We continue our exploration of the Disney Animated Canon with Walt's second feature-length film: Pinocchio. After practically inventing a whole new genre and having tremendous success at it with 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', Disney decided to follow it up in the most ambitious maner. He set himself up to make a film that would surpass 'Snow White' both artistically and commercially. 'Pinocchio' didn't do as well as its predecessor when it hit theaters (partially because of World War II) and gave Disney quite the financial troubles, but it might actually be better than Disney's first.
'Pinocchio' is more ambitious than 'Snow White' both in its story and its visuals. Let's start with the latter. Roger Ebert points out in his review the importance of the technical achievements that Disney developed for this movie. 'Pinocchio' is an amazing film to look at. The character animation is as great as it was in 'Snow White', but here you start to see Disney wanting to prove how animation can go as far as live-action films and even beyond in its scope and visuals.
It starts with simple developments, like not limiting the action to the frame. Ebert cites as an example the scene in which Pinocchio and Geppeto escape after being swalllowed by a whale: "[they] are expelled by the whale's sneeze, then drawn back again, then expelled again. There is the palpable sense of Monstro the Whale, offscreen to the right." And it goes on to some outstanding achievements like the use of the "multiplane camera" that adds depth to the animation so that we can have a long, uninterrupted aerial shot of Pinocchio's village, as we pass many houses in the foreground until we get to Geppeto's home.
However, as great as the technical achievement is in 'Pinocchio', Disney's biggest ambition lies in the story. For starters, he decided to adapt a not well-known italian serial by Carlo Collodi instead of a popular fairytale. Many complain about how Disney many times tweaked the material he was adapting in his films, but here we have an example of how changing the source material could be a huge asset. In Collodi's tale, Jiminy Cricket has a rather small part in the story and is quickly gone after he is squashed by Pinocchio. Disney, instead, creates one of his memorable characters when he decides not only to keep Jiminy around, but also makes him be Pinocchio's conscience not because he wants to, but because he is told to. He has the fascinating thread of the reluctant hero who puts everything on the line to live up to the task appointed to him. And he is even more fascinating, because he isn't especially qualified for the task. He is not some all-knowing master, he has flaws just like anyone else (at one point he is fooled into believing Pinocchio could be better off working at a marionette theater instead of going to school). In a way, he learns as much about growing up and responsibility as Pinocchio does.
Right there we have a much more complex character than we had seen in 'Snow White', which brings us to the wooden boy himself. Pinocchio has a very particular development throughout the film that is more complex than Snow White's in many ways. Not only has he "greater" adventures in scope (he is swallowed by a whale, after all), but he has a clear emotional journey, too. Only when he learns to differentiate right from wrong, does he become a real boy. The quest is not as physical as it is internal, which makes it all the more compelling.
The supporting characters are also incredibly well defined. For example, Geppeto is an incredibly lovable character. We spend almost twenty minutes before Pinocchio even comes to life, so we really get to feel for Geppeto's quest. We are happy when he gets a child of his own and we are devastated when we see the perils he has to go through to find him once he's gone. Much of the comic relief goes to Jiminy Cricket, but we also have typical Disney supporting sidekicks like Figaro the cat and Cleo the fish that are as effective as the ones we saw in 'Snow White'.
On the villain front, we might not have an instant classic like the Evil Queen, but that's because of the nature of the story and isn't really a big deal. We do, however, get some very dark moments. We tend to think of Disney as wholesome, inoffensive, family entertainment; but man, will this film scare the hell out of you if you are a kid. I think they might be nothing scarier in Disney's history than the scene in which children are turned into donkeys. (We must also remember this is a product of its time and we get such things as racial stereotypes and children smoking, which was much more acceptable in the 40s than it is nowadays).
The lack of a central villain, as said before, does not hurt the film at all. The characters are so well drawn-out that we have a huge investment in Pinocchio, Geppeto and Jiminy's respective journeys. And even then, the film is very funny and has some of the greatest songs in the Disney repertoire (including "Give a Little Whistle", "I Have No Strings" and the Disney song by excellence "When You Wish Upon a Star"). What can I say, 'Pinocchio' is Disney's masterpiece.
Next Time: Another very ambitious and experimental film for Disney: "Fantasia". If you want to watch Pinocchio, the whole movie's up on YouTube. For now, I leave you with a scene from the movie, as Jiminy and Pinocchio sing "Give a Little Whistle"