Disney profiting from IP they didn’t create is nothing new. In fact, it’s been baked into the company’s DNA since its conception in 1923. The earliest feature-length films produced by the company were all based on pre-existing stories like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty but only one would provide the iconic Disney Theme. 1940’s Pinocchio gave the world When You Wish Upon A Star which has become a staple of the company since then, although the film itself is just as memorable.
When Italian carpenter Gepetto wishes that his latest project, a wooden marionette, could be a real boy, he gets what he wants. The Blue Fairy provides the boy with life and bestows upon a homeless cricket named Jiminy the role of his conscience until he grows one of his own. Over the course of 90 minutes, Pinocchio gets swept up in an acting gig, a plot to turn young boys into donkeys, and a fight against a giant whale to save his father. Everyone he meets wants to use him for their own ends so, even if he never said a word, he’d still be a sympathetic character. Even his trusted Jiminy seems to only want the job initially because The Blue Fairy promised him a gold medal, although he goes above and beyond the call of duty as the story progresses. Even when he contemplates it, he never leaves “Pinoke” to his fate.
Everyone in this story is at least a little bit terrible, which makes them come across as more human than the perfect characters of modern Disney. The nicest individual seems to be Gepetto but he has a very one-track mind, only focusing on the son he wishes he could have. His poor kitten Figaro ends up pushed to the side most of the time but he still somehow ends up in the whale with him. The Blue Fairy, though not malicious, is still placing an absurd amount of undeserved faith in Jiminy Cricket who is in the role for only a few moments before Pinocchio manages to set his hand on fire. Even Pinoke himself is quite selfish, only abandoning that attitude in the final 15 minutes when he is required by the story to learn his lesson. Not that this justifies the trauma he goes through.
First comes the anthropomorphic fox “Honest” John and his mute, feline friend Gideon, who sell Pinocchio to the selfish puppeteer Stromboli. There is no explanation as to why they are the only anthropomorphic animals, but if one had to guess then it would seem that certain animators wanted it that way. After The Blue Fairy helps Pinocchio escape the cage Stromboli had locked him in, our protagonist is immediately found and sold by Honest John again. Although, this time, it’s to a Coachman who lures boys to an island without rules so he can turn them into donkeys and sell them. No explanation for these circumstances or the logistics of it but it’s still a horrific segment to sit through. Then Pinoke and Jiminy return home to discover that Gepetto is trapped in a whale and they embark on a mission to save him that nearly kills them. You’ll never find out how or why Gepetto got there either. This plot is a bombardment on the brain and because of that, it’s oddly gripping. It’s just one befuddling circumstance after another. It’s made more intense with the context of this occurring over a couple of days.
Pinocchio has not aged well,. There are numerous shots of people’s rear ends, Jiminy is relentlessly interested in those rear ends and there are some “of the time” depictions of minority groups. The song I’ve Got No Strings on Me is primarily sung to Pinocchio by female marionettes with pronounced busts and sultry intentions, which oddly isn’t as well remembered as the song itself. Then there’s Stromboli who can perhaps best be described as Jew-coded and The Island which features a solid 15 minutes of underage drinking, smoking, and an unflattering Native American statue. The phrase “you couldn’t make that these days” gets thrown around too much but this is the first one I’ve seen where most of it would have to be cut or altered drastically.
As with all fairy tales, Pinocchio has a moral…in this case several. The iconic scene of his nose growing as he lies (which only occurs once?!) is about how lies can grow until they’re as obvious as the nose on your face. The point of The Island is that partaking in “debaucherous” activities like smoking and drinking makes you look like a fool. Even the idea of Jiminy receiving a medal for his work reinforces the idea that good morals are rewarded. One might say it’s very on the nose (teehee) but fairy tales usually are. Arguably, having traumatic events transpire as part of the plot should further reinforce these morals but whether it worked or not is uncertain. Many people only seem to recall the donkey transformation scene and it’s not exactly one of Disney’s most re-watched classics as far as I can tell.
Pinocchio is the perfect film to watch with friends. It provides plenty of shared laughs and shocks as well as the opportunity for riffing jokes. It’s also a good reminder of how much (most) of society has come in terms of “othering” and how utterly gorgeous 2D animation is. Despite being drawings on a page, they are filled with so much life and can be classed as pieces of art in their own right. This can’t be said for the “live-action” remake but that’s a story for another day.