The Walt Disney Animation company was on top of the world after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film was a technical marvel and a critical darling, and Walt Disney and his team truly showed what animation was capable of. Looking to further innovate in the field of animation, Walt used the profits from Snow White to build a new studio, and upgrade most of his crew’s equipment.
Walt Disney was a man who was simultaneously able to live in the moment, and look forward to the future, so while Snow White was in production, he already had his eyes set on the company’s next feature length film, 1940’s Pinocchio.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the result of years of experimentation in animation techniques, musical sequences and narrative, all culminating in the first ever feature length piece of animation. It is a historically ambitious film, but the studio sought to achieve even greater heights with their follow up film.
Pinocchio really demonstrates just how much Disney learned about feature length production. Walt specifically encouraged his team to come up with as many ideas as possible, hoping to foster an attitude of unbridled creativity. As such, Pinocchio takes the audience to numerous fresh and exciting locales.
In the opening scene, Geppetto the craftsman is dancing through an intricately detailed workshop with his latest puppet creation, all while being accompanied by his little black cat, Figaro, as well as Cleo the goldfish. Later scenes will show Pinocchio as a member of a traveling stage show, on a whimsical, yet haunting island and even in the belly of a whale.
Pinocchio’s structure is borderline episodic at times, almost as if you could divide the film up into a mini television series. This is largely because the original story of Pinocchio, written by Italian artist Carlo Collodi, was told in individual trades, until they were later compiled into a single book.
This is also shown in the number of one off characters that are featured in Pinocchio. The silver tongued Honest John, the ill-tempered and greedy Stromboli, and even Pinocchio’s naughty friend Lampwick, it’s commendable just how well Disney was able to fit such memorable characters into a rather tight story.
Disney’s adaptations are quite famous for hitting many of the high points and key characters from the source material, but softening them up a bit to make them more appealing (though many Disney films do retain the darker elements of the original stories). Pinocchio is the first major example of this.
Collodi’s Pinocchio was a cocky and brash mischief maker, while the Disney rendition is a sweet but naive little boy. As I said before, this was done to make Pinocchio, the character who was the crux of the entire story, more endearing to the audience. This was so imperative that at one point, Walt halted production on the film in order to perfectly capture the look of Pinocchio.
Many of the original characters sketches of Pinocchio were much more rigid, wooden and, well… puppet-like. The character would eventually be given more rounded, human like edges, while still retaining the look of something made from wood.
Another thing that separates the two Pinocchios is the character of Jiminy Cricket. In Collodi’s story, Jiminy was an almost insignificant character, one that Pinocchio actually killed with a brick (he would later return as a ghost). But Disney decided to depict Jiminy as Pinocchio’s conscience, a guiding voice on his shoulder to show him the right way of doing things.
Jiminy doesn’t actually give Pinocchio too much advice, and Pinocchio is usually easily convinced by people like Honest John to do the exact opposite of what he was told. This may seem at odds with Jiminy’s role in the story, but I feel that Disney was aiming not for Jiminy to hold Pinocchio’s hand the entire way, but to represent what it means to be good and virtuous, and I found this to be very effective.
On the surface, the Collodi and Disney takes on the character seem worlds apart, and in many ways, they are. But in actuality, both characters share the theme of temptation. Thematic elements such as fame, fortune, cigars and alcohol are prevalent all throughout Pinocchio, with the pinnacle example being the Pleasure Island segment, (formerly known as Boobyland).
Pinocchio eventually gets swept up with a horde of other little boys, and sent to a seemingly wonderful place known as Pleasure Island. Here, the boys are given unlimited freedom. Cigars and pitchers of beer are easy to find, there are houses that exist exclusively to be torn apart and pool halls are a common sight. However, Pleasure Island isn’t all fun and games. The island’s true purpose is to turn delinquent boys into donkeys to be captured and sold.
The scenes depicting the boys transforming into donkeys are genuinely unsettling. As a child, this was one of the few things that I was frightened of, and as an adult, the animation still manages to elicit chills and beads of sweat out of me.
The look on Pinocchio’s face as he witnesses his friend Lampwick sprout ears really shows the power of an animator’s hands, and I especially love the way Pinocchio discards his cigar and alcohol with utter disgust. As a whole, Pinocchio’s animation is positively breathtaking, so much so that it’s almost hard to believe that only a handful of years separate it and Snow White.
Most of the film’s characters are cartoony and exaggerated, and this gave the team quite a bit more creative freedom. But even the film’s one realistic character, the benevolent Blue Fairy, shows the fruits of Disney’s efforts when it came to animating the character of Snow White.
Pinocchio also has an extremely cool set piece in the form of Monstro the whale. This sequence involved some rather arduous technical skill, as animating water is notoriously difficult. But the team didn’t cut any corners in this regard, as watching this gargantuan whale dive in and out of the ocean, and knocking Pinocchio and Geppetto all over the place was very impressive.
Pinocchio did wonderful with critics, and was even the first Disney film to be nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Score and Best Song with “When You Wish Upon A Star”. But the film’s critical success did not reflect its box office numbers. Pinocchio was not nearly as profitable as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it cost about twice as much to produce.
But in spite of its financial failings, Pinocchio is still regarded as one of the best Disney films of all time. The film has no shortage of iconic moments. Pinocchio’s nose growing when he tells a lie, the Blue Fairy, Jiminy Cricket,and especially Pleasure Island *shudders*, all of these moments have managed to stick with audiences decades after Pinocchio was released.
Pinocchio may not have been the follow up to Snow White that it needed to be in terms of financial success, but it more than made up for it by just how lovingly crafted the entire project is. The film perfectly encapsulates the idea of Disney magic, right down to it’s famous song about wishing upon stars. Anything your heart desires is sure to come to you, so long as you believe with all of your heart.