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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

Week # 3: "Pinocchio"

(Originally published on 1/20/22)



Run time: 88 min

Release Date: February 23rd, 1940

Where/when I first saw it: Uncertain. Sometime in 1978, I think. Not sure where.

How I watched it today: Blu-ray, Sunday afternoon.

How do you follow up a groundbreaking milestone? How do you top a major technical and artistic feat? How do you move forward after inventing an artform? “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was all of those things and now Disney and his team had to carry on, move forward and, somehow, top themselves. A daunting prospect for any artist capable of such achievement, but luckily, the resounding success of “Snow White” fueled the Disney studio and artists with an energy and drive that brought out the best in every department.

And it shows.

The result was a film that advanced the artform even further and managed to artistically top its predecessor. It was the “The Empire Strikes Back” of its time. True to that analogy, this film is darker, scarier and (I wouldn’t say this about “TESB”) much weirder than what came before it and that suited Disney just fine. Standards and expectations for animated films and what many considered to be kids’ entertainment hadn’t been set yet. If kids got nightmares from some of the more intense images produced by this studio, it was solely up to the parents to deal with it. What a time to be alive!

“Pinocchio” centers on a boy this time and has more of a deep moral center than “Snow White.” Disney had always said that he never made movies for kids, but for all audiences. Still, now that kids around the world had a new form of storytelling and cinema to take in, the Disney films couldn’t just be a series of gags anymore. There had to be lessons and a heart that hadn’t been there before. Maybe he didn’t think about it at the time, but kids would be raised on these movies. “Pinocchio” linked those messages of “being good” or “being bad” with images that have remained indelible in the minds of every kid who ever got to see it on the big screen.

Over 80 years later, so many sequences still have an impact. The moment Pinocchio steps into the “Pleasure island,” for instance, there is something deeply unsettling and scary about it for the audience, while the boys remain oblivious and completely seduced by its promises. At this point in the story, we have already seen Pinocchio locked in a cage like a bird by a tormenting vaudeville show manager and have also seen his nose grow to a disturbing size from telling lies to the Blue Fairy. What could possibly happen here in this land of temptation where everything looks just too good to be true for a boy–no girls, mind you–who hates grown-up rules? The result (and we all know the result) is the stuff of all childhood nightmares (And this is all before the climactic whale sequence!), thus signaling that Disney was not out to just make cute, frivolous cartoons, but to truly have something to say with them that would speak to young and old alike.

The animation is also richer and more complex than “Snow White,” particularly when it comes to anything with water. From the bubbles of the fishbowl, to the distortions of the underwater sequence to the ocean waves of the perilous whale scene, the animators found their way around these difficult textures and made each of these moments believable and texturally astonishing to look at. One name that often gets mentioned in the documentaries is Gustaf Tenggren, who again (as he did with “Snow White”), puts his gothic spin on the background designs with eerie, haunting facial expressions on many of the inanimate objects that not only help give the Jiminy Cricket character a sense of scale as he walks among the weird artifacts in Geppetto's house, but also set a kind of uneasiness in the overall design. There are eyes everywhere.

“Pinocchio” feels more satisfying as a viewing experience than “Snow White,” simply because the story feels tighter and there seems to be more at stake than a princess finding true love. There’s more of a sense of danger and the extra doses of humor helps a lot, too. Disney and his team somehow find their way through all of these disparate tones and end up with something seamless and whole. The frightening donkey transformations on Pleasure Island can miraculously exist alongside the tender scenes involving the Blue Fairy and the wisecracking humor of Jiminy. There’s never an abrupt, unnatural pivot. It all belongs.

“Pinocchio” has since been remade and retold countless times (with at least two more versions on the way in 2022), but none of them have touched this one (Spielberg’s “A.I.- Artificial Intelligence” remains the closest to perfect). Over 80 years later, it endures, astonishes and, yes, frightens and disturbs.


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