When your favorite character in a film doesn’t have one line then you know you just weren’t that enthralled. Such was the case with Walt Disney Pinocchio (1940), where I much preferred Figaro the cat to every other animated being in it. Plus, the story, by today’s standards, is just too pedophilic for me: single, old man builds a boy puppet and wishes that it were a real boy and then a fairy grants his wish. I’ve obviously been irrevocably scarred by the times in which we live, but did they really have to call the amusement park where the stupid, bad boys are taken Pleasure Island?
Walt Disney’ second foray into fairy-tale themed feature-length animation was based on Carlo Collodi’s 1880s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio. Gepppetto (Christian Rub) is a lonely wood carver who lives alone with his cat, Figaro, and his goldfish, Cleo. One night after putting the finishing touches on a puppet he makes a wish upon a star that the puppet become a real boy. After Geppetto falls off to sleep a fairy (Evelyn Venable) visits the cottage and partially grants his wish. From the fairy dust emerges Pinocchio (Dickie Jones), a living puppet who must earn human status by being “brave, truthful and unselfish and able to tell right from wrong”. He is assigned a conscience—a cricket named Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards), who sounds and looks like Fred Astaire. His Odyssian (my word!) quest for boyhood and knowing the difference between right or wrong finds him: duped by a fox named Honest John (Walter Catlett); kidnapped by a money-hungry marionette manipulator (Charles Judels); taken to a den of childhood sin by a man who wants to turn him into a jackass for the salt mines; and, swallowed in the belly of a sperm whale appropriately named Monstro. In the words of Dorothy Gale, “"Oh! Oh! Jiminy Crickets!"
Let’s get the important things out of the way—the animation (for 1940) is spectacular. From the intricacies of the cuckoo clocks to the ethereal quality of the Blue Fairy, the animation set the bar quite high for future films. Compared to what we see today it might seem a bit crude, but effects animation (focused on movement, not on character) was a burgeoning art form and abstract animators like Oskar Fischinger did some amazing work in Pinocchio: the rainstorm, the fairy’s dust from the wand, and the entire sea/whale sequence are standouts in effects animation.
Now, I’m not a psychologist and/or a Freudian, but I wonder what Freud would have made of Pinocchio had he lived long enough to see it. Let’s get past the Geppetto issue and look at some other elements that make the film suspect. Pinocchio is made of wood. When he gets excited his nose grows and it looks like a phallus. Honest John looks and sounds like a pimp. Pinocchio is locked in a cage by Stromboli until he needs to use him again. At Pleasure Island they ply the boys with candy, cigarettes/cigars, and booze. The whale that he must enter to save Geppetto is a sperm whale. Do you see where I’m going here? Ah, if only I were still an innocent child I might be capable of not reading too much into such things!
Overall, Pinocchio should be recognized for its revolutionary animation contributions. Figaro is adorable and Jiminy Cricket’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” is memorable. Personally, the story does nothing for me other than creep the hell out of me. Having reviewed three Disney films now (Fantasia and Dumbo are the others) I’ve come to the uncomfortable conclusion that adults should not revisit the beloved films of their childhood.