Written by: Carlo Collodi (original serial), Aurelius Battaglia, William Cottrell, Otto Englander, Erdman Penner, Joseph Sabo, Ted Sears & Webb Smith
Pinocchio was the second Disney film produced, and now one of the most iconic, though like most of the post-Snow White canon, it initially failed at the box office due to World War II, and only made its money back through the “every seven years” re-releasing. Thematically, it’s one of the darkest Disney movies (keep in mind this is still the era where cartoons are 99% slapstick and gags), containing several bits that are straight-up Nightmare Fuel Incarnate. I mean, it’s one thing to have constant kidnappings, but TURNING YOUNG BOYS INTO DONKEYS AND SELLING THEM TO THE SALT MINES!?!? And the Coachman GETS AWAY WITH IT!! WHAT THE FREAKING CRAP!?!? Lampwick’s freaked-out horrified reaction to his transformation makes the whole thing- an absolutely traumatic moment for many young children.
The book Pinocchio was written in the 1880s by Carlo Collodi, and was originally a set of serials before being compiled into a book. The work wasn’t translated into English until after he died, but became by far his most popular book, and an iconic story for children everywhere- God knows every piece of science fiction with a sentient robot must rip it off in SOME way. The actual character in the serials was a bit of an asshole- a mischievous prick who immediately abandoned his father/carver and went off on his own, getting into all manner of scrapes. Disney, being Disney, shaved some of the sharp edges off of the character, making him more clueless and naive instead of an outright jerk-ass.
Pinocchio is sort of a series of shorts designed around one central purpose- Pinocchio wants to be a real boy, but must “do right” first, and yet is constantly led astray by a series of con-men. First Honest John (a… talking fox, because that’s normal, I guess) cons him, then Stromboli (a huge Italian stereotype) tries to force him to become a singing & dancing act (not a well-thought-out plan, really- he’s gonna flat-out tell him he’s a prisoner and that he’ll eventually kill him? On his first night on the job?), then The Coachman promises a life of joy on Pleasure Island, only to reveal that it’s a plot to gain workers for the Salt Mines. By turning young boys into donkeys, then shipping them off while they cry in vain. In the end, Pinocchio & Gepetto get swallowed up by Monstro The Whale and make their peace. One of the most terrifying Disney movies, but still retains the classic “Everything will work out in the end if you BELIEVE enough” ending.
Gepetto comes across a bit easily-forgiving (he also gains a deep affection for the boy instantly, as is usual for Disney, though usually they accelerate romantic relationships, not familial ones), Pinocchio seems like a tool, and Jiminy seems a bit unfortunate to get that terrible position as the Conscience of an easily-led, naive child.
I wonder if this movie would really resonate with today’s audiences? Pinocchio seems utterly hopeless and just plain lucky at times. The frightening stuff (Monstro, the Donkeys) would probably get complaints from parents these days. But the film definitely holds up- the animation is leagues beyond that of Snow White, with terrific character art (the Blue Fairy seems designed solely to show that a beautiful woman is now possible in animation- she’s completely rotoscoped and looks like an adult instead of a child), and the emotional bits are still there. You probably couldn’t put Stromboli in there as such a broad stereotype of an ethnic community.
The movie lost money at first, but is now considered one of the more artistically brilliant Disney films, with the Monstro sequence in particular being a huge one. And the whole bit with the donkeys is horrifying to this very day- I’m actually quite certain they never did anything quite as horrifying again.
Though Pinocchio is a well-known story, this remains by far the most well-known and iconic version. The strings of When You Wish Upon A Star are, TO THIS DAY, the official song of the Walt Disney Corporation, so you’ll see it in front of every animated movie they produce. Beat THAT for a recurring cultural impact! When Ultron taunts the Avengers in the Age of Ultron trailer, he quotes Pinocchio directly, “There are no strings on me…”. The villains from the picture have had basically zero impact, alas- they’re a bit too short-lived and same-y, so they have little cultural cache of their own. Most people couldn’t even name them- even I couldn’t until I researched this!
The story features in the most infamously lame ride in most versions of Fantasyland in the Disney Parks- a simple Dark Ride featuring some random scenes from the movie, no big scares, and a dull ending. I mean, I was in the middle of Tokyo goddamn Disneyland, with TWO-HOUR LINES almost immediately after park opening, and what did I see? A ten friggin’ minute line-up for the damn Pinocchio ride. Its reputation for lameness EXTENDS ACROSS OCEANS!!! You won’t find a Pinocchio Head Character in the parks, but the Blue Fairy has made the occasional appearance.
The most recurring character in the whole thing is actually Jiminy Cricket, voiced by Cliff Edwards (who would have been known to audiences of the 1940s)- Cliff would voice the character for years, but was an alcoholic drug addict who spent most of his life in dire financial straights (when he died, his body was unclaimed and sold to a medical school- an actors union had to buy it back, though Disney attempted to as well- and this isn’t even the most depressing fate for a Disney performer). Jiminy (just called “The Talking Cricket” in the original tale) was largely the creation of Ward Kimball, who was going to leave the Disney studio after having all of his work cut from Snow White– Walt convinced him to stay by making him the sole guy in charge of Jiminy.