Pinocchio (1940)    4 Stars

“For anyone who has ever wished upon a star.”

Pinocchio (1940)

Director: Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts, Ben Sharpsteen

Cast: Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc

Synopsis: A living puppet, with the help of a cricket as his conscience, must prove himself worthy to become a real boy.




Many kids today find themselves cocooned by well-meaning parents from every conceivable unpleasantness the world has to offer, and it’s easy to forget that, not too long ago, there was a time when Disney and its rivals actually made movies to both scare and beguile its kiddie audiences. The Wizard of Oz had flying monkeys and a cackling green witch, TV’s Paulus the wood-gnome had another scary witch, the wide-mouthed, bushy-browed Eucalypta, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang had its creepy, capering Child Catcher. These characters weren’t scary by accident – they were created with the specific intention of frightening young children, a concept which seems strangely alien to today’s filmmakers. Pinocchio didn’t have an evil nemesis as such, but the movie still had one of the most frightening sequences ever found in a children’s flick. I’m referring, of course, to the moment when terrified bad-boy Lampwick discovers to his horror that he is mutating into a donkey. It’s an intense scene which still packs a punch today and it’s understandable that modern parents might think twice about subjecting their little darlings to it – until, that is, one remembers that these same parents were raised by the offspring of the generation that formed the film’s original infant audience.

Like many of Disney’s early features, Pinocchio is a tale that grows darker as it unfolds (although never as dark as its source material which, believe it or not, had Pinocchio smash Jiminy to death with a mallet). It starts off as this charming and heart-warming fairy tale in which a lonely old carpenter discovers that the puppet boy he has fashioned from pine has had the gift of life bestowed upon it by a foxy Blue Fairy, and while continuing to dress itself in the bold primary colours of childish entertainment, the film proceeds to effectively throw Pinocchio to the wolves. Geppetto packs his new son off to school – on his first full day of life! – without chaperone or consort, while the boy’s newly-appointed conscience snoozes in a matchbox. Within minutes, the poor lad finds himself abducted by J. Worthington Foulfellow, a down-at-heel fox, and his mute sidekick, a cat called Gideon. They promptly sell him to the cruel puppet-master Stromboli, who locks his new possession in a cage. Later, having escaped Stromboli’s clutches, Pinocchio finds himself tempted by the dubious delights of Pleasure Island, where small boys can play pool and smoke cigars – but pay a terrible price for doing so.

The movie’s simple message is found within the ease with which Pinocchio finds himself uprooted from the comfort of his cosy home. He isn’t a bad kid, and he has good intentions, but like all small boys, he’s easily distracted and often deaf to the small voice of his conscience. It’s a common failing which repeatedly lands him in all sorts of trouble. To be fair, his conscience – a cricket named Jiminy with oddly human feet – really isn’t up to the job. Because he’s asleep on duty when Pinocchio begins that ill-fated march to school, he only catches up with his ward as Foulfellow and Gideon are escorting him to Stromboli’s caravan. And then, assuming that the kid will be ok (“What does an actor need with a conscience?”), he decides to move on before having a fortuitous last-minute change of heart. Some conscience…

The film doesn’t pull its punches, either. An article in Playboy magazine once famously listed the crimes depicted in the film. There were 23 instances of battery, 9 of property damage, 3 acts of violence towards animals, and so on. In fact, it’s something of a mystery how Pinocchio ever made its way past the censors considering that the boys destined for a life of toil as salt mine donkeys are never rescued and none of the villains are ever brought to justice for their crimes.

Despite – or more correctly, because of – this dark edge, Pinocchio is by far the best of Disney’s feature-length animations. It’s tough, but it’s still filled with colourful characters and wonderful, tuneful songs, and its little hero is a lovable innocent refreshingly free of the insufferable cuteness with which so many animated characters are burdened. Many adults watching the movie will find themselves wistfully recalling a time when they too were a wide-eyed innocent who could immerse themselves with complete unconscious abandon in such a beguiling world. Sadly, we grow up and discover that this wonderful world doesn’t – and, truthfully, never did – exist. There are no Blue Fairies to extract us from difficult situations when logic provides us with nothing but dead ends, and our conscience doesn’t croon lullabies. But, thanks to Disney at their best, we can always pretend otherwise for a while…

(Reviewed 26th January 2015)

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