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Growing up, I was what you might call a nervous child. Any time I watched a movie, cartoon or TV show, no matter how innocuous or innocent, the chances were I’d be watching through my fingers, ready to bolt for the door at a second’s notice. Why, you ask? Well, at a very young age I watched a movie that taught me that no matter how sweet and innocent something seems, there’s nothing to say that it won’t suddenly take a sharp turn into sheer, unrelenting TERROR. That movie is the subject of today’s review.
Words cannot express the psychological horror this movie inflicted on me. This movie is why I will never ride in a coach or visit an island. This movie is the reason that the phrase “as…BOYS!” is on my list of trigger words. This movie is why I was glad when it looked like the whales were going extinct in the eighties. This movie is why I sleep with a gun under my pillow and a set of grenades in my slippers. This movie is the reason my house is guarded by a Rottweiler that I’ve trained into believing that he’s Batman.
It did a number on me, basically. Pinocchio is one of what I call the “Tar and Sugar” movies. That is, they alternate between extreme whimsy and shocking darkness and part of what makes the darkness more horrifying is that it’s so SUDDEN. Later Disney movies would blend the two a bit more subtly so that it’s not quite as jarring but in the early days you just gotta hold on. I think of Snow White, Fantasia, Bambi and Pinocchio as the Tar and Sugar Movies (the other early Disney full-length from this period, Dumbo, is in a different category, Sugar and LSD). But Pinocchio, for me, is the Tar and Sugar movie to beat all Tar and Sugar movies. But Doctor Fiedelman says that it’s time to finally face my fears or I’ll never overcome them and also he won’t top up my prescription. I can do this.
The first thing that hits you watching this after Snow White is just how much Disney and his team have upped their game. This is a GORGEOUS movie. I had forgotten just how much detail they worked into every frame, whether it’s all the clocks and carvings in Geppetto’s workshop, all the sea creatures that follow Pinocchio as he searches the sea floor for his father, it’s all just beautiful. There are also some very dark details that only make sense in hindsight. Are those horses pulling the coachman’s coach? No, they are small, wretched looking donkeys. Interesting, that…
I had also forgotten (trauma plays such a merry jig with memory dunnit?) how funny this movie is. The Dwarfs were funny and all, and Grumpy had some good lines, but this script is just so much sharper. Jiminy Cricket is a hoot. How did I forget that? He’s just this adorable little wiseass, constantly breaking the fourth wall, cutting through some of the more syrupy bits with wry observations (after Geppetto makes his wish that Pinocchio be a real boy Jiminy says “A very lovely thought. But not at all practical.”) And Honest John and Gideon…damn, these guys could have walked out of a classic Warner Brothers short, the timing, the gags, it’s all just first rate.
Also, it feels like a movie. Snow White at times felt like a short padded out with scenes of faffing around that were fun but ultimately pointless. Every scene in Pinocchio is going somewhere. There’s constant narrative progression even if at times it feels like the characters are running in circles, trying to get back to Gepetto’s house and always being distracted and brought somewhere else.
Oh yeah, big surprise. I like Pinocchio. The character, I mean. I always used to be frustrated with him as a kid because he kept getting so close to finding Geppetto and then fucking it up but now that I’m old enough to understand that he needs to fuck up in order for there to be a movie I really like the character. He’s just this sweet, optimistic, good-hearted kid who’s trying his best and doesn’t have a damn clue about the world because not so long ago he was a piece of wood.
The supporting characters are great too. Instead of Snow White’s cute but interchangeable
brainwashed slaves animal helper friends we have Geppetto’s cat and goldfish, Figaro and Cleo. They’re both distinctive, lovable and utterly charming, Figaro the perpetually indignant underdog (so to speak) and Cleo the sweet, bubbly, beautiful, flirty…
They’re great. Love ’em.
And just to prove that I’m not into fish, isn’t the Blue Fairy a knockout?
I dunno, I’m not buying the sweet and innocent act though. Look at the way she’s flirting with Jiminy. She’s got a kinky side. In fact, I can see her maybe having a fling with a human. Of course, accidents happen, and well…she might get more than she bargained for. So she has the baby, but she can’t keep it because of the scandal so she gives it up to be raised by human beings. Baby grows up to be a young woman who looks very like her mother, maybe like this…
Of course, the Blue Fairy would never completely abandon her daughter. She might pay her a visit every now and then, maybe posing as an aunt or a distant relative of some kind.
And the songs! Snow White had some good ones and some duds but every song in this movie is now a fixture in Western popular culture. All of ’em. “Wish upon a Star”, “I’ve got no Strings”, “Hi-diddle-dee-dee” “Give a Little Whistle”…you’re humming one of these right now, aren’t you? I realise this review is a little light on jokes and a little heavy on gushing but I was actually taken aback by how great this film is, especially when compared with it’s predecessor. Snow White had been an absolute blockbuster three years earlier, and this success allowed Disney to invest far more time and money into Pinocchio. While modern audiences may not be familiar with Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket) or Walter Catlett (Honest John) they were big names in their day and the decision to invest in real acting talent paid off royally. This movie is Disney at the very top of his game, and in a way that’s kind of sad. See, Pinocchio was a flop. Oh not a critical one, not at all. It was recognised from the very beginning as a classic. But you see, this movie cost well over $2 Million, which in those days was known as “Jeepers! How’s a fellah get his mits on that kinda scratch!?” The movie eventually made back it’s budget (yeah, just a bit) but at the time it failed financially because this was 1940 and for some reason those damn Europeans weren’t really going to the movies.
Speaking of indescribable horror…
Okay. Pinocchio is the only Disney movie where there are as many bad characters as good. I’m also pretty sure it’s the only one where most of the villains get off scott free. Honest John, Gideon, Stromboli, Monstro, the Coachman…none of them pay the price for the horrible things they do. And that may be what makes them so terrifying. Oh, that and this.
God the Coachman terrifies me. Still, after all these years. Actually, the fact that he is clearly a paedophile and I wasn’t old enough to understand that at the time maybe makes him worse now. Now I can’t run out of the room without inciting comment because I’m supposed to be a grownup. What else? The scene where Lampwick turns into a donkey is and remains one of the most pitiable, horrific things I have ever seen. As he crawls on the ground, begging Pinocchio to help him as his hands agonisingly morph into hooves and then the last shred of his humanity is stripped away and he is left as a terrified, panicking animal, braying and lashing out.
It’s awful. It’s truly horrific. Stromboli terrifies me. One minute he’s a laughing, jolly, comedy Italian stereotype. Then he starts roaring, throwing Pinocchio in a cage, and saying how he’s going to make him dance all over Europe and when he’s too old he’s going to use him for firewood.
And then there’s Monstro.
You see what I mean about Sugar and Tar? The movie just goes to such dark places, and if I’m honest, it may be too dark. I don’t think I’ll be showing this one to Iola (my daughter) for a long time. Having watched the movie again, I can say now that I love it. Unreservedly adore it. But it is NOT a movie for very young children.
We are only two movies into this project and already I have a feeling that Pinocchio is going to be holding the top spot for a very, very long time. Pinocchio was Walt Disney’s crowning achievement as an animator, but it was also an unhappy experience for him. The movie’s lackluster box office depressed him hugely. It can’t be easy to create near cinematic perfection, and still fail.
There is a scene at the start of the second act where the camera zooms over Geppetto’s village, dodging in and out of buildings with children running everywhere, birds flying in the sky. It is an immense technical and artistic achievement, the most expensive and time consuming scene in the whole movie. And it was all so seamless, so perfectly done, that no one noticed it.
Disney, neither the studio nor the man, would not reach for these kinds of heights again for many, many years. The movies that would come after would be cheaper, less risky, more…practical. Which is not to say that they don’t have their pleasures. But Walt Disney would never again try to make a movie this audacious, dark and brilliant. Then again, he’d already done it once. Why improve on perfection?
Yeah, there’s no way around this one. The Monstro scenes alone where every drop of water had to be hand-drawn. My God. They didn’t have computers back then. Did you know that??!!
The Leads: 16/20
Pinocchio is adorable, Geppetto pleasantly befuddled, Jiminy Cricket is hilarious.
The Villain(s): 18/20
If anything, they’re too good at their jobs.
Supporting Characters: 17/20
She’s a fish. A fish dammit! What’s wrong with you?!
The Music: 18/20
The incidental score, again by Paul J. Smith and Leigh Harline is several leagues above their work on Snow White. Couple this with some of the best Disney songs ever written by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington and we have a serious contender for best sounding Disney movie.
Final Score: 89%
Next Week: The Unshaved Mouse puts on his monacle to review Fantasia, as Disney does his best to see you get some fucking culture, you clods.