Friday, January 14, 2011


One of the famous shots in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) involves the multiplane camera techniques that were pioneered in the 1930s (including the first feature-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) as well as in Fantasia (released in 1940, as well). Only here, the camera doesn’t just move forward, it also moves horizontally, creating a dimension and scale in the town village. This is just one of many moments that exemplifies the brilliance and innovation achieved in this timeless classic. (In fact, I have read that many of these techniques were never repeated again.) Such a dimension and scale owes much to the episodic nature of Collodi’s original “Pinocchio” stories (published in Italy from 1880 to 1883), consisting of various elements that are astounding, frightening, breathtaking, beautiful, and entertaining.

But Pinocchio is more than a technical achievement, in terms of pushing the boundaries of animation and technology. It stands as yet another key example of the Disney staple of what animated films should be. As soon as the movie opens, we are drawn into the magic and wonder of this world. The characters are, respectfully, memorable, wonderful, and scary (Jiminy Cricket, in particular, steals every scene he’s in with his wise-cracking and contemporary dialogue, reminiscent of the seven dwarfs; and Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish provide lovable comic relief as well). The situations are beyond “cartoonish”. The music is unforgettable. (“When You Wish Upon a Star,” after all, became the Disney Studio’s anthem.) The grand-scale animation is simply astounding—without drawing attention to itself. And, not in the least, it tells a classic story. And what a grand story it is.

Part of Pinocchio’s journey as a character (with Jiminy as his “guide along the straight and narrow path”) includes the notion of bad things happening. This leads to the many forms of temptation and darkness he encounters—in this case, characters who embody said forms. The sly fox "Honest John" and the puppeteer Stromboli, for instance, see no value in Pinocchio except profit. The same goes for the coachman, whose job consists of capturing spoiled boys and turning them into donkeys for the same reason. These are villains who basically get away with anything, yet never receive their comeuppance. They can be seen, on the other hand (as mentioned above), as an embodiment of unapologetic and even satanic wickedness. (The coachman’s close-up grin at one point is one of the most horrifying moments in the movie.)

Indeed, like Snow White and Bambi, there are moments in Pinocchio that may be too frightening for younger viewers, including as Lampwick’s transformation into a terrified donkey, and the climactic chase sequence with Monstro the whale. Therefore, this is a film that parents of very young viewers who have not seen it may want to preview first.

Yet, all great stories are about conflict. It is to the animators’ and writers’ credit that the story excels in illustrating the consequences of Pinocchio’s actions, as well as the actions of other unfortunate characters. Therefore, these consequences serve as moral, universal lessons for the audience. And with conflict comes resolution, and a better understanding and appreciation for it. In the case of Geppeto, we get an image of a father’s unconditional love. And when Pinocchio goes to rescue him from the belly of Monstro, we get a powerful and endearing illustration of the Prodigal Son who proves his bravery, truthfulness, and unselfishness—for his father’s sake.

The animators, artists, and writers were certainly on a more ambitious journey themselves in making this film, even more than they’d done on Snow White. Even before the success of that film, work on Pinocchio was already being developed. And though the film wasn’t a financial success in theaters (partly due to the effects of the war at the time), their work certainly has paid off. Everything from the lighting changes to the water effects to the most subtle characters movements and expressions, this remains a film for the ages. As Jerry Beck describes, it is “a triumph on all levels, a wonderful wedding of animation technology and mature storytelling.”

Overall rating: 5/5 stars

Written by B.E. Kerian
January 8, 2011
UPDATED July 7, 2014

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