FOR ANYONE WHO EVER WISHED UPON A STAR.
In 1940, the folks at Disney were pretty pleased with themselves. In their view, they had not only finished work on a film, their second feature, that rivaled their first, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), but also in some ways outdid it. They must have been surprised to learn later that Pinocchio was not a great hit after all. The war was partly to blame for poor results from Europe. In the end, though, after rereleases and video earnings many decades later, the movie made a lot of money. Today, new generations at Disney and Pixar look back at the legendary “Nine Old Men” animators and their collaborators and recognize geniuses at work.
Creating a wooden marionette boy
We’re introduced to a little fellow called Jiminy Cricket who finds a place to sleep in a woodshop where Gepetto is putting a finishing touch on his latest work, a wooden marionette boy that he names Pinocchio. When he goes to bed, Gepetto tells his cat that he wishes the toy were a real boy. After he’s fallen asleep, a blue fairy appears and grants Geppetto’s wish. Pinocchio is brought to life, but is still made of wood; the fairy tells him that if he wants to be a boy of flesh and blood, he must be brave, truthful and unselfish. He needs to listen to his conscience and the fairy appoints Jiminy Cricket to serve in that capacity.
When Geppetto wakes up the following morning, he’s thrilled to see his wish come true. Of course, a boy needs to go to school, which is where Geppetto sends him… but the world is full of temptations for a kid who is experiencing his very first day in life.
Animators’ genius on display
It’s been said many times that Pinocchio represents the pinnacle of Disney’s achievements. It has more or less everything. Certainly laughs, as Jiminy Cricket turns out to be not only an excellent conscience, but also a very amusing sidekick (voiced to perfection by Cliff Edwards who would be primarily remembered for this performance) and inspiration for so many future Disney characters, not least the following year’s Timothy in Dumbo. Some of the bad guys are also funny, such as Honest John, a Fagin-like con artist, and his clueless cat compadre Gideon, whose schemes are so outrageous and obvious – except to poor Pinocchio.
The movie certainly has thrills, as Pinocchio and Jiminy land themselves in adventure after adventure, the highlights being a visit to the ghastly Pleasure Island where young boys are subjected to a curse, and the encounter with Monstro, a gigantic and very sinister whale who swallows Geppetto and his cat. That’s also where some of the animators’ genius is most obviously on display; Pinocchio’s attempt to save his father leads to a long action sequence in the ocean that initially may look simple to modern audiences… but not really once you look closer. There’s a tremendous amount of work behind all the details of those scenes and directors Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske make sure everything moves fast.
Pinocchio also has wonderful music; every time I watch the opening credits and hear “When You Wish Upon a Star”, I journey back to my childhood. And lastly, the movie also has terrific performances by the cast. Dickie Jones was a popular child actor at the time and conveys the wooden boy’s innocence to great effect; Walter Catlett is also a lot of fun as the devious Honest John.
The movie is episodic, but still an effective adaptation of the story. When Disney also changed the character of Pinocchio, turning him into a kind-hearted dupe instead of the mean-spirited kid in the original story, they made sure the audience had someone to connect with. Pinocchio may teach us how to resist temptations… but this one you should give in to.
Pinocchio 1940-U.S. Animated. 88 min. Color. Produced by Walt Disney. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske. Screenplay: Aurelius Battaglia, William Cottrell, Otto Englander, Erdman Penner, Joseph Sabo, Ted Sears, Webb Smith. Novel: Carlo Collodi (“The Adventures of Pinocchio”). Music: Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith. Songs: Leigh Harline, Ned Washington (“When You Wish Upon a Star”, “Give a Little Whistle”, “I’ve Got No Strings”). Voices of Dickie Jones (Pinocchio), Christian Rub (Geppetto), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket), Evelyn Venable, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro.
Trivia: Mel Blanc, the legendary Warner Bros. voice talent behind Daffy the Duck and Bugs Bunny, was cast as Gideon, but it was eventually decided that the cat should stay mute; all that remains of Blanc’s work is Gideon’s hiccup. The story was also told in two Italian movies, released in 2002 and 2019, and continued in Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night (1987).
Oscars: Best Original Score, Original Song (“When You Wish Upon a Star”).
Last word: “I was quite critical of … I have a knack for alienating people by being a little bit outspoken, and they were rather obsessed with the idea of this boy being a wooden puppet. My God, they even had this midget who did the voice for [the ad] ‘call for Phillip Morris’ as the voice for a while, and it was terrible. I was rather outspoken about it. Why didn’t they forget that he was a puppet and get a cute little boy, you can always draw the wooden joints and make him a wooden puppet afterwards. And Ham Luske said, ‘Well, why don’t you do something about it, do a scene,’ and I did one.” (Animator Milt Kahl, MichaelBarrier.com)