Starring: Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc
One night, Geppetto, a kindly woodcarver, creates a marionette called Pinocchio and wishes for him to become a real boy. After the Blue Fairy grants his wish, Pinocchio goes off to school but on the way becomes involved in a series of adventures, culminating in an epic escape from the belly of Monstro, the whale.
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Snow White may have been the fairest of them all and Dumbo made you believe an elephant could fly, but it was Pinocchio’s wishing upon a star that proved to be Disney’s most durable aphorism. Debuting in 1940, Pinocchio was largely ignored on its initial release, the dark storm clouds from Europe dissuading the many who had swarmed in their millions to see Snow White only three years before. Yet over time, the story of a little wooden puppet boy has become ingrained in the hearts of millions, earning its place amongst the elite of Disney’s finest. And rightly so. Even if one were to disregard the enormous leap in quality between this and she with hair as black as ebony, skin as white as snow… one still cannot deny the mastery with which Pinocchio is assembled.
In many ways it is the quintessential Disney flick and should a case ever arise in support of Walt Disney as an auteur, this would be the key exhibit: morality, music and magic, the comedy sidekick and of course, a whole lot of heart. It doesn’t so much impress the senses as astound them, as each new scene flaunts a level of expertise that most films fail to approach throughout their entire running time.
Equally impressive is the number of visual flourishes Uncle Walt places alongside the animation. Thanks to the bulky multiplane camera developed by original Mickey Mouse animator, Ub Iwerks, the landscapes are imbued with an incredible amount of depth which only helps to further enrich the story. The opening scene in which the camera pans down from the Wishing Star, over a row of houses and into Geppetto’s workshop is not only effortlessly executed but also the original template for an establishing shot which has been mimicked in thousands of films ever since. The visual effects too are incredibly sophisticated, most noticeably when Pinocchio marches across the sea bed as the shimmering water distorts the size and shape of the underwater world.
Undoubtedly Pinocchio boasts some of the most loveable characters in the entire Disney catalogue. The eponymous lead is an easily led innocent, but his naivety never becomes grating, nor does his purity make him tedious and the scene in which his father finds his lifeless body washed ashore is genuinely heartbreaking. As his conscience, Jiminy Cricket is a far more prominent aide than the usual sidekick, representing as he does Pinocchio’s moral dilemmas in an easily digestible form. Not that he doesn’t have any fun; when he’s not directly addressing the audience, he’s flirting with magical Blue Fairies and wooden figurines. Yet it is Geppetto who really grounds the picture as the doting father who risks all for his child. He remains constantly at the forefront of the narrative, a remarkable achievement on behalf of the filmmakers considering his absence throughout virtually the entire second half.
It isn’t all tragic though. In a reversal of Walt’s well known phrase, for every tear there is most certainly a laugh. The relationship between Figaro and Cleo is adorably cute and Honest John and Gideon provide some fantastic slapstick comedy. Even the pool game with Lampwick, as harrowing as the ensuing transformation sequence is, showcases the kind of visual wit evidenced in the Donald and Goofy cartoons of the time. Although the songs only feature during the film’s first half, they leave an indelible impression. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is a bona fide classic and the more upbeat tunes like “Give a Little Whistle” and “I Got No Strings” are wonderfully infectious and help lighten the slightly darker moments. It’s rare for a piece of art to be so perfectly constructed, rarer still in film and Pinocchio is merely the exception to the rule. It’s Walt Disney’s masterpiece, his greatest legacy and quite simply one of the finest achievements in cinematic history.