There is a reason why it’s a cliche to call something a “sophomore slump”. As every artist knows it’s incredibly hard to follow up whatever made you successful in the first place. Try to stick with what went well the first time, and people accuse you of simply retreading old grounds. Try to venture too far into new territory and people accuse you of not understanding what made you successful in the first place. There is such a thin line between success and failure to navigate that it’s a minor miracle some people succeed in getting out of that slump.
Suffice it to say that Mr. Disney and company are among the rare and exceptional few people who have managed to avoid the sophomore slump. In fact they join the even more exclusive club of people who have arguably improved upon the original. What Pinocchio showcases is that, as crazy as it may seem, Walt seemed to be playing it at least a little safe with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The success of Snow White was simply license for all those involved in Pinocchio to simply relax and let their creativity run wild.
This creativity begins right in the premise itself. It is hard to overstate just how different the premises of Pinocchio and Snow White are. Snow White is an epic royal fairy tale about a princess told with regality and reverence while Pinocchio is a scrappy and intimate urban folk tale about a wooden puppet boy. In fact the only true similarity between the two is that they are fairy tales, and that genre is vast and wide. Rather than simply rinse, wash, and repeat Walt decided to go in a completely different direction and in so doing helped cement not only the reputation of the studio but also cemented the Disney house style.
It always helps if you’re going in a different direction, that you knock things out of the park right at the beginning, and Pinocchio does that by some margin. First, the movie opens with “When You Wish Upon a Star” which is without a doubt Disney’s most iconic song. The sweet, gentle, and quiet song, apart from being the perfect hymn for American consumerist capitalism, also sets up the movie perfectly in terms of the type of story it will tell. It immediately indicates that where Snow White was grand, this tale is going to be more personal and more intimate.
Nowhere is this intimacy more apparent than in the first character introduced, and the best contribution of this movie to the Disney canon, the plucky and cantankerous Jiminy Cricket. In Jiminy, Disney creates the heart and soul of this movie.
Jiminy is our guide into this fantasy world and the genius of his character is that he seems to have one foot into Pinocchio’s world but the other foot in ours. More importantly, he functions not just as Pinocchio’s incarnate conscience, but he becomes the companion of every child who watches the movie. This role is crucial because as we shall see, some of the content of Pinocchio is terrifying especially to a young child. But I don’t remember ever being scared of watching Pinocchio and I think it is because Jiminy was the calming and humorous presence that clued me in that everything would be okay. He figuratively winks at the audience, telling us that all of this is merely make-believe and we need not be afraid but then he also invites us in to play in this world of make-believe. His wisecracking and generally humorous behaviour defuses any tension that might be apparent in the scene, thus making the terrifying tolerable. And the success of Jiminy in this role of mentor, companion, and comic relief ensured that he would not just be iconic, but an archetype that Disney would return to time and time again to great effect (a brief sampling below):
But of course Jiminy Cricket is only one of the key pieces that makes Pinocchio work. The other key piece is that the story itself is at once extremely simple but also wonderfully lived in. The phrase “storybook come to life” has been overused but in this case certainly applies. There is a deep richness to the visuals of the film. Geppeto’s workshop, which occupies the first third of the film is a sumptuous visual delight. Every corner of his workshop is brimming with detail. Often an essential skill for film watching is the ability to pay deep attention to every shot, but in Geppeto’s workshop looking closely is something you’re practically invited to do, as you see below:
© 1940 Disney
Whether it is in Geppeto’s workshop or in the astounding underwater scenes (how they animated that water I’ll never know), the animators created such a wonderful and fully breathed world in these backdrops that it almost made storytelling a simple afterthought. This is especially true in this opening sequence when Pinocchio is completed by Geppeto and then brought to life by the fairy – which is arguably the strongest sequence of the movie.
I cannot stress just how close to perfect the opening act of this movie is. Whether it is the warmth of Geppeto’s laughter and his interaction with his two pets (Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish, both wonderfully animated and brimming with personality) or it is Jiminy switching back and forth between wisecracks and wonder, so much essential work is done in engendering our goodwill for this film. And in many little wonderful sequences, whether with the music boxes or the clocks, or the dance sequences with a lifeless Pinocchio are filled with such imaginative power that they hold us enraptured. We fall in love with these characters in these opening moments and it is this love that helps carry the movie to the finish line.
This is necessary because the weakest point of Pinocchio is the plot of the movie. While on a grand arc it is the story of Pinocchio‘s quest to becoming a boy, it is not told in a seamless way but is instead too episodic. The movie drastically shifts tones from the opening scene to Pinocchio’s meeting with Honest John and Gideon but then shifts tone again with the Stromboli act, the Pleasure Island act, and finally the Monstro act. By the time each scene ends, that act of Pinocchio’s journey never gets referenced again. The movie simply unfolds as a series of short but unconnected episodes of his journey. In addition there is a slight aspect of preachiness to the storytelling as this is basically a morality tale about choosing the good over the bad which when taken on its own can be slightly grating.
But though the plot is disjointed and slightly sanctimonious, this does not derail the movie and that is because the character work of the movie is excellent. The two central characters Pinocchio and Jiminy show up in the movie fully formed and they are the constants that help ground the movie through its disparate acts. Additionally it helps that the movie is littered with excellent supporting characters whether they be the comedic duo of Honest John and Gideon or the superbly expressive Monstro who is able to strike fear by simply moving an eye. Each of these characters infuse necessary energy into the plot, helping each individual scene feel like a cohesive whole (even if they don’t help the movie itself in feeling cohesive) and allow Pinocchio and Jiminy to further flesh out their characters.
Now I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the movie Pinocchio without actually talking about Pinocchio himself. As I mentioned, the character comes to us fully formed as one of the best depictions of a young boy that I have ever seen in any film medium. From the moment he stretches when coming to life until his final dance with Geppeto he is infused with a spark of life that instantly makes you root for him all the way through. And unlike most depictions of childhood, he is not just a one-dimensional portrayal of cuteness, but he is a complicated character with often conflicting emotions and motivations. He is mischievous but innocent, good-natured but easily strayed, and equally strong and vulnerable. His complexity makes it not just captivating to root for him, but truly helps infuse this simple morality tale with the tension that it needs.
© 1940 Disney.
This is because every temptation is real, every twist and turn is a moment where you can never be too sure how he will act. His quest to becoming a real boy by being truthful, brave, and unselfish is compelling simply because it is not easily apparent that Pinocchio and Jiminy will be able to get him there. And that it finally takes him sacrificing his own safety for the ones that he loves to finally grasp what being truthful, brave, and unselfish is makes his final transformation all the more sweet and the revelation all the more profound.
The fact is that I could spend a thousand more words describing all the many ways that this movie is close to perfect as a work of art. I still have only briefly mentioned the underwater scenes with Monstro which is arguably the most unbelievable sequence of animation out there. I’ve made no mention of Pleasure Island and the true terror of that entire scene. I’ve also failed to mention the dance scene in Stromboli’s show. Outside of “When You Wish Upon a Star” I’ve barely skimmed the surface of how great the score of this movie is. Every facet of the movie is just another chance to talk about the movie’s excellence. It just seems that after climbing the mountaintop with Snow White Walt Disney and his crew decided to shoot for the stars with Pinocchio. And they so very nearly did.
Earlier post: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs