Sunday, December 18, 2022

"Pinoccho" (1940): review

Jiminy Cricket sings to Pinocchio

[WARNING: spoilers for a movie from 1940. Also, many thanks to Wikipedia for much of the information appearing in this review.]

The original story of Pinocchio comes from the 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. If I'm not mistaken, Disney's 1940 film, directed by the team of Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske, is not the first full-length feature adaptation of the story: that honor goes to 1911's Pinocchio, a silent film directed by Giulio Antamoro. Since that time, many other versions of the story have appeared: 1939's Russian adaptation of the story, called The Golden Key; the 1959 Soviet-era The Adventures of Buratino; 1965's Pinocchio, starring John Joy; the East German Turlis Abenteuer (Turli's Adventure) from 1967; 1972's Un burattino di nome Pinocchio (A Puppet Named Pinocchio), directed by Giuliano Cenci; and so many others through the decades, right up to a creepy 2019 adaptation called Pinocchio starring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto (the preview trailer for this turned me off; the English-dubbed version of the film has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and the two 2022 versions of the story from Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo del Toro. So the Disney version is by no means the "original" movie version of the story; it is merely one adaptation among many. However, the Disney version is the movie that gives us such song classics as "When You Wish Upon a Star" (essentially Disney's anthem), "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor's Life for Me)," and "I've Got No Strings"—a song that features in "Avengers: Age of Ultron" because the villain Ultron, a Stark project gone wrong, gains sentience and relates to the animated Pinocchio.

I hadn't seen this movie in years. It stars the voice talents of Dick Jones as Pinocchio, Cliff Edwards as traveling conscience Jiminy Cricket, Christian Rub as old Geppetto, Walter Catlett as Honest John the cunning fox, Charles Judels as wicked carnie Stromboli and the evil Coachman, Evelyn Venable as the Blue Fairy, and Frankie Darro as young rogue Lampwick. The movie showed its age in some ways, including with some scenes that would be considered un-PC today (e.g., some Indian-head imagery related to the distribution of cigars to young boys being tempted to engage in vices), but the movie also contained some lines that struck me as very relevant today, even though that probably wasn't the intention back in 1940. Here, I'm talking about lines like "I'd rather be smart than be an actor" and "What does an actor want with a conscience, anyway?"—words that bring to mind Jennifer Lawrence's recent stupid remarks about a lack of female action heroes before her, and Alec Baldwin's absence of a conscience after he shot cinematographer Halnya Hutchins to death. The movie also had some horror elements that I'd forgotten.

The basic story is one you probably know if the Disney film is familiar to you. Woodcarver Geppetto is a sad, old man who lives and works alone in a small Italian town. His only companions are his cat Figaro and his strangely flirtatious goldfish Cleo. Jiminy Cricket occasionally narrates the story, and he happens to hop into town, where he spies the only lighted house on the street: Geppetto's house. Craving some warmth from the outdoor chill, Jiminy sneaks through a small flaw in the front door and finds himself in Geppetto's living room. Initially, there's no sign of life, but in time, Geppetto and Figaro appear, and Geppetto wanders over to a recent creation of his: the marionette Pinocchio. Jiminy watches as Geppetto sadly wishes upon a bright star for Pinocchio to be a real boy, then he and Figaro retire to bed. The Blue Fairy appears and confers life upon Pinocchio, but Pinocchio is not turned into a human child: he remains a construct of wood. Jiminy witnesses all this, and the Blue Fairy—who is quite pretty—asks Jiminy to be Pinocchio's conscience, to show the straight/strait path, to help Pinocchio to know right from wrong. Flustered by the fairy's charm, Jiminy accepts this burden. The fairy tells Pinocchio he may become a real boy if he shows courage, is truthful, and thinks of others. Pinocchio wanders around the house, making enough noise to wake the sleeping Geppetto up. Geppetto creeps downstairs and finally discovers Pinocchio, and after the initial fright of seeing his marionette walking and talking, Geppetto is overjoyed that his wish has been at least partially granted.

Geppetto determines that Pinocchio should go to school like the other children, but on his way to school, Pinocchio is waylaid by Honest John the fox and his goofy feline assistant Gideon. Honest John has seen a poster showing the Great Stromboli, a fat carnie who is back in town to bilk the masses with his various shows. Seeing the possibility of a score, Honest John reasons that Stromboli would pay handsomely for a talking puppet that needs no strings, so he persuades Pinocchio to join him in meeting Stromboli. Jiminy Cricket, who had previously warned Pinocchio that the world is full of temptations, tries to stop this seduction into the theater, but Pinocchio walks off with Honest John while Jiminy looks on impotently. Things start off great for Pinocchio; he proves to be a hit at the carnival, making Stromboli plenty of money, but Stromboli reveals his plan to travel all around the world with Pinocchio basically as his prisoner. Realizing too late what sort of life he has blundered into, Pinocchio sulks in a cage. Jiminy finds Pinocchio and tries to open the cage's lock, but to no avail. In a deus ex machina, the Blue Fairy arrives again and asks Pinocchio how he came to this pass. Pinocchio lies, trying to play himself off as the victim of a kidnapping instead of taking responsibility for joining Honest John and then Stromboli willingly. As he tells lie upon lie, Pinocchio's nose grows and eventually sprouts, and the fairy tells Pinocchio that lies grow until they become as plain as the nose on your face. Pinocchio promises never to lie again (he never does, so this is the only nose-growing incident), and after the fairy works her magic to open the cage (and repair Pinocchio's nose), Pinocchio and Jiminy leap out of the back of Stromboli's moving cart and escape. 

Unfortunately, Pinocchio encounters Honest John again. Honest John is fresh from a meeting with the Coachman, owner and manager of Pleasure Island. The Coachman is willing to pay a far larger sum than Stromboli to acquire any "stupid" boys who are willing to skip school and "play hooky" (I hadn't heard that term in years). So once again, Honest John sends Pinocchio off with another villain. While on the carriage headed to the boat that will ferry a bunch of wayward boys to Pleasure Island, Pinocchio meets Lampwick, a slightly older, worldly kid who is ready for whatever Pleasure Island has to offer. When the boys disembark from the ferry, they discover that Pleasure Island is a place where boys can give in to their basest impulses: there's smoking, gambling, parlor games, and even vandalism. What the boys don't know is that the island has a curse that transforms all the little punks into jackasses that are then shipped off to work as beasts of burden. Pinocchio and Lampwick are playing pool by themselves when Pinocchio remarks that the island has gotten awfully quiet: where'd the rest of the boys go? Lampwick dismisses Pinocchio's concerns, but he then starts morphing into a jackass himself. Pinocchio, too, begins to transform, sprouting donkey ears and a tail. Jiminy, who has managed to follow Pinocchio to the island, urges Pinocchio to leave with him to escape the curse before Pinocchio turns into a full-on jackass. 

The two swim off the island to a different island, and in another deus ex machina moment, the pair receive a message that washes ashore in a bottle. The message, written in glowing letters (possibly implying divine providence), informs them that Geppetto had set out to look for Pinocchio, but he is now trapped in the belly of a whale called Monstro who lives at the bottom of the sea. Pinocchio goes off in search of Monstro, tying his donkey tail around a stone so he can sink and walk along the bottom of the ocean; Jiminy follows, comically searching for his own heavy weights. (We never learn how Jiminy is able to survive under water for so long. I think you're just supposed to flow with the story.) Geppetto is seen inside Monstro, sitting on a battered boat and vainly fishing for food. Monstro suddenly opens his mouth to take in a school of tuna; Geppetto sees the onrushing tuna and is overjoyed as he hauls fish after fish onto his boat, with his cat Figaro helping. Pinocchio also manages to wash into Monstro during this great inhalation while Jiminy is left to struggle outside. Now reunited, Geppetto and Pinocchio think of a way to escape. Pinocchio comes up with the idea of starting a huge, smoky fire to make the whale sneeze. Geppetto warns that this will only make Monstro angry, but the two build a fire and get sneezed out right as Jiminy is finally making his way into Monstro's insides. All of our heroes are blown out, but Monstro sneezes several times, causing the group to travel forwards and backwards before one final spewing sneeze that sends everyone toward a rocky shore. Monstro tries attacking but gives up; everyone washes ashore, with Pinocchio found lying face-down in the water, seemingly dead.

Home again, Geppetto weeps as Pinocchio lies in bed, still inert. But the Blue Fairy reappears and, in a final miracle, tells Pinocchio that he has earned the right to become a real boy. With the biblical-sounding command "Awake," the fairy transforms Pinocchio into a flesh-and-blood boy, and the movie ends with celebration.

Disney's "Pinocchio" is obviously a gentle object lesson about right and moral conduct. It has much the same feel as Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which a godlike Willy Wonka and his cosmic-helper Oompa-Loompas dispense much-needed justice to a group of decidedly unvirtuous kids who epitomize selfishness, gluttony, addiction (Mike Teavee) and other vices. Pinocchio is told which path to follow, but he consistently errs, possibly because he's naive and shallow, making him easy to lead astray, or because he's at least a little bit willful. That second option seems less plausible in this version than in del Toro's version. In del Toro's version of the story, Pinocchio is rebellious and rambunctious from the beginning, outright refusing commands like "obey" (a word he dislikes instantly). In this Disney version, Pinocchio is a wide-eyed blank slate with no destructive intent. Shallow and distractible, he is an easy target for the likes of Honest John (and seeing Honest John as a fox made me understand del Toro's choice to portray Count Volpe as a vulpine man).

With well-animated films, it is almost cliché, these days, to say that "any frame of the movie could be put up on your wall," but it's certainly true of the beautiful hand-animation we see in "Pinocchio." The images are still gorgeous even after all these years; I'm especially charmed by the backdrop of the Italian town where Geppetto lives and the work done on Monstro the anatomically incorrect sperm whale (his jaw structure and interior are not up to the level of, say, the whale in "Finding Nemo"). A lot of people put in a ton of work to bring this story to life, and it's done with grace and vividness. The Blue Fairy, as depicted, feels almost incongruous, though, reminding me of the rotoscoped, Ralph Bakshi-style animation of Bakshi's "The Lord of the Rings." The Blue Fairy is the most human-looking and least cartoonish of the Disney characters, and it may be that this incongruity was intentional: she's a divine being, after all, associated with a wishing star.

Speaking of divinity, there's a marked contrast between Disney's version and del Toro's: del Toro is all-in with the Catholic imagery and iconography as he evokes Italy during its fascist period. He welds this with the spirit of ancient European paganism to put us into a fantasy world where Christianity and other sacred powers can coexist. Disney, meanwhile, stays almost totally away from any Christian imagery, although the Blue Fairy comes off a bit like an angel, and that message in a bottle, near the end of the film, has the aura one would associate with the stone blocks of the Ten Commandments: the unearthly glow of the message's letters, and the total lack of an explanation as to where the message came from (cynics these days will call this an exposition dump) subtly suggest that God Himself might indeed have been watching over Geppetto and our other principals.

There are other contrasts between the Disney and del Toro versions—maybe too many to count, but here are a few. First and most obvious is that Disney's Geppetto is simply a sad, lonely man who looks at his marionette and wistfully wishes for a real boy. There is no tragic motivation to create Pinocchio, unlike in the del Toro film, where Geppetto starts off with a real son, then loses his boy in a freak bombing. Also, in del Toro's film, the impulse to finally create a wooden son-analogue is realized while Geppetto is drunk, and he obviously doesn't understand the implications of what he's asking God for. While inebriated, he builds his awkward-looking wooden boy, and when Pinocchio comes to life, Geppetto, now seeing the implications of his wish, is horrified. Pinocchio is like some sort of lurching wooden golem (I know: golems in Judaism are usually made of mud or clay), and it takes Geppetto some time to come down from his fright and accept the "boy." In the Disney version, Geppetto accepts Pinocchio after a very short initial fright. Disney doesn't specify the time period in which its story takes place, and there's no fascist Italy to darken the ambiance. Characters like Stromboli and the Coachman have no counterparts in the del Toro story, and del Toro's film doesn't include a Pleasure Island or jackasses. Also: in del Toro's vision, Pinocchio ends up getting "killed" more than once. In at least one incident, Pinocchio is shot by one of Mussolini's henchmen; this plunges him back into the realm of the dead. There is no realm of the dead in the Disney version. Also in the Disney version, Jiminy Cricket isn't given much of a background. When we meet him, his clothing tells us he's a hobo, and he somehow gets recruited to be Pinocchio's conscience, but we're never told why. Sebastian the cricket in del Toro's story, by contrast, is an author who has gone on many adventures. By implication, he has learned a lot about the world and thus is something of an authority on right and wrong. Lastly, one of the most significant differences between the two versions is that Pinocchio is enfleshed at the end of the Disney story while he remains an animated marionette by the end of the del Toro version. The original 1883 story ends with Pinocchio assuming a fleshly form, so Disney was more faithful to the original in this instance.

While it's tempting to say that del Toro's version of the story is more grim and adult in tone, Disney's "Pinocchio" might also be frightening to little children, especially when we meet Monstro the whale. Monstro is huge and angry, a force of nature unto himself. His series of sneezes and his furious attack are both impressive even by today's standards. In fact, Monstro reminds me strongly of Villeneuve's sandworms in the recent "Dune"—ponderous and aggressive. Much of the Disney version is lighter in tone, but as the film approaches its climax, the tone darkens significantly. It might not be as sinister as del Toro's version, but for kids, Disney's version isn't exactly a lightweight.

Despite its un-PC moments that are merely a function of the passage of time (including some humorously crass French, Russian, and German stereotypes that wouldn't pass muster today), Disney's "Pinocchio" holds up and is still relatable. Earlier, I described some of the humorously relevant lines from the film that have to do with actors, but there were some other moments that seemed inadvertently to resonate with current events. In the "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee" song, there are the lyrics "an actor's life is gay." Now, back in the day, gay merely meant happy, but with the gay community so overrepresented in Hollywood these days, I had a little chuckle then I heard the song's words. The name Pleasure Island also reminded me of child-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, who didn't kill himself.

I wasn't sure what I was in for when I started watching Disney's "Pinocchio." Before watching, I'd had only the vaguest of memories of the movie. Part of me worried that this might be a slog, as is true of some old movies because of changes over time in our sense of pacing, comic timing, and action. Another problem with older movies is how obviously manipulative they can be through devices like music, but while the music of "Pinocchio" was a bit old-timey, it never grated. I can't say that I laughed out loud at the comic antics of Gabriel, Honest John's cat assistant who seems semi-retarded. Nor can I say that any part of this movie moved me to tears or even to a tightened throat. Del Toro's film more than succeeded on that score; maybe part of the problem is that I'm conscious of Disney as a brand, and what you get from Disney tends to be lighthearted and positive. Happy endings and all that. But even though the Disney version of the story didn't move me deeply (it could also simply be that watching this "Pinocchio" mere days after watching del Toro's version would inevitably make for a less touching experience), I enjoyed rewatching "Pinocchio" and recommend it. Tiny tots might get frightened by parts of it, but slightly older kids ought to be fine with the imagery. Enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I had forgotten more of that Disney version than I realized. Thanks for the trip back in time.

    That whole "pleasure island" and recruitment of young boys to be "groomed" into donkeys had me shaking my head at its creepiness. Your referencing of non-suicidal Epstein was spot on.

    Another great review! You are putting those non-walking hours to good use!



All comments are subject to approval before they are published, so they will not appear immediately. Comments should be civil, relevant, and substantive. Anonymous comments are not allowed and will be unceremoniously deleted. For more on my comments policy, please see this entry on my other blog.

AND A NEW RULE (per this post): comments critical of Trump's lying must include criticism of Biden's lying on a one-for-one basis! Failure to be balanced means your comment will not be published.