Pinocchio (1940) – It’s kind of weird that this was actually Disney’s second full-length animated feature, because it’s just so dark. I mean, Snow White had some dark elements, but overall it was pretty cheerful and fun. But Pinocchio? The poor wooden kid is locked in a cage by a crazy puppeteer, almost turned into a donkey, and swallowed by a whale. Then, near the end, he freaking DIES. Granted, he comes back to life, and he has a good fairy watching over him at all times anyway, but still! The puppet just can’t catch a break in this rather brutal morality play.
There’s really no lead villain in this movie, with Pinocchio instead having episodes with several different villains of various sorts. The first two are two con-men, the man-sized fox Honest John and his silent partner Gideon.
Apparently they were originally going to have Mel Blanc provide Gideon’s voice, but they eventually decided to make him mute, sort of playing off the success of Dopey in Snow White. These two are presented comically, yet are still a bit frightening in their willingness to exploit innocent children for a quick buck. Then there’s the coachman who owns and operates Pleasure Island, an amusement park that turns boys into donkeys.
I have to wonder whether the profit he gets from selling the donkeys is worth what it must cost to maintain the rides and keep the place stocked with food. Yeah, I know it’s supposed to be more allegorical than literal, but it’s something to think about nonetheless. Also, I’m amused by how, in old cartoons, shooting pool is automatically considered a sign of vice. Because any boob can take and shove a ball in a pocket, and I call that sloth. Disney also appears to have been ahead of the medical community in recognizing that smoking is a bad thing, although to be fair, it could just be KIDS smoking that’s viewed as naughty. Certainly Geppetto never had to answer for smoking a pipe, even when he did it in bed. Pinocchio escapes from the island before his transformation to a donkey is complete, but all the other boys are left behind to be sold into slavery. Sure, they’re supposed to be bad kids, but I have to suspect they didn’t have very good upbringings, and some might well have been innocents like Pinocchio himself. Regardless, with such a strong criminal element in the area, it’s no wonder Geppetto sleeps with a gun under his pillow!
The final conflict in the film is pretty much a direct rip from the Biblical story of Jonah. When Geppetto goes off to look for Pinocchio, taking his cat and goldfish with him for some reason (he didn’t have a neighbor who could come over and feed them?), he’s swallowed by a whale named Monstro.
This sea creature isn’t so much a character as a force of nature, ravenously swallowing anything in the vicinity whole. Fortunately, his digestive system is apparently faulty, allowing Geppetto to survive inside his stomach. Zoologically speaking, Monstro’s method of eating by sucking in food is presumably based on that of baleen whales, but they don’t have teeth and live on tiny creatures like krill. So there’s obviously some artistic license at work here, but I guess not as much as there was in the artists’ interpretation of a cricket.
Pinocchio is based on a book, written by Carlo Collodi in the nineteenth century, but I haven’t read it. From what I’ve heard, the book was pretty dark itself, with Collodi having to change his original ending to market it as a children’s story. One of the main differences between book and movie that pretty much everyone seems to know about is that, in the novel, Pinocchio kills the talking cricket, but it later comes back to life. While this element is removed from the Disney version, an allusion to his death and rebirth might well remain in his being named “Jiminy Cricket,” a common minced oath for “Jesus Christ.” There’s also apparently a lot of stuff in the book about how Geppetto is dirt-poor and has a reputation for hating children. Disney’s Geppetto never really comes across as anything other than a kindly old man, but perhaps some hint of his sinister reputation remains in how violent some of the figures he carved are. Like, what about that clock that has the woman spanking her son for every chime of the hour? Also, Monstro isn’t a whale in the book, but is instead known as “The Terrible Dogfish”, which means my zoological points in the last paragraph are totally moot when it comes to the original. And in the novel, the good fairy has turquoise hair, rather than being a blonde glamor girl like Disney’s Blue Fairy.
Despite its disturbing themes, this really was a quality film, and a definite hit for Disney. It’s really Jiminy Cricket who was the breakout star of the movie, though. Not only has his “When You Wish Upon a Star” become one of the most recognizable Disney songs, but he went on to a lucrative career in public service announcements.
Figaro the cat also managed to have some later starring roles in cartoon shorts, in which he’s Minnie Mouse’s pet rather than Geppetto’s. A mouse owning a cat? Now I’ve seen everything!
Well, looks like the next movie up will be Fantasia.