Emotionally resonant, visually dazzling, imaginatively captivating, thematically rich, Walt Disney’s Pinocchio may just be the greatest of all the early Disney masterpieces, possibly outshining Snow White, Fantasia and Bambi. (For me, at least, Dumbo isn’t in the same league.)
Based on the 1883 children’s story by Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio is in spirit a classical European fairy tale, full of wonder and terror, implacable moralism and providential hope. Though departing significantly from Collodi’s text, Pinocchio is truer to the essence of its source than most Disney features (Bambi, for instance, has very little to do with Felix Salten’s novel).
The tale of a little wooden boy (Dickie Jones), loved by his father Gepetto (Christian Rub), guided by a cricket for a conscience and aided by an angelic, maternal fairy, offers a cornucopia of moral themes: the necessity of becoming “real” through moral effort; the disfiguring, insidious effects of lying and other “asinine” forms of misbehavior from gambling to smoking and drinking; the moral dangers of worldly influences and peer pressure; even the necessity of grace. “A lie keeps growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” What in any nursery morality tale is more powerful than that?
Among Golden Age childhood fantasies, possibly only The Wizard of Oz offers terrors to compete with Pinocchio, from the cage in Stromboli’s wagon to the nightmare world of Pleasure Island to the belly of Monstro the whale. Strong stuff, this. Yet lurking behind the external threats is an even more unsettling internal anxiety: the fear that Pinocchio will not do the right thing, that he will be led astray by the likes of devious Honest John (Walter Catlett), seeking fame or pleasure rather than being guided by his conscience.
Weighing against such fears, as Dorothy had Glinda, Pinocchio has the reassuring figure of the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable), kindly but humorous and knowing, offering much-needed help from above, ultimately rewarding Pinocchio’s good intentions beyond his desserts. (Collodi’s maternal “Fairy with Turquoise Hair,” a late addition to an originally grimmer tale, may owe something to Italian Marian sensibilities, and the Blue Fairy of the Disney cartoon likewise reflects a recognizable Marian archetype — a heritage clearly brought out, with ruthless consequences, in Steven Spielberg’s A.I.)
Among Pinocchio’s considerable assets is the unassuming figure of Jiminy Cricket (Cliff “Ukelele Ike” Edwards). Though the de facto forerunner to a long line of obligatory diminutive sidekicks from Timothy Q. Mouse (Dumbo) to the talking mice in Cinderella to Sebastian (The Little Mermaid) and beyond, Jiminy Cricket is perhaps the most effectively used of the lot, functioning as narrator and chorus as well as Pinocchio’s conscience, and (as James Kendrick points out) ushering the audience into the world of the film. (More typical of future sidekicks are the cute antics of Figaro the cat and Cleo the fish, both voiced by Mel Blanc.)
Directed by Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, both of whom had a hand in Disney’s other 1940 masterpiece, Fantasia, Pinocchio is noticeably more mature visually than Snow White and more varied than the pastoral Bambi. Multiplane camerawork and sophisticated compositions create a credible world beyond the screen, rich in detail and authenticity. It was a pinnacle of artistic achievement that, after Bambi, classic Disney would never even try to match again.
Celebrating an early 70th anniversary, Pinocchio is now available in a splendid 2-disc Blu-ray edition that includes a bonus standard DVD disc, so there’s no reason not to get it even if you’re not planning on upgrading to Blu-ray for awhile. Extras include previously a making-of featurette, unseen deleted scenes, an alternate ending and a commentary track with Leonard Maltin, director Eric Goldberg and writer J.B. Kaufman.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.