Pinocchio (1940) review

Rated: 4.5 / 5

I may have to revise my top 50 films list after this. Yet another childhood film I haven’t seen in a long time, only to fall in love with it all over against after all these decades. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film I thought was so good that I had to watch it again. And again. And if I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably the best out of all the classical Disney animated films. And by classical, I mean the films made prior to the 1980s, because by that point Disney had lost its momentum of blockbuster hits in it’s full-length animated films, the last major one that I consider classical being The Rescuers in 1977 (was never fond of that film).

Sure, they had The Fox and the Hound in 1981, but that’s a film that, while it is one of my favorites of theirs, wasn’t a big hit and is stuck in the strange moment in time where it’s not quite old-school classic, but not new enough to be a part of the renaissance era (that wasn’t until The Little Mermaid in 1989). That film was made at a time when just as many new artists wanting to make a name for themselves were involved with production as there were old artists having one last hurrah, so I’d say it’s a transitional film that’s only half-old school classic, and half-not. Then there was The Black Cauldron (1985), which I didn’t care much for when I saw it as a youth, but should probably give it another look; either way it was a financial flop. The Great Mouse Detective (1986), also a favorite of mine, but it still wasn’t enough of a financial hit. Oliver & Company (1988), despite what that does to the original story of Oliver Twist in such a devious manner, I have to admit, a part of me still enjoys it if I remain naive about the subliminal shit. But these four films are in that quagmire of being too far along to be classical, but not far along enough to be renaissance. At least half of them are good in my personal opinion.

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Which brings me to the classics like Pinocchio. What does it do better than the others to make me hold it in higher regard than them? Well, let’s break it down movie by movie (note, I’m just being a dickhead here; I enjoy all of the movies mentioned below):

  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves: Everybody knows the protagonist got upstaged by the real stars of the show, the 7 dwarves. Who really gives a shit about the titular protagonist? Except for that envious bitch queen who would change tactics in this day and age. From wanting her dead so that people would be more attracted to her and her own personal vanity, to just running a propaganda campaign and school indoctrination system that brainwashes people into thinking Snow White’s feminine features are far more ugly than her old ragged ass, and everyone who looks like her should be publicly shamed and ridiculed until she gets a physical makeover. “If I’m not the most attractive in the world, then no one will be the most attractive in the world!” At least in Pinocchio, the protagonist is the main individual we spend the most time with, and maintains vested interest in his direction throughout the runtime.
  • Dumbo: Everything that happens to that elephant happens by pure happenstance, without any conscious action on his own part. Just like Forrest Gump. Fuck that and fuck Gump. At least Pinocchio makes actual decisions (due to some peer pressure, but that’s one of the lessons the film teaches regarding the dangers of peer pressure) and suffers the consequences for them. Dumbo just gets fucked over through no fault of his own. Hell, his successes come by pure happenstance as well. And the film ends up being an endorsement for underage drinking, which is the complete opposite message Pinocchio has!
  • Bambi: “That wimpy deer!?” Half the film is about Bambi just being a kid, the other half is about him learning to man up and be a real man. It’s more about coming-of-age than it is about being a kid. At least Pinocchio stays focused on the “being a kid” part, highlighting that the trials and tribulations children go through are no joke and are to be taken seriously, while this film is more like, “Nah, everything will be fine. You have a father, the manliest of deer, to show up and help you through everything.” Well, sometimes, kids won’t have that luxury.
  • Cinderella: Same problem as Snow White. Who gives a fuck about the titular character? We’re mice fans up in this bitch!
  • Alice in Wonderland: Pro-drugs. And just as aimless as someone wandering around on crack.
  • Peter Pan: Stay a child and never grow up. Mine as well as say Pinocchio should’ve stayed a puppet and never turned into a real boy. Or worse, go from wooden boy back to puppet.
  • Lady and the Tramp: What was even the point of this movie? That some tramps can be as good as Charlie Chaplin?
  • Sleeping Beauty: You don’t have to be a beauty to be sleeping through this borefest. Only time this got good is when the prince started fighting his way through the finale. Which, once again, makes the lead protagonist the least interesting thing about this movie.
  • One Hundred and One Dalmatians: Film suffers from a lack of focus during the first half, and then the second half ends up being an endorsement of slavery. Plus, as exciting as the finale chase is,that chase sequence looks like it was made for choir boys compared to the finale chase in Pinocchio.
  • The Sword in the Stone: They’re not even trying anymore. They’ve given up all discretion and just flat out admit the film exists to lecture kids. Thought Disney wasn’t supposed to turn into the lecture company until 2012?
  • The Jungle Book: Fucking Mowgli remains a spoiled upstart with a negative attitude throughout the entire runtime! He doesn’t learn a goddamn thing about being unselfish and appreciative of his friends. Fuck Mowgli, Mowgli sucks.
  • The Aristocats: You know that disclaimer I made earlier about how I enjoy each of these movies? That doesn’t apply to this movie. Fuck this movie. This is the only Disney classic I don’t like. The one film where I was rooting for the villain.
  • Robin Hood: There’s not one bit of character growth at all in this movie. None. Every single character is the same at the end of the film as they were at the start, except for Prince John and his henchmen. But the villains in both this film and Pinocchio, oh, just you wait until I get to how that makes Pinocchio a better film.
  • The Rescuers: Building on the notion Pinocchio brings up that sometimes kids need rescued from predicaments they find themselves in that they can’t get out of by themselves. Too bad this wasn’t as interesting of a film, and the sequel did everything better (and went a little too far with it).
#Cleo from DisneyStrology

Pinocchio is better than those films simply on the basis that it perfectly encapsulates all that Disney is about. I’m talking about being an achievement in the self-proclaimed goal. A film for children that tells a good story with great morals, while also being exciting. A film that shows children why they should be good, be responsible, and be worthy of being human. And it does so in such great ways that are classic. I mean, just the protagonist himself, just his design along is iconic. And those moments of innocence and youth excitement. How he turns around so his “father” can get a look at him. How he skips along with the apple. So good.

Not to mention this inspired a shitload of other films. For starters, when Pinocchio lights his finger on fire. Anyone else get Young Frankenstein vibes from that? But unlike that movie, this has a little more depth to it than just being a simple gag. On the one hand, it’s a hilarious case of showcasing Pinocchio’s naivety, while also showcasing that he’s not a real boy yet and he can’t really feel physical pain. On the other hand, it also shows how children do need guidance from dangers that they know nothing about; that there are some things that aren’t right or wrong per-se, but need to be treated with caution anyway, like fire. But it is also extinguished in the fish bowl, which foreshadows 2 things. One, that smoking is bad (Pleasure Island foreshadowing), with how the fish Cleo is coughing up smoke out of the bowl. Two, foreshadows how they would escape from Monstro. So this joke of a moment ends up having multiple purposes, including a moment of knowledge growth for Pinocchio later on.

Animated GIF

The other way in which this film is inspirational, though I can’t swear to this being the first film to do this, or even being the only classic tale that has this as a story element, is with the whole thing about a non-human object/being becoming human. Something often relegated to films with humanoid automatons, such as robots, like in A.I. or Bicentennial Man. Except it’s done in a way to where the puppet needs to show that he can be human by acting human, having human remorse, a human conscience, etc. It needs to have human values. But not just human values, good ethical human values. A bit in contrast to today’s films where the message is more along the lines of, “It’s more human than we will ever be,” as if we’re less deserving of being beings in power with all the struggles/rewards/consequences of life than they are. Or as if a non-human being has much other human beings should learn from ethically. It’s more refreshing to see a film like this where it shows humans at both their best and worst, and inspiring others to become their best with a puppet’s journey to become a real boy. Because real boys and real humans are capable of being good, and people of all ages should be inspired by art like this to be as such. By being that essence of innocence the Walt Disney company proclaimed to stand for at one point (or another).

#pinocchio from oh the cleverness of you

Now, they succeed in making Pinocchio adorable and innocent. And this is appropriate, because it’s largely accepted, especially back then, that all humans start out as good little boys and girls. But it’s what happens to them as they grow up that begins to chip away at that innocence. Pinocchio, entering the world knowing nothing about it, hoping to gain knowledge on how it works from school, only to have his first real obstacle hit him while he’s unprepared. Jiminy Cricket (the one character more iconic than Pinocchio in this film) is also unprepared to be the conscience guide for Pinocchio, so he has his own faults to get through as well. Showcasing that children must be guided along the right path, while also making a strong effort to stay on the right path themselves. When he fails his first temptation, it’s through peer pressure and subtle coercion.

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At first.

But after Jiminy tells Pinocchio what to do amidst the first trial, Pinocchio decides for himself not to take his advice, and just follow the Fox and Cat instead. At that point, it’s entirely on Pinocchio. He’s the one who made the mistake. As he is when he lies to the fairy.

Hi-diddle-ee-dee, an actor’s life for me.

That whole song sequence is fucking amazing to me. A Disney movie, with a song that ends up being about how terrible it is to become a child actor. Based on who it’s sung by, and what it results in. A Disney film dissuading youths from being child actors. “What would an actor want with a conscience anyway?” Where a fox says an actor’s life is gay. The same Disney film that follows this up with dissuading youth going off with strangers who promise them a fun time, and it results in them going to Epstein’s Island to become child laborers. This film warning about the dangers of child trafficking. Because giving into the idea that you would have a fun time with strangers in the middle of the night will just result you in you being labelled a jackass. “Stupid little boys.” A place where, “They never come back… as BOYS!!!” This is amazing. The modern day irony of this is through the roof. Holy shit.

Anyway, the point being that while Pinocchio is a symbol of childhood innocence who acts just as naively, the film somehow manages to perfectly capture that he can retain much of that aura about himself while still giving into temptation and doing bad things. Because, it’s not as if one just immediately goes all bad and gets a radical personality shift the moment they do one bad thing. But you can pick up on him straying from the good-hearted path. One has to have strayed from that path for a respectable period of time before their heart can change.

#my gif from Adventurelandia
Don’t you dare stray from the path young man!

His first instance of failure, it’s an indication that he doesn’t know for certain that he’s doing something bad, and it’s only when the consequence of forceful imprisonment and labor hit him that he realizes he should’ve taken Jiminy Cricket’s advice. Plus it plays into his personality (that virtually all children have) regarding being curious about things that seem dangerous. Going back to him literally playing with fire and getting burned, but he has difficulty feeling regret for his actions just as he has difficulty feeling pain.

#my gif from Adventurelandia

His second instance of failure shows a character arc. Now he does feel shame, and thus regret, but he wishes to hide the truth of his actions because he’s scared of acknowledging his misdeed to the fairy, and lies to her multiple times. In the famous nose grow sequence. It may have been another mistake on his part, but now he’s been shown to be more capable of distinguishing right from wrong. Because no one can intentionally lie about something they did without knowing they did something wrong; without knowing that there are to be consequences.

#my gif from Adventurelandia
The little wooden boy chopping up wood.

His third instance of failure, well, he was strong-armed into going along with this Pleasure Island adventure at first, but then seemed fine with it for the carriage ride to the ship. It results in pretty much the same thing happening. It’s all fun and games until consequences of imprisonment and forced labor come into play. Except this time, it’s more obvious than ever that he’s being bad and doing bad, from his own words. Also seems to be the natural evolution of an “actor,” which is something the film appears to be an allegory for. Particularly young actors, child actors. Start out sweet and innocent, then get involved in acting, then next thing you know they’re lying, smoking, drinking, and getting involved in other destructive habits. Anyway, the consequences become more horrifying, with seeing others transformed into jackasses, and Pinocchio himself getting a partial transformation.

Animated GIF
Drink too much, you’ll start to see pink elephants, in the room.

It’s worth taking a closer look at that Pleasure Island portion of the film. Aside from having sections of the island dedicated solely to specific misdeeds (an area for smoking, an area for drinking, and area simply for smashing furniture, an area for scrapping with others, and an area for roller coaster riding [which is kept as a background thing]); aside from having one of the most terrifying sequences in animation history; this also demonstrates an ingenious way of having an anti-smoking and anti-drinking message placed in the film. And remember, smoking was perfectly acceptable without the anti-smoking ads back then (except in Germany, because Hitler had a thing against smoking), and prohibition ended in late-1933. How Pinocchio’s face turns green from taking a big inhale, how he tosses the cigar and mug away when he sees his “friend” growing ears and a tail. The implication that those things are what causes kids to be unhealthy, and what causes them to become jackasses. A universal message that’s still relevant today, about how tobacco and alcohol impairs children’s ability to be good little boys (and that’s the most polite way of putting it).

Animated GIF
Debi Austin convincing kids to stop smoking since the 90s.

While this is a similar scenario as the one Pinocchio earlier found himself in with the gypsy, it has an added consequence. It’s not just that the fairy couldn’t save him this time. It’s not just that he had longer lasting physical consequences. It’s that he saw someone else suffer those consequences, and he was helpless to save him. Someone he viewed as a friend. Which implies that being good does more than just save yourself from such a fate. Being good also makes you capable of saving others from that fate. Which is why the story then transitions to Pinocchio going off to save his “father” from the whale. Though I do have to admit, that’s a plot development that escalated things quickly. Everything was relatively relatable and grounded up until that happened. Not that I’m complaining.

#pinocchio from I like to viddy the old films now and then
But it’s ok if “father” does it.

The point being, Pinocchio is now at a point where he has to redeem himself. The whole “realizing what he did was wrong” and “I promise I’ll do right this time,” shtick isn’t enough. Though I say that with consideration that the film shouldn’t be strictly viewed as Pinocchio being a character-study film per-se. Pinocchio is an allegory for childhood innocence. It strikes me more as a film that warns of the dangers children will face as they come of age, as they’re transitioning to those teenage years. It warns of those that will manipulate them, steal them, influence them to go bad. And it also encourages the youth who watch the film to be on guard against these threats, and to maintain and follow that sense of goodness (let your conscience be your guide).

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And it does this more effectively than any other Disney film I’ve seen primarily for one particular reason. The villains. Not because of how the villains are represented per-se; though all the antagonists are great and/or intimidating in their own way. Each antagonist is presented very well, from the sly wily underhanded fox (and his cat sidekick) ironically called Honest John; plus his killer tunes. To the Italian gypsy Stromboli who has so much charisma it’s ridiculous; come on we all enjoy how short-tempered he is and how he goes on those long-winded foul-mouthed Italian rants in that deep voice of his. To the Coachman, who remains so mysterious and malicious that they wouldn’t even put him on the movie poster; his, “They never come back… as BOYS!” moment will forever creep people out. And Monstro, whose one of the most uniquely animated monsters in history, and is intimidating as hell.

Anyway, it’s not because of how great and memorable the villains are, and how malicious their deeds. It’s because this is probably the only film in Disney history where none of them get their comeuppance. Not one of them faces consequences for their own activities. As in, once the film ends, the children watching this will think, “They’re still out there to snatch up unsuspecting children… like me.” In other words, keeping the message secure that kids should remain on guard from similar figures in real life, and not fall victim to them. Not to mention, none of those boys on Pleasure Island ever get rescued. No more than all those mice find good families to live with in An American Tale.

Drinking booze is reserved for the guy in the clock! And it’s only beer time with Geppetto’s pocket watch!

And the dark humor that’s in this movie. I had some good chuckles with other moments in the movie; but that moment where Pinocchio is trying to laugh off the partial donkey transformation, and how his laugh turns into a “hee-haw,” and it freaks out Figero and Cleo. That had me falling off the couch. Only other moment that was as close to being as funny as that was that first time Pinocchio freaked Figero out.

Doing grumpy cat before that was a thing.

What else can I say about this film? Of course the animation quality is superb, especially for that finale chase with Monstro. The voice acting is superb, especially from the child actor Dickie Jones who voiced Pinocchio. The songs are quite memorable, especially, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “There are no Strings on Me,” and “An Actor’s Life for Me.” Other stuff that many others have covered more extensively than I can. Only other thing I can really add is that a part of me wishes they went with the alternate ending. In this ending, everything basically goes the same way, except Pinocchio is still alive after the escape from Monstro, and Geppetto is the one who seems to have died from the experience. And Pinocchio breaks down crying, saying to himself that this is all his fault, that this never would’ve happened if not for him. It’s a great moment where Pinocchio is explicitly showing his regret and sorrow for his previous actions, and how they did lead to Geppetto becoming devoured by Monstro. But of course the fairy shows up to bring him back to life, and make Pinocchio a real boy in the process. It just seems to work more as a final arc for that character, who learned to show remorse over his own actions leading to others suffering the consequences. The same message may be subtly indicated with the original ending, but I preferred them being more explicit over it.

So of course I recommend this movie. It’s easily the best classical Disney animated film. It personifies everything Walt Disney envisioned for the Disney company, while also eerily predicting certain dangers that are more prevalent today than they were back then. It’s a timeless classic.

PS: Jiminy Cricket was more pervy than I remembered.

#my gif from Adventurelandia
Oh look! Hot puppet girls!

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