Some thoughts after rewatching Pinocchio (1940)…
- The contrasts with Snow White are obvious: whereas Disney’s first feature film was streamlined, mythical, and monumental, Pinocchio is much more episodic, incidental, and detail-oriented. Snow White dealt in broad fairy tale archetypes; Pinocchio actually has quirky characters like Jiminy Cricket and Honest John who are more than just individual traits or moral signifiers.
- It’s structured as a simple morality tale. Pinocchio takes place in a world of extreme moral clarity, where transgressions have immediate physical consequences (a growing nose, turning into a donkey). Pinocchio himself is only a day old, and new to the concepts of “right” and “wrong.” He succumbs to temptation twice in a row, then has a realization of sorts (spurred by Lampwick’s grotesque, painful transformation) and runs off to save Geppetto. These concessions and consequences guide Pinocchio’s narrative, again in contrast to the less moralistic Snow White.
- Different styles of animation coexist onscreen. Within individual frames of Pinocchio, three art styles are strikingly juxtaposed: humanoid figures (Geppetto, Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket) are drawn cartoonishly, with walled-off areas of solid color; animals (Figaro and Cleo) have softer edges and color gradation; and backgrounds, as in Snow White, are rendered with meticulous realism. Curiously, Honest John and Gideon are visual hybrids, with animal faces and humanoid bodies.
- The film trades in racialized cultural anxieties. Promised the glamorous “actor’s life,” Pinocchio is instead enslaved by the swarthy, boisterous Stromboli, who speaks in an exaggerated Italian accent and is the film’s most “ethnic” character. This scenario unmistakably resembles turn-of-the-century white slavery myths, which vilified racial Others while discouraging white women from being promiscuous or leaving the home. (The latter moral will be loudly reiterated at the end of Pinocchio.)
- Pleasure Island’s urban depravity prefigures film noir. The island’s excesses have a 1940s flavor to them: overeating, smoking, brawling, gambling, and playing pool. In its stylized representation of a hellish, decaying city center, Pinocchio taps into many of the same cultural currents as then-nascent film noir. (A similarly moralistic city of temptations would pop up in The Night of the Hunter.)
- Monstro is Cthulhu. In fact, the climax is right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”: characters’ lives are endangered by a giant, non-anthropomorphized monster who’s indifferent to their existences, but gets aggravated when they cause it some minor harm. Like Cthulhu, Monstro is unsentimental, implacable, and terrifying.
- Pinocchio’s near-death is emotionally identical to the end of Sunrise. Just as with Snow White, I’m noticing uncanny parallels to Murnau’s masterpiece. In Sunrise, the Wife (Janet Gaynor) is thought dead after a storm capsizes the couple’s boat; when she’s discovered alive, it leads to a tear-jerking bedside reunion. Pinocchio follows the same pattern, false watery death and all, for its satisfying resolution.
- There’s no place like home. Pinocchio’s ending is decidedly conservative, reaffirming the status quo (family, home, tradition) at the expense of adventure or nonconformity. Jiminy Cricket even gets a line to underscore this point: “Well,” he laughs in the film’s final minutes, “this is practically where I came in!”
(This is part of “Disney Revisited,” my chronological film-by-film exploration of the Disney animated canon.)