Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Pinocchio (1940) - Disney's Classic Tale of a Boy Gone Wrong

Pinocchio: Gepetto Teaches Some Tough Lessons

Film poster Pinocchio 1940

Following the smash hit that was "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," Walt Disney turned his attention to another classic fairy tale, "Pinocchio" (1940).  It was adapted from Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio," and released by RKO on February 7, 1940.  As usual in those days, everything at Disney was done by committee, so there are seven directors credited (Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske, Bill Roberts and Ben Sharpsteen) and seven screenplay adapters: ; ; ; ; ; ; and . Clearly, after "Snow White," Walt thought that seven was his lucky number.

Gepetto creating the boy in Pinocchio 1940
The film opens with the Academy Award winning song "When You Wish Upon a Star," sung by Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards). We meet the woodworker, Gepetto (Christian Rub), who lives with his cat Figaro and fish, Cleo.  Gepetto is working on a marionette which he names Pinocchio (Dickie Jones). Wishing "upon his star," Gepetto wants Pinocchio to become a real boy.

The boy on strings in Pinocchio 1940
The wish comes true during the night courtesy of the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable).  The guileless wooden boy goes off to school, where he falls in with Honest John and Gideon, who take advantage of him and send him to star in Stromboli's (Charles Judels) puppet show.  Stromboli, realizing how much money Pinocchio would be worth to him, locks him in a birdcage.  The Blue Fairy returns to ask why he disobeyed Gepetto, and Pinoccho lies, causing his nose to grow.  As the Blue Fairy says, "a lie will keep growing and growing, until it's as plain as the nose on your face."  She then takes pity on him and sets him free.

Pinocchio dancing on strage in Pinocchio 1940
Honest John and Gideon then meet Pinocchio and convince him that he is sick, and that the only cure for him is to go to Pleasure Island (they will receive rewards from the evil Coachman (Judels) for doing so).  Pinocchio finds that the boys on the island smoke, gamble, get drunk and generally act like delinquents.  Jiminy Cricket learns that boys on the island turn into donkeys who are then sold to work in the Coachman's businesses.  Pinocchio escapes, but is cursed with a donkey's ears and tail.

Stromboli with a sword and the boy in Pinocchio 1940
They return to Gepetto's workshop, where they learn that he has been swallowed by the whale "Monstro" (Thurl Ravenscroft) while looking for Pinocchio.  They go searching for and themselves get swallowed by the whale, and they must all find a way out.
Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio 1940

This obviously is a much darker tale than "Snow White," and even frightening in some ways.  Many parents did not want their children to see it for that reason.  The box office was below expectations.  It took years to recoup the film's cost, especially in light of the closure of many foreign markets due to World War II.  Reviews, however, were positive due to the wonderful effects animation of background items, and, over time and after multiple re-releases, the film became a financial bonanza.
Honest John and Gideon in Pinocchio 1940
Today, the film is considered by many to be the best animated film ever made, though it generally is considered to sit in second place behind "Snow White."  It is difficult to find anyone who dislikes this film.  Rides and characters based on this film are centerpieces at Disney's theme parks around the world.  There even was a Disney on Ice show that ran for many years in the '80s and early '90s and which led to similar efforts for films like "Beauty and the Beast.  The film is voiced by top stars of the day, and even Mel Blanc manages to get in a hiccup or three.

The Blue Fairy in Pinocchio 1940
The songs, a true highlight of the film, were composed by Leigh Harline, with lyrics by Ned Washington.  Harline and Paul J. Smith composed the background music.  Besides the classic "Star," other tunes that will stick in your head include "Give a Little Whistle" and I've Got No Strings."
Gepetto inside Monstro discovers the boys donkey ears in Pinocchio 1940
Adults will enjoy this film as much as anyone. Where else are you going to see annoying kids literally transformed into jackasses? The songs should bring back childhood memories, while the story is engaging and unpredictable.
Jiminy Cricket stands on the boy's nose in Pinocchio 1940
After "Snow White," this is the film most people associate with Disney's early years.  It is well worth viewing today by even the smallest children for the awesome songs, visuals and story.



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