Pinocchio (Various Directors, 1940)

Give a bad boy enough rope, and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself.”


As an Art teacher who loves cinema, I firmly believe Walt Disney is one of the most important artists to film-making. Indeed, on Waking Sleeping Beauty (a documentary about Jeffrey Katzenberg’s influential phase at Disney between 1984 and 1994), they note how even Spielberg himself attempted to imitate the Disney-formula (By producing An American Tale, The Land Before Time and, in conjunction with Disney, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?) during a time whereby Disney itself was losing its credibility. Harking back to the first-five unforgettable films – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi – it really is clear how important Disney is to animation, and how the style of Disney itself changed and adapted through the years. 

Basic Three-Act Structure

As a story, what is strange about Pinocchio is how it is clearly separated into three different ‘acts’. The original story The Adventures of Pinocchio by Collodi was serialised and this is clear in Disneys version as the story shifts gear dramatically between sequences – held together by Jiminy Cricket. The first act portrays Geppeto’s workshop and Pinocchio coming to life when the Blue Fairy visits – leading to the puppet show organised by the evil Stromboli. The second act begins as we are re-introduced to the Fox and the Cat, who take all the badly-behaved boys to a place called ‘Pleasure island’ whereby the the boys who smoke and drink are literally turned into donkeys. Again, Pinocchio manages to escape and we fall into the final act – whereby Geppeto is stuck inside a whale. Jiminy Cricket, like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves introduces the story from a book under the wistful idea that “Dreams do come true”.

Incredibly Relevant

How fascinating that the story is still incredibly relevant today! Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith and Ned Washington are responsible for the music and consider the celebrity culture and attitudes of teenagers when reading the following lyric:

Hi-diddle-dee-day An actor’s life is gay It’s great to be a celebrity An actor’s life for me Hi diddle dee dee You sleep till after two You promenade a big cigar You tour the world in a private car You dine on chicken and caviar An actor’s life for me!

The idea that in 1940, the ‘evil’ characters sang about how an easy life is the life of a celebrity. It is clear that this is not entirely true and that fame comes at a cost. We can see that the Fox and Cat are uneducated and disastrously poor. Considering that Jiminy Cricket sings about ‘dreams coming true’ on the one hand, on the other hand we have characters who tell us that life can be easy, when they are clearly leading a hard and difficult life without education or a steady-income. I know many children – and adults – have very warped ideas about fame, and they will often link fame with their ‘dreams’ of being rich. In reality, it is not so simple – and the contrast between these two ideas is shown clearly in the film. Personally, I am amazed at how much Disney managed to sneak into the film. Consider a kids film now portraying our lead character, who your children can relate to, smoking and drinking alcohol. The incredibly sinister character who steals children to take them to ‘Pleasure Island’ truly sets the stage for deeper social and emotional issues.

Smoking, Drinking, Vandalism and Violence

The [very-obvious] moral to the story is how children who like to smoke, drink, vandalise and openly get involved in violence eventually turn into jack-asses and work in mines – or any other lower-paid job. Pinocchio, despite the lessons he learns in the first act and his good heart, is easily swayed towards these vices – and not necessarily because he is personally attracted to them but because he is influenced by others around him. Maybe it is a very simplistic attitude towards social disadvantages, but I would like to think that the clarity in Pinocchio turning to these vices (only for he himself to feel ill and become a jack-ass) shows how it is our decision to turns these things down which truly makes our character. Jiminy Cricket can advise Pinocchio as much as he can, but unfortunately it is his decision and no one else’s…

Indeed, there is a huge difficulty in knowing and defining what is right and wrong when you are a young child. You need help and you often learn from mistakes – but it is the love of your family which will support you in this (Geppeto never gives up hope with Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio many chances).
Incredible Characterisation

As noted on another blog (Film Nitrate), the characterisation of Clio and Figaro is hugely underrated. Clio – the beautiful, feminine fish who dances and shows-off her golden fins whilst Figaro is an impulsive, jealous, masculine animal. He plays but he has a heart of gold. It is clear that even in sidekick characters (E.g. The Cat alongside the Fox) the stupidity and slapstick humours ensures the story moves along swiftly – could the tramp-like Cat be attributed to Chaplin’s The Tramp? Inevitably, these purely comedic roles must have influenced future Disney films: Zazu in The Lion King, Iago in Aladdin

The Truth about Pinocchio

Prior to watched Pinocchio, I could only recall the long-nose-when-lying sequence. I thought that this was an integral part to the film that surely became a focus point of the narrative. It is not. In fact, this one sequence could be taken out of the film and it wouldn’t make much difference. The sequence is simply pointing out the moral: “Don’t lie”. That’s it. Pinocchio is so much more that a wooden-boy-who-lies. It is about the challenges a child has when growing up, the temptations around them and how to choose the path of goodness and the choice to fall in with wrong crowd.

The artistry is hugely influenced by nineteenth-century European architecture and specifically the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber in Germany. Disney artist Gustaf Tenggren created many images to root Pinocchio in historical artistic styles. In the same way that these artistic images are now forever-associated with Pinocchio, I can only hope that themes remains as timeless as they are today.

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