Thursday 17 November 2011

1,001 Films: "Pinocchio" (1940)

Far from a hit on first release - being too dark for kids (all those creepy automatons in Geppetto's workshop, all those Honest Johns luring innocents off the path of righteousness) while still too much the cartoon for even those grown-ups who'd cooed at the novelty of Snow White just a couple of years before - Pinocchio now looks like one of the most fascinating (and flawed) animations of the classic Disney era. Its most notable interpolation - and this was very much still the moment when Uncle Walt's influence was hands-on, and keenly, often resentfully, felt by his employees - was adding the folksy Jiminy Cricket to Collodi's source text, instantly transforming a bedtime story into a work of moral instruction; it's when the cricket falls asleep on the job that Pinocchio gets led astray in the first place. You need to keep a sharp eye and a firm grip on your young ones, the film insists - just one of the elements that was to make Finding Nemo's rethink of this line so progressive some sixty years later.

When Pinocchio is removed from his home and his "father" by the bibulous, money-counting impresario Stromboli, the film effectively tips over into an early parable of the exploitation the entertainment industry recognised it was capable of even back in 1940. Pure melodrama, this stretch, right out of the silent cinema: Stromboli booms "You will make lots of money, and then... FIREWOOD!" (They build you up, just to chop you down.) The whole is riddled with dire (and in the Monstro sequence in particular, Biblical) prophesies of things to come - even the dirty, chaotic Pleasure Island looks like a very Walt-ish warning against letting your theme park get out of hand - so it's no surprise the film rarely seems magical or even much in the way of fun. Petrified by the dangers that come from curiosity and sticking your nose in (the animators were obliged to add Victorian-like leaves and flowers so as to make Pinocchio's swelling wood appear less phallic), it has ultimately to rate as a failure, because all its artistry goes toward control in a highly prescribed form: it views youngsters as entities whose strings need to be clipped, and their natural enthusiasms as something to be curbed. Heaven knows its message would be comprehensively lost on a subsequent generation of Mouseketeers (Britney, Lindsay et al.), who could perhaps have done with a Jiminy Cricket on their shoulders.

Pinocchio is available on DVD through Walt Disney Pictures.

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