January 2, 2011
Pinocchio (1940) *****
Pinocchio (1940)- Walt Disney's masterpiece. More sophisticated than Snow White. The high point of the entire animated film genre. *****/5
Pinocchio is quite possibly the best animated film I've seen, and it's quite possibly the best animated film ever made. After the monstrous success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney used its table winnings and bet it all on animation, characterization, vocal performances, a score and a story all more sophisticated than its predecessor. It was a more naive time in Hollywood back then, and as such, the thought was that the box office will be even better if Pinocchio was of a better quality. Though not a financial failure, Pinocchio proved that this new concept of an animated feature film was not going to be endlessly profitable without a keen eye on market research. Considering that Disney workers went on strike due to unfair treatment by studio heads shortly after Pinocchio's release also helped check the arrogance of a bunch of young men high on the potent drug of the success of Snow White in 1937.
Snow White is a wonderful film, but its vocal work leaves a bit to be desired. Also, the animation of the human beings are too literal, which is still the case with the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio. Disney animators would film real life people and sketch animation on top of the film, resulting in a kind of primitive rotoscoping which makes the animation look way too stifled. This time around, especially when considering the characters of Geppetto and Stromboli, humans become true cartoons, and thus they feel truly part of the world of Jiminy Cricket, the wooden Pinocchio, Lampwick and Gideon. Pinocchio demonstrates a huge step forward technically, but it's also so much more fun to watch than Snow White as well.
The opening song, "When You Wish Upon a Star," sung by Cliff Edwards, is so majestic. While listening to his vocals, one can't help but be transported to a peaceful world full of dreams fulfilled. Then we're introduced to Jiminy Cricket, a wise cracking narrator who serves as our gateway into the world of Pinocchio. We love to be in his company, and we join him in his quest to guide the often gullible wooden boy to a life of virtue in order to prove that he's worthy of becoming a real boy. The opening sequence with the clocks sets the stage for the kind of spectacularly meticulous whimsy we'll see over and over again even among the movie's darkest moments.
The story structure proves to be more episodic than most Disney animated films, which makes sense considering that Pinocchio was originally written as a serial story in a children's literary journal in the 19th century. Venturing out from the safety of Geppetto's home, Pinocchio encounters foxes on his way to school, performs for Stromboli, escapes, visits Pleasure Island, ventures under the sea, gets swallowed by a whale and finally ends up back at home with Geppetto for the film's inspirational conclusion. Granted, this perhaps isn't Disney's most logically cohesive output, but like the great films of Miyazaki, the visuals and the characters are meant to be enough to keep audiences invested.
A handful of iconic sequences help propel Pinocchio to the pantheon of great animated feature movies, not the least of which is the clock sequence mentioned earlier. Pinocchio's performance of "I Got No Strings" is a darkly ironic one considering that he's at the mercy of the terrifyingly effective Stromboli while in captivity. The Pleasure Island scene is a deeply cynical look at the worst of humanity. So many are truly damned because of their lives without a conscience. In many ways, the movie Pinocchio is aggressively moralizing, but it's done not by condemning the viewer, but by emphasizing the dangers and effects of a life led astray. When the donkey boys are screaming in agony, it's enough to send shivers down our spines. Also, do scenes come more visually stunning than the sequences at the bottom of the ocean and inside the belly of the whale? Sixty years later, Disney/Pixar would perfect undersea animation with Finding Nemo, but this first attempt isn't too far off. Back then, Pinocchio's animators had to establish many rules themselves, and they didn't have the assistance of computers. The fruits of their labors are singularly astonishing.
Advances continue to be made in animation even today, so by saying that Pinocchio is the high point of the animated film genre, that doesn't mean that later films aren't more technically sophisticated. It does mean, however, that no other animated film in history is as visually striking and narratively sublime at once. Also, Pinocchio still feels virtually as modern today as it was back in 1940. Snow White is the greater historical achievement; Pinocchio is the better movie, hands down.