Reading some of the reviews for Walt Disney’s second feature film, Pinocchio, is interesting: a substantial amount want to indict the film for being frightening and even cruel, in that Pinocchio’s bad behavior seems to lead to grotesque and horrific results.
These people do not understand faerie tales. For, although the film’s source material is not really a faerie tale (or so I am told by people who have actually read Carlo Collodi’s book) the film most certainly is one. And so if you understand Pinocchio as a sort of ‘Scared Straight’ film in saying, for instance, that if you play hookey, you will inevitably wind up locked in a bird cage, then I can only say that you don’t understand it at all. It would be more precise to say that the logic of the tale allows for the literalization of the moral action: the apparent freedom that lawlessness provides is actually a prison.
But, I will concede that in the faerie tale, we often see justice and mercy literalized on a level that disturbs us adults. I remember the slightly shocked reaction I got from a friend when I said that at the end of the original version of Hans Christien Andersen’s The Red Shoes, the girl gets her feet amputated at the end.
Which brings me to the point: I have had the opportunity to see Pinocchio for the first time since early elementary school, and, although I previously listed Powell and Pressburger’s film The Red Shoes, as my favourite of all time, I must concede that it now gets knocked down to second place. This being the second time in recent memory that this has happened to one of my lists of favourites, it can only be a testament to either my own inconstancy, or the fact that I have been surprisingly lucky these past few months (and as in the case of Final Fantasy IX, it’s an example of something from my childhood resurfacing). For although I’ve gushed a lot about a bunch of different films here lately, I’m usually much more difficult to please.
Anyway, although the Disney company these days is associated with crass capitalism, phony sentimentality and frequently stupid and bizarre aesthetic choices, the fact of the matter is that its founder was actually pretty visionary, and more concerned with putting money into projects he’d like to see than in simply making a profit – hence why the company flirted with financial failure so much in its early decades. I mean, sure, not all his projects were equal, and it’s also true that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first movie to be heavily merchandized upon release, but when they were good, they were good.
One of the reasons why Pinocchio affected me so much has already been hinted at: for being one of the few films to actually feel like a faerie tale. Not even Song of the Sea achieves that, and it’s fair to say that most modern kids movies, animated or otherwise, don’t even want to try. The faerie tale can be deconstructed or lamented, or just made fun of, but not emulated.
It’s worth pondering why this is. An increasing willingness to laugh at something is also an indication that the thing is becoming increasingly unsettling. The cheap explanation would be to say that 2015 is a much more jaded, cynical time than 1940, but I don’t think that holds up. The employees of the Disney studio in its early years were a lot more boozy and bawdy than the company’s squeaky clean image suggests, and Disney himself had none of the nostalgia that you find in someone like Tolkien. But hold that thought.
I assume the story of Pinocchio is familiar to most, but anyway: a wood carver named Geppetto wishes that his puppet, Pinocchio was a real boy. Because of his good deeds, the Blue Faerie grants his wish halfway; Pinocchio is made animate, but will not be made into a real boy until he demonstrates that he is capable of living a virtuous life. To help him in that task, a cricket called (do I have to say?) Jiminy Cricket is appointed to act as his conscience. Almost immediately, Pinocchio succumbs to temptation and led into a series of increasingly bizarre misadventures, but after an act of self sacrifice he is allowed to be a real boy.
Now Pinocchio, as an inanimate object brought to life, functions as a metaphor for animation itself – the characters marvel at him just as we marvel at the uncannily spot-on portrayal of the movement of a little boy who happens to be made out of pine. But he also works well as a sort of Irenic Adam.
Now, in Christianity, there are broadly two different interpretations of what, exactly, Adam and Eve’s state was like before they fell – the Augustinian one, which is prevalent in the west, and the Irenic one, which is more prevalent in the east. On the former interpretation, Adam and Eve were made with all of their faculties perfected. Hence when they sinned, they understood exactly what they were doing and exactly what the consequences would be. Christ is the one man born with the same faculties that Adam had, and who carries out the perfect obedience that Adam would not.
On the other hand, the latter model takes the view that Adam and Eve, though born into a relationship with God from the outset, started out in a spiritually immature state. Had they remained obedient to God, their earthly lives would likely have been one of spiritual pedagogy. But their sin wounded themselves in such a manner that said pedagogy had to take the more radical form of salvation history, with Christ being the one who is capable of obediently carrying out the sort of development that God intended humans to take in their lives.
This area of theology isn’t my strongest suit, so I apologize if I’ve misrepresented or oversimplified things here, but, as I was saying, Pinocchio is a sort of Irenic Adam: he is not created with all his faculties intact, but rather is expected to grow into them through virtuous conduct. But out of his own immaturity he runs in the opposite direction and subsequently makes achieving that goal all the more arduous.
And in a nice touch, Jiminy Cricket is shown to be a fallible Official Conscience. At times he fails to explain things well, and at others isn’t around when he’s needed. This is a layer of moral subtlety that I wasn’t expecting from the movie – an acknowledgement that moral growth involves not just following one’s conscience, but also the proper formation of conscience as well. Jiminy only gets his gold badge at the end.
There’s also a darker, more Dickensian side to the story which is worth bringing up. For, as much as Pinocchio is about moral progress, it’s also a depiction of a world that sees Pinocchio as someone to be abused and taken advantage of. Most of Pinocchio’s bad behavior is due to the influence of Honest John, who is trying to make some money off of him. And, with the exception of Monstro the whale, the other villains only seem to see children as something to be exploited. The fact that the film can handle a story like this without becoming maudlin or oppressive is a testament to its narrative deftness.
But of equal importance to the story is how Pinnochio is gorgeous to look at. There’s a particular tactile, painterly, yet fluid style to the early Disney movies that has never been recaptured (and this is as much due to changes in technology as it is one of aesthetics) but which remains immensely appealing to me. The movie feels like something you can touch, which makes the animation seem um, well, magic I guess. And while, as mentioned above, Pinocchio himself is a marvel of animation, the rest of the film is no slouch: Geppetto’s house is a world unto itself of mechanical gadgets, the Blue Faerie is a stunning example of realist animation, the water effects are the wettest I’ve ever seen, etc.
And then there’s the music. Everyone knows “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which has become Disney’s de facto theme song, but its charm seems impervious to overexposure. Yet the songs themselves are not supposed to be showstoppers; it wasn’t until The Little Mermaid that Disney picked up the Broadway approach to moviemaking. Rather, the songs are meant to be integrated seamlessly into the action of the story. So while snippets of the melody may get stuck in your head, it’s difficult to imagine segregating it from the animation – and vice versa. And as much as I love the post Mermaid movies, this approach to musical somehow feels more…..I kinda want to say something pretentiously vague like, “purely cinematic,” but it’s difficult to put my finger on it here.
Now, Pinnochio didn’t make enough money. And it was followed later on in the same year (1940) by the even more ambitious Fantasia, which also didn’t make a lot of money. The fact that these two movies came out within months of each other is kinda insane and a testament to Disney’s ability to make financially foolhardy decisions in the name of animation. But up to now Disney operated under the assumption that people will pay to see a superior movie, and hence that any monetary investment in the name of quality would be returned. And so far, that assumption worked, and seemed to have been proven by Snow White which the dude even mortgaged his own house over. This was the first major contradiction to that optimistic outlook, and so arguably introduced the first real tension between moneymaking and artistry into the Disney oeuvre.
But I haven’t even gotten to Fantasia yet.