Pinocchio (1940) Review, 3/4

Rather than criticize things I watch and read, I want to reflect and write about my overall experiences with them using a system I’ve adopted over the years. The questions I usually ask myself are these: What did I learn? How did I feel? How did it enlighten my mind? If you are interested in learning more, please feel free to read my post about it HERE.

I have always had a soft spot for this movie. I can still picture my toddler self asking to see this movie over and over again. I wonder if my mother was confused because usually, I was such a sensitive child.

I can’t say for sure why I liked it as a child. Honestly, I don’t remember. But I still really love this movie as an adult, and my admiration for it has grown over the years. The reason for this is, I admire the risks Disney and its creators took to make this movie more realistic in its non-character movements. All I could really think about this last time was how much I enjoyed seeing how they animated water, especially in the scenes with Monstro the whale.

The animation and camera work in this movie is extraordinary. For specific scenes, animators alluded to a world and movement outside of the initial frame. A good example of this is when Monstro breathed in and sneezed Pinocchio and Geppetto out of his mouth. Disney technicians also invented the multiplane camera to add layers to the backgrounds. It moved different art pieces across the screen at varying speeds to give the illusion of three-dimensional depth and movement. This made things like water, smoke, and bubbles more realistic. (For more information, feel free to read Animader’s “Walt Disney’s Multiplane Camera: Illusion King.”)

Culturally, this film impactful. When Walt Disney released it in 1940, he was at the height of his artistic genius. His goal was to show the world animation is an art form. Roger Ebert pointed out in his film review for Pinocchio,

Cartoons could represent any visual an artist could imagine. They were no longer shorts for kids, but worthy to stand beside realistic feature films.

Roger Ebert, Pinocchio

Depictions of Characters like Honest John, Stromboli, Jiminy Cricket, Lampwick, and Monstro the Whale have become staples in popular culture and fascinating subjects to study in animation. The animation is engaging both in the characters and backgrounds. Under Walt Disney’s direction, animators like Milt KahlOllie JohnstonFrank Thomas, and  Ward Kimball made these characters more artistically and emotionally resonant. They had more personality and believable movement.

Most viewers don’t notice these technical achievements. That’s how it is for any film. Yet, critics and viewers now consider Pinocchio to be one of the greatest animated films of all time. This is because it’s a high-quality film with a gripping cinematic story. Roger Ebert noted,

They (audiences) were drawn in by the power of the narrative. The story of the little puppet and his quest to become a real boy is a triumph of storytelling with a moral. Has popular culture ever produced a more unforgettable parable about the dangers of telling a lie? The story is just plain wonderful. It contains elements that would be refined into the Disney formula. . . but its main story line is designed with almost diabolical cunning to reach children.

Roger Ebert, Pinocchio

The morals in Pinocchio are very plain, especially for children. The film clearly demonstrates the consequences of Pinocchio’s bad decisions. Because of his foolish choices, Stromboli imprisons him, Pleasure Island almost turns him into a donkey to be sold into slavery, and he inadvertently causes Gepetto’s disappearance and capture.

Screenshot of The Coachman from Pinocchio

This movie emphasizes the boundaries of right and wrong. It portrays evil as mischievously as the worst of Grimm’s fairy tales. Evil takes on many different masks in the movie. There is the deceiving pair Honest John and Gideon the Cat, the fiery gypsy Stromboli, and the cherubic man of two faces, The Coachman, who hides his demonic nature. Even the whale is an evil because he devours all Pinocchio loves. Perhaps he represents voracious gluttony.

Screenshot of Pinocchio and Geppetto running from Monstro

Pinocchio has vivid story elements that stick with you after the movie is over. When I watched it this last time with my friend, Megan, we both laughed because we weren’t frightened as kids when Lampwig turns into a donkey. But then, as we carefully watched it, it felt a little too real. It’s interesting how those little boys who had left their mothers, ignored their advice, and decided to leave home for unsupervised mischief immediately turned to those same mothers when all went terribly wrong. 

I wonder if we are all not like those little boys wandering onto strange paths at times. When we fall or face the consequences that come from these dangerous ways, the people we most readily go to in our minds are our mothers, fathers, and God.

Screenshot of Honest John from Pinocchio

But maybe, the lesson in this movie is more readily understood by children. Roger Ebert stated, “At a very deep level, all children want to become real and doubt they can. One of the film’s inspirations is to leave Pinocchio more or less on his own in the process of becoming.” But all and all, unlike the character from the original book, who was downright cruel, Pinnochio was simply a little boy learning as we all do to make the right decisions. I like how the animators showed him earnestly wanting to do right, even if other more sinister characters diverted his attention. What’s most poignant about Pinocchio’s personal journey is he makes mistakes and takes wrong turns along the way.

The villains don’t seem so frightening or real to adults. Characters like Stromboli or The Coachman seem bigger and scarier for children because Pinocchio and the other victims of their cruelty are children. Not only that, but the villains don’t get their comeuppance. By the movie’s end, they are still out there tempting and stealing away children. Like Baba Yaga or the Boogieman, they make children believe, “These horrible things can happen to me.” More so than Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), this movie teaches viewers the consequences of placing our trust in the wrong hands. 

I have always like how Roger Ebert talked about this movie.

“Pinocchio” is a parable for children, and generations have grown up remembering the words “Let your conscience be your guide” and “A lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.” The power of the film is generated, I think, because it is really about something. It isn’t just a concocted fable or a silly fairy tale, but a narrative with deep archetypal reverberations.

-Roger Ebert, 1998 Review

This film, in all its charm and visual artistry, speaks to each of us. Whether we see this film as children or adults, we all understand and empathize with Pinocchio’s journey to becoming a real boy. After all, every person in one way or another is still growing up and making choices that will determine their future. Sometimes we can see temptation and wrong choices for what they are. Other times, we don’t listen to warning voices like Jiminy Cricket when we are stepping onto dangerous roads. But in our hearts, I believe people have an innate desire to make the right choices.

Pinocchio might very well be Disney’s magnum opus. That is not to say any of his other films after 1940 were not well made. This movie resonated with Walt Disney’s genius for storytelling. What originally was a bitter story about an evil boy ( See Carlo Collodi‘s The Adventures of Pinocchio), Walt Disney made into a colossal masterpiece. 

Other great sources to check out:

How Pinocchio set the standard for feature animation by Genevieve Koski

Animader’s article, “Walt Disney’s Multiplane Camera: Illusion King.”

Pinocchio by Roger Ebert


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