One Man, One Woman, Eight Decades of Disney Animated Features watched in order, and the overly complex system they invented to grade them. These are our thoughts, rants, and observations.
This is Disney by the Numbers.
Spend some time researching Disney online, and you’re bound to come across the term ‘Disneyfication’. Now it has a broader sociological definition, but for our purposes here, it refers to taking a movie or a story concept and making it safer or cleaning it up. If you type the term ‘fairy tales’ in a search engine, you’re likely to come across articles that list the changes Disney made to their movies to remove some of the darker aspects of their source material.
There’s no denying that they do this and have done so since Walt’s day. A lot of these choices are/were made because Disney does want to sanitize their movies so as not to scare little children and just make a product that appeals to the largest audience possible.
Other times they do it simply to create a more streamlined or modern adaptation. More often than not the process of ‘Disneyfiying’ a story is to take the best parts of the source material and then put the Disney spin on it; and sometimes that means sacrificing certain story elements.
In Pinocchio’s case, that involved removing the parts where beloved puppet child murders Jiminy Cricket.
Yes, like a lot of tales that Disney has adapted over the years, Pinocchio is a much darker tale in its original form. And while some fairtale purists may argue that Disney should have stuck closer to the text, it’s hard to deny that the changes Disney made worked. How can we know that?
Well, apart from Disney’s Cinderella, there have been other adaptations of that story that have had much success; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic stage play, Drew Barrymore’s more contemporary take in Ever After or even Ella Enchanted for a less direct adaptation. You could also look to the many different films of Peter Pan and find great success. The point is, that while Disney’s take on these fairytales will likely always be the most popular, the source material works as such that many alternative takes have been able to shine.
But in the case of Pinocchio… not so much.
Now, of course there are alternate tellings of Pinocchio. There are almost too many to name. But none have really caught on. The most famous, of course being Roberto Benigini’s Razzy nominated version or 1965’s Pinocchio in Outer Space… and this one…
…For which I remember seeing this specific trailer as a kid and being deeply bothered by the fact that he gets turned back into a puppet. I mean- James Earl Jones voiced a character. That’s like getting Orsen Wells to voice a Transformer in an animated movie as his last living performance. Something that could never happen (spoiler alert: it did).
But the point is that almost no one remembers these different versions, and if they do, few look at them fondly.
So what makes this version iconic…
… and this version… less so…
Hey, this is a Disney Blog, we operate on The Good Place rules around here. But with that said, let’s answer our bigger question by going to the numbers.
- Theme 3
- Tightness of Script 1
- Dialogue 1
- Use of Comedy 2
- Use of Drama 2
Walt Disney had a different challenge with Pinocchio than he did Snow White. The primary obstacle of the first film was simply to convince the world that an animated feature could be a thing. As far as figuring out how to adapt the tale, he had that part in the bag. Walt famously had the entire story plotted out before ever committing to make it, even going so far as to act out every part for his animators on a stage.
Furthermore, Snow White was a short fairytale that they could easily expand upon. Pinocchio, on the other hand, was a bit more complicated. Yes, Walt had the apparatus set up to produce the film, and he’d proven he could do it. But the source material came from a novel with a stricter story structure; a novel with a surprisingly dark streak to it.
Of course, so does the original telling of Snow White, but it doesn’t really compare to Pinocchio. That crack about Pinocchio killing Jiminy Cricket? He smashes him with a hammer. Later he bites a villainous cat’s paw off and novel also features multiple scenes of Pinocchio getting mutilated, tortured, and even hanged.
So perhaps a little ‘Disneyfication’ was warranted.
That isn’t to say that Disney stripped all hints of danger and darkness from it. On the contrary, Pinocchio has a reputation of having some of the darker, scarier moments of early Disney. In fact of all the early Disney films it probably vacillates between light and dark more than any other.
So while this tonal whiplash allows for a lot of humorous and/or dramatic moments, it doesn’t help it much in the script category. And it’s not so much that the story is disjointed or has plot holes so much as it tends to meander. After the initial set up of Pinocchio coming to life, the plot follows the little puppet as he manages to fall into one misadventure after another before remembering that there is, in fact, a plot and it all needs to be tied up with the rescue of Geppetto.
A lot of this is forgivable because, as with Snow White, this movie has a looser plot structure. Both movies are more character driven; it’s not so important that we have a strongly defined narrative so long as each plot point teaches Pinocchio more and more about what it means to be brave, truthful, and unselfish. While the scenes don’t necessarily correlate, they build and build, culminating in Pinocchio performing the ultimate act of sacrifice and fulfilling his destiny!
- Lyrics 3
- Score 2
- Number of Songs 2
- Notoriety of Songs 4
It’s tempting to just say “When You Wish Upon A Star” and leave it at that. It not only is the most iconic song of the film, it’s the anthem for the entire Disney Company, and one of the most recognizable songs in the world. Few songs can evoke so much emotion even with only a few notes being played. There’s a reason Disney uses to open all their movies. Hearing that song evokes nostalgia, hope, and a belief in magic. Honestly, I could go on and on about how great and important this song is.
The rest of the songs also remain classics in their own right. “When You Wish…” may be the company’s theme song, but they’ve shown that “I’ve got no Strings” or “Give a little whistle” can also easily be incorporated into modern shows and remain relevant. Some may like the song’s in Snow White for being a bit more timeless, but there’s no denying the unending charm that radiates from this movie’s music department.
- Fluidity of Animation 3
- Use Of Color 3
- House Style 3
- Character Design 3
- Breaks New Ground 3
While the last category didn’t manage a perfect score, Pinocchio more than makes up for it in the Animation department. Walt Disney pushed his animators further than anyone though possible with Snow White but the challenge was to push their craft to the point that they would be convincingly realistic enough to be taken seriously. In Pinocchio, they improved on that in every way and added a level of detail, depth, movement, and special effects that couldn’t be rivaled; and in some way, they still haven’t been topped. The animation in this film is still studied by art classes today for its level of quality, with many considering it to be near-perfect.
But don’t take my word for it. When I talk about the depth, consider this opening shot from the film. It plays like a tracking shot from a mounted camera, but the fact that it has layers upon layers of highly detailed animation makes it a marvel in the art form. Remember, this was all pencil on paper back in those days.
Or consider this shot of Monstro bursting out of the water…
Again, consider how impressive this is by the fact that there were no computers in those days. No cheats. Every crash of surf, every bird, every fish, and every wave was hand drawn and then inked and painted before filmed a frame at at time.
So yeah, in our particular scoring categories, it earns full marks. The animation moves perfectly, and the colors are bright and vibrant. Just like Snow White, it breaks new ground in its use of special effects and animation techniques. The design for the characters are amongst the best in any Disney movie.
Initial concept art for Pinocchio had him looking much more like a puppet, but Disney Animators found that making him look more like a real boy with a few wooden highlights made him much more relatable and likable (a key difference between the film and the source material). The scale and size of Monstro conveys a sense of power and dread.
Then there’s Jiminy Cricket.
He looks nothing like a cricket, which is fine because if you’ve ever looked at a cricket close up…
… but they’re not exactly known for being appealing and cute. Typically the more limbs and pointy bits a creature has, the less we like them.
Which is why Jiminy has no wings, four limbs, and no pincers; even his antennae serve as strands of hair rather than… whatever the crap real antennae do on crickets.
Now, every character in the film has this same level of detail and care put into its design but Jiminy’s is so transcendent that he not only stands out in his own film, but was big enough to hop into other films and even serve as a company mascot when Mickey was otherwise indisposed. That’s how powerful a good character design can be.
- Character Interaction 1
- Importance To Overall Plot 3
- Complexity 1
- Pulls At Heartstrings 1
- Overcomes Obstacles 2
With some Disney movies, picking out the love story can be a bit of a challenge. Very often there’s a romantic couple to consider or perhaps a close friendship. With Pinocchio, it’s a bit more clear cut. No relationship in this film is more important than that of the father/son story of Pinocchio and Geppetto. It’s Geppetto’s hope and love that initially brings Pinocchio to life (with a Blue Fairy assist). Later, once Pinocchio’s sorted himself out through constant misadventures, the entire plot revolves around rescuing the old puppet-maker, a task which Pinocchio sees through to the bitter end.
So, while a case could be made for the friendship of Pinocchio and Jiminy, it can’t really surpass the importance of the bond between father and son. And while this is the most important relationship in the film, Geppetto… well…
Sure, he wishes with all of his heart for Pinocchio to come to life, but he barely spends any time with him and what’s more… really everything that happens to Pinocchio is kind of his fault.
You see, he sends Pinocchio to school the morning after he comes to life fully aware that Pinocchio really knows… pretty much nothing. And yes, that’s what schools for, but Geppetto must have noticed that Pinocchio, being mere hours old doesn’t know how to function. He lights himself on fire, he doesn’t even know what other kids are, and yet Geppetto sends him off to fend for himself.
I mean, nobody is looking for Geppetto to be a helicopter parent but maybe a smidgen of fatherly protectiveness would have been in order.
This isn’t to say it’s a completely bad love story. The film honestly sells the idea that these two have a real father/son bond and it’s completely believable that Pinocchio would sacrifice himself in order to save Geppetto. A little more interaction and maybe a little bit more common sense from the adult would have actually made this one of the strongest love stories in the canon. As it is, it’s fine but won’t win any awards.
- Sidekick 2
- Charm 1
- Goodness 1
- Emotional Transformation 2
- Comedy 1
Some Disney Heroes have an inherent goodness. Their inner beauty and wholesomeness are so apparent that the entire world around them can see it. This was the case of Snow White and will be so for plenty of other characters to come, particularly the princesses. But then there are other Disney Heroes; the ones that not only lack that fundamental goodness but are actually so bad that they have to learn the error of their ways. Kuzco of Emperor’s New Groove would fit this description.
And of course there are Disney “Heroes” that are actually just bad and stay bad because they’re just the worst.
So which kind is Pinocchio?
Well at a cursory glance, one could conclude he falls into the category of needing to learn a lesson.
But here’s the thing about Pinocchio. Yes, he’s constantly getting into trouble, whether it be running away to perform in the theater instead of going to school, lying to an omnipotent being, or going to Pleasure Island to get his learners permit in hooliganism. All of that is true, but in Pinocchio’s case it isn’t because he’s bad.
It’s because Pinocchio is in the unique position where he isn’t good or bad because he literally doesn’t know the difference.
Within moments of being brought to life, he innocently asks what Right and Wrong even are. That’s why Jiminy Cricket gets the promotion from wandering hobo to literal conscience; Because somebody has to be there to tell the wooden boy why it’s not a good idea to smoke. The fact that Pinocchio’s conscience is a former ne’er-do-well with a penchant for wise cracking and breaking the Fourth Wall actually goes a long way in explaining why it takes him three quarters of a movie to figure out how to be good.
So while all of this (the poor role model, the not knowing the difference between right and wrong, the mischief making) don’t make Pinocchio good… they do make him interesting. Which, in this case, is actually a good thing because Pinocchio’s struggles with right and wrong make it all the more inspiring when he finally does make the right choice.
- Evilness 1.5
- Comedy 0.5
- Sophistication 0.5
- Henchmen 1
- Poses A Threat 2.5
This is is a hard section to judge.
Not because this movie doesn’t have characters that fit the bill. Far from it. Honest John and Stromboli possess that carry that Disney Villain “Flair”; the unique charm that vacillates between threatening and comedic. The Coachman and Monstro pose an even bigger threat and even more malice.
But that’s the problem. I just named four antagonists and none of them really serve as the villain. Due to the almost episodic nature of the film, each villain occupies the role for his section of the film and then is forgotten as soon as Pinocchio has moved on to the next misadventure. Honest John is the closest to a reoccurring villain but really winds up being closer to a lackey. And while each of these characters could fill the villain role, none of them would score especially well because each really only excels in one or two categories.
Honest John is hilarious and charming, but he’s not especially evil and about as threatening as Mickey Mouse Club Era Britney Spears.
Stromboli is pretty funny too and easily as threatening as shaving her head and wacking a car with an umbrella era Britney but he’s in the movie the least of all the villains and is only moderately evil.
Then there’s the coachman, who given some of the imagery in the film, might be the actual devil himself. But for as evil as he is, for all his menace, his plotting, and conniving, his only goal is to make money. Sure, he’s selling former boys turned donkey to salt mines, but all that means is he amounts to little more than a common thief.
Finally, there’s Monsto. Of all the baddies in this film, he’s the most imposing, the most dangerous, and easily the scariest. Once he’s driven to rage over our heroes doing something so trivial as lighting a fire inside of him. His scenes are genuinely terrifying. Even as an adult, knowing how the scene will play out, I still get tense watching Monstro attack Pinocchio and Geppetto’s tiny raft. It’s almost like watching a scene from Jaws.
But again, that’s all Monstro is, a giant rage machine. A literal monster. There’s no charm, or real evil, or sophistication. It’s Monstro that maxes out the averaged “threat” score in this section but he’d lose points in every other category. But there’s more to being a Disney Villain than being a threat. Peter Pan could tell you all about it.
- Comedy 2.5
- Inventiveness 2.5
- Clear Help Or Hindrance 2.5
- Strength of Relationship with Main Character 2.5
Given some of my comments on Jiminy in this review, you may think I don’t care for him. After all, he’s not really very good at his job. He’s supposed to serve as Pinocchio’s still small voice, but he’s usually late to every major decision Pinocchio makes through the film. This might seem to count against him but it really doesn’t.
Because while Jiminy Cricket might do poorly in a performance review, he’s also incredibly entertaining.
Just like the Dwarfs were previously, Jiminy Cricket is responsible for most of the film’s comedy, a lot of its heart, and even its most iconic song. Jiminy Cricket is a perfect example of how Disney takes a relatively minor character from the source material and “Disneyfies” it to be something much more than it was. Jiminy goes from being a talking cricket that Pinocchio smashes with a hammer and an occasional ghost to being Pinocchio’s little, green, wise, mentor.
But Jiminy isn’t holding this category up by himself. Because while Geppetto is a lousy dad, he’s a decent supporting character, as are Figaro and Cleo; the three of them form a group of comedic foils that hold the movie over until Jiminy and Pinocchio can get to work on rolling the plot along. Figaro, in particular, proved to have such a great character design that he got the same treatment as Jiminy and migrated into other Disney products, often appearing as Minnie’s pet cat.
Once again, and you’ll see this a lot over the course of these reviews, the secondary characters turn out to be the MVP’s!
Disney Magic and Legacy
- Theme Park Presence 1
- Timelessness 1
- Impact On Culture 2
- Scope of Audience 1
- Disney Feels (Or Did It Make us Cry?) 2.5
When it first debuted, Pinocchio wasn’t a smash hit like Snow White was. People who saw it generally liked it, but it was 1940 and the simple fact that Europe was burning gave the film a smaller release than Disney was counting on. Even stateside things weren’t exactly smooth sailing. During one of its premieres, Disney executives had the idea to hire a bunch of little people to dress in Pinocchio costumes and dance on a theater roof to entertain the crowds waiting to see the film.
Unfortunately they then had another idea: That they could keep the little Pinocchio’s hydrated with beer. Let’s just say it ended like most frat parties: traumatized children watching in horror as the police chase a bunch of naked little people around the roof and stuffed them in pillowcases before carting them off to jail.
In spite of this rocky opening, Pinocchio endured the test of time and has become a bonafide classic. It more than made its money back in subsequent re-releases, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ went on to become the theme song for the entire company. Even decades later, they installed a Pinocchio themed dark ride in Disneyland, which remains to this day.
So, much like its protagonist, Pinocchio may have gotten off the beaten path initially. Once it got settled though, it has proven time and again the magic that was Disney’s Golden Age and why even now it can inspire hope and joy around the world.
Grand Total: 74.5
While the word “Disneyfication” is used as a perjorative, in a lot of cases, it really doesn’t have to be. When Disney is on its A-game, it doesn’t strip a story of its soul, but rather highlights the best parts. Few movies demonstrate this better than Pinocchio. Not only i the charm, magic, and humor magnified, but even the common criticism that Disney removes all the danger and menace from a story is challenged.
The film can be sweet and charming, but the strange confluence of villains and dark imagery easily maintain the edge of the original story. Sure, Pinocchio is never hanged from a tree but it probably the very first instance of body horror in a children’s film ever.
But the dark moments are what make Pinocchio such a fantastic film. Not simply because there are dark moments, but because they serve as a perfect counterbalance to everything else. It gives the movie stakes and flavor.
Being too wholly sweet is a problem that some Disney films will eventually have to grapple with. The over reliance on catchy songs, happy endings, and cute characters can come to really hold some films back. But Pinocchio doesn’t suffer from that problem. While it is far from a perfect film, and stumbled out of the gate, it can’t be held down. Or in other words…