Pinocchio (1940)

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in The Best of the Best | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Playboy magazine cited 43 instances of violence or unfavorable behavior including 23 moments of battery, nine of property damage, three slang uses of jackass, three acts of violence against animals, two shots of male nudity, and one instance of implied death.

Most American films, especially those with the Disney trademark, stick to a formula that places one hero at odds against one super-villain (and possibly some sidekicks), but Pinocchio contains at least three major villains that carry the power to exude sheer terror. There should be no question that it’s one of the most delightful movies Disney ever created (and only the second one they ever made), but it’s also their most frightening and, in an after-school special sort of way, this classic weans kids away from lying, smoking, drinking, fighting, and being selfish, destructive, and apathetic – mostly through the Pleasure Island sequence. It’s also my all-time favorite.

The story, based on Carlo Collodi’s magazine serials, initially follows a hobo cricket named Jiminy (Cliff Edwards), who discovers a cottage owned by a lonely woodworker named Geppetto (Christian Rub), who specializes in elaborate clocks and has comic sidekicks Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish. Amidst his shelves of creations is a wooden puppet, and as Geppetto lays his head down to sleep, he casts a wish toward the stars for the puppet to become a real boy. Suddenly a Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable) arrives and partially grants Geppetto’s wish, telling young Pinocchio (Dickie Jones) he must prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish to become a real boy. To do so, he must let his conscience be his guide, she says, as she appoints Jiminy to the task.

These cheerful first few reels Pinocchio1are immediately counter-balanced by the nightmarish scenes that follow, beginning when a conniving fox named Honest John (Walter Catlett) convinces Pinocchio to skip school and pursue a life of fame and luxury. The life, he learns, is working as a slave at a marionette show run by Stromboli (Charles Judels), a greedy bearded Italian whose angry voice will send shivers down your spine. Always the deus ex machina, the fairy saves Pinocchio, despite a famous series of lies that make his nose incrementally grow. Then Honest John introduces Pinocchio to Pleasure Island (the creepiest of sequences), which is run by another frightening villain and his shadow minions, as they look to transform naughty boys into donkeys for salt mining. As if that’s not enough, Pinocchio narrowly escapes and eventually becomes part of an edge-of-your-seat chase sequence involving fierce Monstro the Whale, who’s so scary all the creatures of the sea flee at the very mention of his name.

These final reels position Pinocchio in situations where, at any moment, something evil could pop out from the corners of the screen. While it may sound a bit macabre, Disney’s method keeps our attention wonderfully as we’re skittishly anxious for what may or may not happen next. Most importantly, the movie is effective in portraying dangers that children can identify and empathize with such as peer pressure, lying, and wreaking havoc. Or as Roger Ebert so eloquently put it, “The beauty of Pinocchio is that what happens to Pinocchio seems plausible to the average kid. Kids may not understand falling in love with a prince, but they understand not listening to your father, and being a bad boy, and running away, and getting into real trouble.”

Although initially a flop, Pinocchio stuck in viewers’ minds and has since rebounded considerably. Perhaps it’s because of the Oscar-winning music including the now-immortal song When You Wish Upon a Star, which the American Film Institute listed among the best songs ever to be featured in an American film. Other memorable tunes include Give a Little Whistle, An Actor’s Life for Me, and I Got No Strings. While it might be the music, or the wonderful animation, I think it’s more likely the entrancing story that reaches kids on their level and teaches morals (though rather bleakly) that parents can agree with.

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