Pinocchio (1940). 88 minutes. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske (supervising directors); Bill Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, and T. Hee (sequence directors). Starring Cliff Edwards (as Jiminy Cricket), Dickie Jones (as Pinocchio), Christian Rub (as Geppetto), Walter Catlett (as Honest John Worthington Foulfellow), Charles Judels (as Stromboli and Coachman), Frankie Darro (as Lampwick), and Evelyn Venable (as the Blue Fairy). Music by Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith. Based on the The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.
Walt Disney’s Pinocchio has somehow managed to convince generations of the movie-going public that it is fun and charming family fare. A representative critic of the film writing for The New York Times in 1940 described it as “a blithe, chuckle-some, witty, fresh and beautifully drawn fantasy… as gay and clever and delightful a fantasy as any well-behaved youngster or jaded oldster could hope to see.” It is true that Pinocchio can be upbeat and humorous, even cute and precious—with hints of would become the studio’s penchant for the saccharine as it appealed increasingly to younger viewers and their families. Additionally, Pinocchio’s didactic bent is notably strong, and didactic stories frequently target the very young and appeal to those who parent them.
But of all the Disney feature-length films, and in spite of its periodic sweetness and its teacherly ways, Pinocchio remains the creepiest and possibly the least suitable for young people—although, truth be told, it is not clear if it is actually suitable for the more mature among us either. Its initially sweet didacticism hardens into something harsh and cruel, and its episodic story comes to present a nasty and sometimes horrific universe. The lesson deeply imbued in everything we see on screen during the 88-minute running time is not merely that the morally upright and pure will see their desires fulfilled when they wish upon a star but also that the world outside of our homes is a frightening place to be feared and avoided, full of dangerous thugs and borderline molesters. The pessimistic content with its accompanying grotesqueness and cruel morality mingles with softer, child-friendly aspects in a peculiar admixture that is further complicated by the film’s animated loveliness and groundbreaking technical innovations. Overall, Pinocchio may be shown to us as children, but as adult viewers we may well be surprised at the extent to which this strange film operates simultaneously as an educational kiddy tale, enchanting work of art, and (perhaps above all) unsettling horror show. Its song “When You Wish Upon a Star” may have become the Walt Disney Company’s theme when it grew up and began to favor more deeply sanitized fare, but Pinocchio’s story remains a strident example of how weird and unsavory early Disney could be.
Pinocchio’s story begins in the woodworker Geppetto’s shop, where the old man wishes upon a star that his latest carved creation will become a real boy. An anthropomorphic cricket named Jiminy watches as a fairy descends from the star to transform the lifeless doll Pinocchio into a living puppet; Pinocchio will be turned into a real boy if he behaves, and the cricket will be employed as his provisional guide as he navigates his way through life. Geppetto is thrilled and the next day sends Pinocchio off to school, but Pinocchio is distracted by Honest John, a vagabond huckster who persuades the puppet that he will be happier as an actor. Pinocchio enters the stage world as a stringless puppet in Stromboli’s show on the town square, but later that evening, Stromboli imprisons Pinocchio in his cart and drives off with him. Once Jiminy Cricket locates him, the two summon the Blue Fairy, who frees Pinocchio, but only after the latter discovers that when he lies, his nose grows hideously long.
The following day, Pinocchio is again deterred from the straight and narrow path by Honest John, who arranges for Pinocchio to join a host of young boys being led by the Coachman to a hedonistic locale known as Pleasure Island. There the boys drink, smoke, and carouse until they metamorphose into donkeys and are sold to the salt mines. Jiminy Cricket intervenes, but not before Pinocchio has sprouted the ears and tail of a donkey. Once the two have escaped, they learn that Geppetto has taken off in search of Pinocchio and ended up in the belly of a whale named Monstro, so Pinocchio and Jiminy embark on an undersea journey to retrieve Geppetto. The characters are eventually reunited inside of Monstro and light a fire that causes the whale to sneeze them out of its mouth. The plan works, but Pinocchio dies in the ensuing cataclysm. In a final magical intervention, the Blue Fairy hears Geppetto’s prayer over Pinocchio’s dead body and grants the puppet new life, transforming him into a real boy and bestowing upon Jiminy Cricket the gold badge of an official conscience.
Upon cursory glance, Pinocchio might appear to have strong general appeal because it has some elements that are mild at heart, even innocuous. This is in large part due to the time spent in Geppetto’s warm household (complete with pet cat and goldfish, and a coterie of charming wooden devices), as well as the film’s willingness to amuse us with numerous sweet, conventionally good characters—including an adult who wants to be a parent, a child puppet who wants to be a real boy, and a cricket who wants to be a conscience. The film is largely about their desires, and while the characters and their wholesome wishes risk coming off as overly precious, and Pinocchio himself is ruled by pronounced schoolboy naïveté, there is surprisingly less heart-tugging than one might expect. (Indeed, Pinocchio never gets carried away by overwhelming sweetness as later Disney films such as Bambi  would). True, the movie does indulge in a fair amount of cricket cuteness as the tiny guide slides down violin strings, traipses around with wooden clock figures, and glides through the breeze with his miniature umbrella. It must be admitted that Jiminy Cricket gratingly refers to Pinocchio as “Pinoke” throughout, adding an element of slangy glurge to the verbal texture of the film that he elsewhere contributes to in diminutive visuals.
We might also be tempted to conclude that Pinocchio has an admirable, educational approach to storytelling that is suitable for a general audience because it seeks to instruct us in virtuous ways—for endearing Jiminy Cricket is not merely here as a cute companion; he also embodies much of the film’s moral component, which engages the audience with questions about behavior and society that are made lighter by the characters’ precociousness but never diminished by it. And yet as the conscience-centered voice of the film, he nevertheless renders his guidance in a friendly (even a child-friendly) fashion. The moral component originates in the didactic bent of the film’s source material, Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Adventures of Pinocchio, although with a noted difference: there the cricket character is an elderly critic of Pinocchio who makes a brief appearance before he is obliterated with a mallet and subsequently returns as a ghost. Disney’s Pinocchio emphasizes the same concepts of hard work, obedience, and upright living that Collodi does but through the gentle, sustained guidance of a warm, humorous companion who looks less like an insect and more like a small, humanoid pal, and whose wisdom is accordingly perhaps easier to digest and believe. The 1940 Jiminy Cricket is a centralized voice of kindly moral authority, cautioning the young Pinocchio when he strays down the wrong path and advising him as a friend to correct his ways and do right. The cricket’s assistance can be invoked with a playground whistle (“Give a Little Whistle”), and Jiminy’s quest is dream fulfillment (“When You Wish Upon a Star”) rather than harsh criticism—which certainly makes him palatable, especially to a younger audience.
But while Jiminy Cricket uses loving instruction and encouragement to advise Pinocchio on upright behavior and keep him on a socially acceptable track, the film counterbalances Jiminy’s positive message through a didacticism of horror—involving the unsavory, leering characters of Stromboli, Honest John, and the Coachman, along with their accompanying moral turpitude. Via the predatory and sometimes frightening behavior of these characters as they steer Pinocchio down the road to a den of vices and away from his intended path towards school and self-improvement, the film establishes their accompanying lowly indulgences and distractions as nefarious and morally deficient—including activities such as acting, puppetry in town squares, and smoking, along with locales such as pubs, pool halls, and amusement parks.
In this didactic mode, when the film becomes harsh and condemnatory, it also becomes crude and seeks to inspire fear not just in its characters but in its viewers as well. The moral deficiency of Pinocchio’s choices is enacted on his body, where he is marked by the powerful physical results of the wrongdoing he engages in, which threaten to taint him with permanent ill effects; his nose grows freakishly long when he lies, and he sprouts a donkey’s ears and tail when he becomes a hedonist at Pleasure Island. Because Pinocchio’s physical being is supernaturally altered, the story goes beyond merely communicating moral consequences: both the film and the novel of Pinocchio, like their morally driven didactic counterparts such as the German Der Struwwelpeter (1845), seek to horrify youthful audience members by suggesting that bad choices endanger their bodily lives via the imaginative punishments that await them at the hands of an angry god. The result is a world that will potentially feel brutal to any audience.
Added to this negative didacticism are a number of characterizations and scenarios that are rather grotesque, even disturbing—suitable only for those who do not mind the prospect of bad dreams. There is throughout, for example, the lingering, unescapable creepiness of the puppet-child, who embodies some of the worst qualities of scary dolls and who experiments with some of the most unpleasant behavior attached to being a young boy. Although animating Pinocchio to render him humane and palatable was an early challenge for the filmmakers, nevertheless the movie does not easily move past some of the more unnerving visuals that were in the end included for him, especially the horrifying image of his nose elongating when he lies, eventually sprouting leaves, blossoms, and perhaps most freakishly a nest with baby birds. The wildlife that develops at the end of Pinocchio’s snout quickly decays and hangs off of his face like something rotting.
The fact that this scene takes place while Pinocchio is in a cage in Stromboli’s cart is perhaps creepier, but even when he is not incarcerated, his situation with Stromboli is unsettling. Pinocchio consents to what is essentially marionette servitude, not understanding the full terms of his employment, and is subjected to the knife-wielding Stromboli’s threats of physical violence, including the prospect that Stromboli will turn him into firewood when he grows too old to perform. As Stromboli proposes this outcome, we see the corpse of an old puppet in a kindling box; other puppets dangling off of the cart’s ceiling are vaguely reminiscent of carcasses in a butcher shop.
There is a sickening sense in this movie that everyone, including Stromboli, is preying on Pinocchio—a subtext of the film is the idea that both he and we are not safe in the the outside world, which is teeming with criminals and perverts. The sinister Honest John solicits the young boy in an unsavory fashion; he may look like an amusing, humanoid cartoon fox, but as his eyes narrow while he schemes, he becomes predatory, dangerous. The hideous Coachman is similarly perverse (he even horrifies Honest John); the Coachman introduces young boys to the indulgences offered at Pleasure Island, where unchaperoned, parentless youth have a taste of grown-up hooligan pleasures, are transformed into donkeys, and are sold into salt-mine slavery. Like a pedophile, the Coachman thrills to the introduction of inappropriate activity into the lives of the boys he transports: on Pleasure Island, we find the Rough House, where boys beat each other up simply for fun; Tobacco Row, where cigars rain down plentifully and free of charge on carousing boys and discarded butts litter the ground; and the Model House, where boys obliterate a suburban home’s pristine interior.
Pleasure Island is Pinocchio at its wildest and most disturbing, and one of the chief points of interest in this sequence is its focus on the lawless character Lampwick and the punishing morality that the film unleashes upon him. Lampwick (with whom Pinocchio explores the island) is kind of a nightmare vision of a smartass 1940s boy—wise-cracking, riotous, smoking, fast-living, hedonistic, and intensely homosocial. He is a beer-swigging, pool-playing, cigar-chomping, spitting menace who shows no signs of feeling love for others or of having been loved by someone else and appears to have no recognizable larger framework around which his life is based. From what we see, his ideology is to grab what is free, seize the opportunity to beat up total strangers, and live only for what is available to amuse, stimulate, and exercise the id.
The punishment that awaits all of Pleasure Island’s guests is finally visited upon Lampwick, and when he turns into a donkey, he kicks and bucks all over the room while screaming in a jackass voice. We have already seen boys who have turned into donkeys and are still wearing semblances of their clothing whimper for their mothers and beg to go home as the Coachman tears off their human outfits. Those moments are sickening, but Lampwick’s transformation is horrifying in a more specific way: we have observed him behaving in ways that are unbecoming of a human person, so perhaps we have more context for how he becomes animalized, but even then it is deeply upsetting to watch him actually lose his biological humanity before our eyes and be rendered into an animal slave. The implicit suggestion that his fate is something deserved because of his bad behavior is especially disconcerting and cruel, and reflects a lack of compassion on the part of the movie’s moral universe. Lampwick could use compassion—it is not clear what he had to live for as a boy, but as a donkey his life is over. The movie does not transform him back into a boy, nor does it transform any of the other donkeys back into their former selves. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a Blue Fairy or a conscience-guided cricket.
None of these things is easy to unsee. Through them, Pinocchio successfully conveys the idea that the world outside is dangerous, threatening, and violent. By the time we arrive at the final episode with the whale Monstro, a life spent living in the belly of a whale seems like the least of the film’s evils. As a result, Pinocchio’s concluding segment is more notable for its beauty than for being steeped in human danger, and as the Monstro sequence embarks on a project of dazzling us with visual loveliness, we might for a moment forget the disquieting nature of the rest of the film.
There is a pervasive sense of vast experimentation in early Disney films such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Fantasia (1940), and Pinocchio, for which Disney animators spent years perfecting their approach to character, scenery, and effects. Although animation has evolved significantly since 1940, we can still see the richness of their work on the screen today. Pinocchio is particularly known for its spectacular effects animation—the animation of special touches such as smoky fumes, crashing waves, billowing water, and floating bubbles. The film’s effects animation is largely evident in the underwater sequence, where we see a full range of beautiful, almost sensual optics on display as the sea water gently undulates and as bubbles float upwards. The underwater animation sequence includes, in addition to the effects, a host of varied fish and undersea plants in a rainbow of colors that emerge, causing the film’s ocean to feel busy and alive. But elsewhere Pinocchio also shows off its technical accomplishments through elements such as angular shots (e.g., in the Tobacco Row sequence), camera movement through scenery (through the innovation of the multi-plane camera), and, as Roger Ebert has pointed out, uncentered action in the scene where Monstro ejects the characters from his mouth, pushing them out to the edge of the screen and pulling them back in again as he sneezes. All of these effects combine to make for an animated film that has the look and feel of a cutting-edge live-action movie, with an adult sensibility and sophistication that had previously been a pipe dream in animation.
Pinocchio’s presentation style, however, does not merely make for more beautiful scenery or a more grown-up look; it also contributes to the way that the movie tells its story and conveys its central themes, deepening them and helping us to make important connections across scenes. Consider some of the strategic and evocative presentation choices in the Pleasure Island sequence. The overwhelming chaos of the island is successfully conveyed without showing us many fully rendered boys with articulated facial features or full-on shots of the boys’ bodies. On Tobacco Row we see scrambling legs, and we hear the cacophony of the pleasure-seekers’ frenzied shouting. We also observe the frantic shadows of boys fighting with each other in the Rough House from outside—the grey, undefined shapes of massive and anonymous mayhem. Their impersonal forms, echoing human bodies without more precisely revealing them, suggest the extent to which the island’s enslavement begins to work on the boys even before they are transformed into donkeys.
The island visitors’ shadows take on increased significance when we consider that once transformed into donkeys, they are corralled by black, shadowy creatures, who are silent and featureless. Are they men? Or are they fantastic supernatural enforcers of the horrific rule of the island? The movie provides no specific information to further identify these figures, but like the shadow boys, the shadow men speak to the perverse and inhuman nature of the forces that imprison the youths and who like them are shown as faceless impressions. The decision to employ shadows in this way speaks to the animators’ creative use of the human body to convey deeper perspectives on the segment’s themes.
It can thus be said that there are really two Pinocchios: the beautiful Pinocchio with its sublime and clever moments, and the disturbing Pinocchio, which turns our stomachs and imprints upon us a certain horror. The loveliness of the gauzy Blue Fairy and the billowing animated waves that comprise the whale’s environment may seem irreparably at odds with the loud, screeching and thrashing of Lampwick and his humiliated donkey cohort. Indeed, it is challenging to reconcile the violence of the Rough House or the filthiness of an island full of cigar ash with the brilliant colors of sea life and the gentle, echoey sounds of Pinocchio calling for his father underwater. I have said that the animation feels grown-up, but in the end if Pinocchio is not suitable for children, it is not entirely clear that it is suitable for adults either.
Whether Pinocchio is a successful film or not is therefore a difficult question to answer. If it is going to be successful, it will have to be successful because of both its optimism and pessimism and the strange way that they combine, as it is not possible to ignore either. Part of what makes Pinocchio so curious (and presumably part of what causes it to leave such a strong impression on viewers) is precisely the way that it blends imaginative expansiveness with its exploration of the malevolent side of human nature. It is a bizarre combination that risks alienating more than just the children in the audience, but it must be said that as a film that insists on presenting both perspectives simultaneously, Pinocchio captures a broad spectrum of life’s experiences without flinching. It, like the other Disney films of its era, suggests that a startling, less obviously child-friendly direction for the studio was possible in its early days, when animators and story editors did not shy away from showing us the best and worst aspects of ourselves. That the same movie can offer us all of these things suggests the extent to which early Disney was open to depicting a fuller range of human desires, experiences, and emotions—expressed as a wish upon a star but realized as a living, daily battle against a dark and disordered world. Whether that combination is ultimately bearable is a question that we will have to answer for ourselves without the intervention of wise fairies or cautionary crickets.