto sees a wishing star and wishes for his carved marionette to become a real boy. Enter the Blue Fairy, who waves her wand and brings Pinocchio to life, but tells him he will remain wooden until he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish. “Now remember,” she tells him, “be a good boy. And always let your conscience be your guide.”
Disney’s 1940 version is as episodic as the original book, with the first 24 minutes devoted to introducing Geppetto, his cat Figaro, goldfish Cleo, and a vagabond cricket named Jiminy who is given the job of being Pinocchio’s conscience. Jiminy is a great little singer. Voiced by a popular ukulele strummer named Cliff Edwards, the little cricket gets to warble the song that will become the Disney theme: “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Jiminy isn’t much of a conscience, but if he had done a better job there would be no story to tell.
The naive little woodenhead ditches Jiminy and meets a fast-talking fox named Honest John and his cat-companion Gideon, who get him to join Stromboli’s puppet show. Virtually sold into servitude, Pinocchio is locked up and yet still doesn’t learn his lesson. Sold again by Honest John, he later goes with other boys to Pleasure Island, where delinquents can do any undisciplined thing they want—including vandalizing, drinking beer, gambling, smoking cigars, and playing billiards, all of which Pinocchio does with a ne’er-do-well named Lampwick. The Pleasure Island sequence was originally much tamer, with junk food being the only real vice. Disney pushed his animators to up the ante, and while that sequence is perhaps the most memorable, the consequence of hellraising is still a pretty obvious lesson in morality. It’s almost a relief when the moralizing is put on pause after Pinocchio learns his father had set out to find him but was swallowed by a whale named Monstro, and we get the film’s big action sequence.
Remember, though, that because full-length feature animation was still new, Disney was pulling out all the stops to try to top what he had done in Snow White. Geppetto’s workshop is a wonderland of moving clocks, and a long sequence showcases what animators were able to do. Same with the underwater scenes, where all sorts of colorful corals and anemones are impressively rendered. Some of the animation—like the hot coals from the hearth—still seems rudimentary, but for the most part Pinocchio is Golden Age Disney at it’s best. It’s still a good choice for family movie night, but a word to the wise: don’t feel compelled to talk about the Pleasure Island sequence with your children so they don’t get the “wrong idea” about bad behavior. The moralizing will be painfully clear to them.
Pinocchio was first released on two-disc Blu-ray in 2009, but that release is long out of print. This new Walt Disney Signature Collection includes a Digital HD copy of the film—the first time that’s available to the public—as well as a very well done new feature on the Pleasure Island sequence in which we hear Disney’s own voice talking about the storyboard.
Violence: The whale sequence can be briefly frightening for very young children, especially given a moment when we think one of the characters has died
Adult situations: Just the peril of the whale sequence and the Pleasure Island debauchery
Takeaways: We remember one song from this movie, but the others—“Little Wooden Head,” “Give a Little Whistle,” “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee,” and “I’ve Got No Strings”—are also quite good, and some of the animation is really ahead of its time