#474) Pinocchio (1940)

#474) Pinocchio (1940)

OR “Wood I Lie To You?”

Directed by Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen

Written by Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, and Aurelius Battaglia. Based on the story by Carlo Collodi. Songs by Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, and Ned Washington.

Class of 1994

The Plot: Kindly woodcarver Geppetto (voiced by Christian Rub) wishes upon a star that his marionette Pinocchio become a real boy. The Blue Fairy (voiced by Evelyn Venable) grants his wish…well sorta. Pinocchio comes to life (voiced by Dick Jones) but must learn to be brave, truthful and unselfish to truly become human. Aided by his appointed conscience Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards), Pinocchio gets into trouble at a puppet show, the mysterious amusement park Pleasure Island, and even at the bottom of the sea. It’s the classic Collodi story, minus most of the things from the Collodi story.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a “Disney classic” and singles out “When You Wish Upon a Star” as “[o]ne of the film’s most lasting contributions.” There’s also an essay by Disney expert J.B. Kaufman.

But Does It Really?: Who’s going to say no to “Pinocchio”? Even if this quintessential movie fantasy isn’t your cup of tea, you at least have to admire the stunning animation and the lasting impact of the songs. While it falls short when compared to breakthrough “Snow White“, “Pinocchio” is a landmark for both Disney animation and top-tier family entertainment.

Everybody Gets One: Many of the voice actors (all uncredited, by the way) were character actors and radio personalities. In addition to voicing the Blue Fairy, Evelyn Venable was the live-action reference for the original Columbia logo. Actor Christian Rub was called in to replace the original voice of Geppetto, who was coming across as too unlikable. The animators even based Geppetto’s facial features on Rub.

Wow, That’s Dated: Between Stromboli being both an Italian stereotype and a Romani “gypsy”, Disney+ is right to warn me that this movie “may contain outdated cultural depictions” (he literally eats garlic at one point!). There’s also a reference to the Trylon and Perisphere from the then-current New York World’s Fair. That’s all well and good, but where’s Elektro?

Seriously, Oscars?: A critical hit but a box office miss (more on that later), “Pinocchio” won Oscars in both of its nominated categories: Best Score and Best Song for “When You Wish Upon a Star”. “Pinocchio” was the first animated feature to win a competitive Oscar (“Snow White” received an honorary Oscar two years earlier).

Other notes 

  • Production of “Pinocchio” began in late 1937, but after five months of storyboards and rough animation, Walt scrapped the entire production, feeling that the character of Pinocchio lacked sympathy. The animators started from scratch, making Pinocchio more naïve than mischievous. The biggest addition to this revised version was a cricket – a minor character in the Collodi story – to serve as Pinocchio’s sounding board. Jiminy’s design was scaled back so much, animator Ward Kimball joked the only way you could tell he was a cricket was “because the other characters say he is.”
  • Despite its status as an iconic movie song, “When You Wish Upon a Star” plays over the static opening credits, with no visuals until the last stanza.
  • Cliff Edwards was a popular musician in the ’20s and ’30s, and as Jiminy Cricket became the first established star to lend his voice to a Disney character.
  • It’s interesting to watch this film as a direct follow-up to “Snow White”. Disney continues to push the boundaries of animation, but is also aware of what audiences liked about “Snow White”. You liked Dopey? Here’s three silent sidekicks! You liked the songs? Here’s more from the same team!
  • Dick Jones was 11 years old when he started recording “Pinocchio”. Unlike most child actors, he continued to work steadily in Hollywood well into his mid-40s. Jones makes an on-camera appearance in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” as a page befriended by Jimmy Stewart.
  • For those of you keeping score, that’s two Disney movies in a row that feature a song about whistling.
  • “Pinocchio” makes an intriguing double feature with the thematically similar “Blade Runner“. What I wouldn’t give to hear Pinocchio say, “I want more life, father.”
  • Honest John is voiced by Walter Catlett, an actor and comedian best known for his work in “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Front Page“. Warner Bros. voiceover legend Mel Blanc initially provided the voice of Gideon, but it was later decided to make him mute, and all that survives of Blanc’s work is a single hiccup.
  • For an Italian story this movie is not very Italian. Geppetto seems to be German, Pinocchio is straight-up American; the only person who has an Italian accent is Stromboli, and aggressively so.
  • All the fantasy elements lend themselves well to animation, but Pinocchio’s nose growing is the most memorable, providing great character animation for him and Jiminy.
  • Jiminy Cricket is bad at his job. He spends most of the movie complaining about Pinocchio, or straight up abandoning him. And when he does help, Jiminy tends to rob Pinocchio of moments of actual growth. I think Disney spent a little too much time developing this movie’s sidekick.
  • So, Pleasure Island is the kid version of The Purge?
  • The transformation of Lampwick into a donkey is still terrifying. Everyone forgets that the early Disney films didn’t shy away from scary.
  • The entire Monstro the Whale sequence is an impressive undertaking of animation, especially when you consider that all of those underwater effects were drawn by hand.
  • Am I the only person who’s kinda weirded out by Pinocchio’s “real boy” look? I think it’s the nose that’s throwing me.
  • Yes, Pinocchio learns the right lesson in the end, but it’s done in a very “boys will be boys” manner. You don’t see Snow White and Cinderella getting to be flawed or make mistakes or grow as people. It’s a double standard that plagues most of Disney’s work.

Legacy 

  • “Pinocchio” opened in February 1940, five months after World War II was declared in Europe. As a result, most of the film’s international market was cut, and “Pinocchio” only made half of its budget back. Turns out “Pinocchio” was the “Onward” of its day.
  • “Pinocchio” finally turned a profit following its 1945 re-release, and the film returned to theaters every few years for the next five decades.
  • In 1985, Disney tentatively agreed to release “Pinocchio” on home video, but only for a limited time, thus establishing the “Disney Vault”.
  • “When You Wish Upon a Star” has become the official Disney anthem, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a major Disney event or program that doesn’t feature it.
  • Some of the film’s other songs get shoutouts from time to time. “I’ve Got No Strings” is a motif in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”, sung half-assedly by James Spader.
  • Cliff Edwards reprised the role of Jiminy Cricket several times, including the film “Fun and Fancy Free” and the “I’m No Fool” shorts from “The Mickey Mouse Club”.
  • “Pinocchio” gets its share of representation in the Disney parks, most prominently as a Fantasyland dark ride.
  • “Now you be-a good, Pinitchio, and don’t-a you lie.”
  • The original Collodi story has been remade several times over the years, with Pinocchio being played by everyone from Paul Reubens to Roberto Benigni. Filmation’s 1987 pseudo-sequel “Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night” veered close enough to Disney’s version to warrant legal action (the court ruled in favor of Filmation).
  • Looks like “Pinocchio” is taking the live-action remake route, with Tom Hanks as Geppetto and Robert Zemeckis directing. Here’s hoping Pinocchio doesn’t end up in the Uncanny Valley.

Listen to This: Cliff Edwards’ rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” made the National Recording Registry in 2009. The song gets TWO essays, one by Cary O’Dell and one by James M. Bohn.

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