Scary Factor: Stromboli character waving an axe and threatening; young Lampwick’s terror as he turns into a donkey; Coachman herding the donkey-boys with a whip; enormous whale Monstro chasing them at the end
Also: scenes with alcohol and smoking are too numerous to mention; some leering and mild sexual innuendo from lady’s man Jiminy; character playing with fire; wanton destruction
Intense: some children may have trouble with Pinocchio’s ‘death’ near the end, but keep them watching because he isn’t dead for long!
Language: “Give a bad boy enough rope and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself!”
Interests: fairy tales, fairies, magic, puppets, insects, ocean, whales
Next: Dumbo (also astonishingly not-politically-correct)
The toymaker Gepetto carves a wooden puppet but wishes for a real child. The Blue Fairy hears his wish and brings Pinocchio to life, but says she cannot turn him into a real boy until he has earned it. Even though his pal Jiminy Cricket tries to set him on the right path, Pinocchio is tempted and waylaid by several nefarious characters. First he joins a puppet troupe and is locked in a cage by the cruel Stromboli. When the Blue Fairy helps him escape he is soon talked into joining a bunch of boys heading for a place called Pleasure Island. Once there, the boys are allowed to do all manner of bad/fun things, from smashing furniture and brawling to playing pool, drinking and smoking. The bad news? The boys are gradually transformed into donkeys, whom the Coachman intends to sell into a life of slavery! Narrowly escaping this fate, Pinocchio proves his courage by finding and rescuing Gepetto from the belly of a whale. Though Pinocchio drowns in the attempt, the Blue Fairy returns to revive him and give him his reward – he finally becomes a real boy.
Commonsense Media sez: Disney masterpiece is darker than you may remember. True! Very true!
Oh boy what an interesting movie! First, it’s beautifully made and full of visual treats. Secondly, brace yourselves because it is indeed darker than you may remember. Made in a very different time, right in the midst of World War II, Pinocchio is full of surprises for modern viewers. It’s a veritable cornucopia of bad behaviour and the list of things that are verboten in today’s children’s movies is as long as my arm. Examples? Here we go…
imitatable behaviour: Pinocchio plays with fire, actually sets his finger aflame, and isn’t even scolded about it or taught not to do it! (This lesson was to occur in another scene that was cut.)
racism: a nasty and stereotypical portrayal of Stromboli, who is, in the parlance of the day, a gypsy.
sex: Jiminy definitely has a leering eye for the ladies, even wooden ones, and the gal puppets in Stromboli’s show are as sexy and suggestive as any showgirls.
smoking: everyone smokes! On Pleasure Island Wooden Indians hand out cigars to the boys. “Come on in and smoke your heads off, there’s nobody here to bug you!” (The effect on Pinocchio is dramatic, as he turns first red, then purple, and finally a sickly green.)
drinking: Stromboli guzzles wine, plotting baddies quaff their ale, and the boys chug beer on Pleasure Island.
fighting: in the Rough House the boys indulge themselves, “Come on, let’s go poke somebody inna nose!” “Why?” “Aw, just for the fun of it!”
vandalism: a Model Home is open for destruction and the boys gleefully wreck the place. “Getta loada that strained glass winder!” someone hollers before a brick flies through it. This scene struck one writer as being particularly disturbing¹, but I don’t think it would bother kids as much as it might adults.
Other ‘bad behavior’ on the part of the boys is definitely of 1940 vintage – not too many people would regard hanging out in a pool hall as delinquent activity anymore… or carrying a slingshot around either, for that matter.
Of course all the misbehaviour on Pleasure Island brings severe punishment down upon the boys, and thus is a necessary part of the general lesson about learning to choose right from wrong.
“You boys ‘ave ‘ad your fun, now pay for it!” hollers the Coachman, unaccountably a Cockney…
violence: The high level and frequency of violence is a little alarming, even though it is quite slapsticky. Here’s a sample of the tone of the film, and perhaps a peek into what was taken for granted as humorous in 1940 – a quick montage of the animated clocks Gepetto has created in his studio include:
ducks, bees, birdies, a man with an axe trying to chop the head off a turkey, a man shooting at a bird, a drunk falling out of a doorway with ‘x’s over his eyes, and an angry mother spanking a child’s bare bottom.
Then Gepetto opens his watch, which has two men clinking tankards of ale in it. Gepetto also sleeps with a gun under his pillow.
The big scary scenes: First, the scene in which Stromboli shows his true colours and locks Pinocchio in a cage. He is particularly threatening here, especially when he shakes an axe and points to another wooden puppet chopped up for firewood. He swigs wine and hollers “Shut up, before I knock you silly!” Strong fare for small viewers. And the scene ends with Pinocchio crying pitiably in his cage.
The scene in which Pinocchio’s pal Lampwick turns into a donkey is also terrifying. Critic William K. Everson called this “surely one of the screen’s supreme moments of horror.”² Pinocchio watches helplessly as Lampwick begs him for help. The final transformation is shown in shadow only, after which Lampwick cries out “Mama!” and goes wild, smashing up the room in a panic. Pinocchio watches in horror, then his own donkey ears pop up. Really chilling, and it goes further… Next we see all the other boy-donkeys, some only half-turned, still able to talk and cry for ‘mama’ as the Coachman menaces them with a whip. And after Pinocchio escapes there is no further mention of the poor souls, they are left to their fate. Definitely not for the faint of heart! (Today, in the service of tying up loose ends it would be necessary to mount a donkey rescue operation.)
Finally, the thrashing and crashing around of the truly immense whale Monstro is fantastically thrilling and suspenseful. Even the sound effects, the water and the whale’s roaring, are super scary. My daughter (4) fairly leaped off the couch to cry out to Pinocchio to escape: “Go into the cave! GO INTO THE CAVE!”
Oh, yeah, and then Pinocchio drowns. Killing off the main character, even temporarily, is pretty shocking for young viewers. Stick close to reassure your child – he’s not dead for long, the Blue Fairy is on her way to make everything right again.
Phew. It’s all strong stuff. So what is in there to love?
The Good Stuff: Gorgeous animation, wonderful songs, loads of humour, and lots of heart. Critic Archer Winston, who had been critical of the animation in Disney’s previous feature, wrote:
“The faults that were in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” no longer exist. In writing of “Pinocchio”, you are limited only by your own power of expressing enthusiasm. To put it in the simplest possible terms, this film is fantastically delightful, absolutely perfect, and a work of pure, unadulterated genius.” ³
Disney was on top of his game here, blazing the way technically with his innovative multi-plane camera. Watch the opening shot, where the camera moves closer and closer in on the village. This kind of shot was impossible before the multi-plane. There are many ambitious animation flourishes here – one shot of walking feet from Jiminy’s Cricket-POV as he chases after is particularly fantastic. And the water effects later on are wonderful too.
There is great heart and emotion in this film, highlighted in Gepetto’s charming workshop. We spend a full 27 minutes there in the opening scene. The movie takes its time here and it’s time well spent, establishing the kindly Gepetto with Jiminy Cricket looking on.
There’s lots of humour as well, as Jiminy remonstrates with the astonishingly simple and naïve puppet he’s agreed to help. Then the fox and cat who step in to complicate matters, Honest John and Gideon, are quite funny as well – lots of slapstick action here as the former knocks the latter about. Some funny jibes are made here at the expense of actors, as in:
“What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?”
“I’d rather be smart than be an actor!”
Honest John is also given the song “Hi Diddle De Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me)”, which is contagiously catchy. (You’re probably humming it right now, aren’t you?) As for the other songs, “I’ve Got No Strings” holds up well, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” is, quite simply, a classic. I’m not generally a sucker for quavery tenors, but when that cricket hits the high note at the end of the song, it always puts a lump in my throat.
“Like a bolt out of the blue, Fate steps in and sees you through. When you wish upon a star, your dreams… come…. truuuuue.”
The basic plot is a little rambling, by modern standards. The original work by Carlo Collodi was actually a serial, so this isn’t surprising. (He was reputedly paid by the word.) The series of misadventures are held together by a strong theme, that of making your own way in the big world, and learning to choose right over wrong. In the beginning Pinocchio is as simple as a newborn babe, and particularly vulnerable to the machinations of others. Jiminy Cricket gives voice to the viewers’ own opinions, expressing misgivings and warnings in world-weary slang (1940s style). This character worked so well that an equivalent can been seen in absolutely every Disney movie to follow – a smart-alecky animal sidekick. Sound familiar?
In conclusion… This is a classic tale with a timeless moral, beautifully told, but presented in a particularly florid manner. Violence and bad behaviour are over the top, but the punishment is too. For this reason, as gorgeous and entertaining as it is, this film is not for the faint of heart.
After this movie came out, the nephew of Carlo Collodi, the author of the original story, asked the Italian Ministry of Popular Culture to sue Walt Disney for libel in portraying Pinocchio “so he easily could be mistaken for an American”, rather than an Italian. Nothing came of this request, however.⁴
Gideon, Honest John’s sidekick cat, was the only Disney voice role for Mel Blanc, the famous voice of Bugs Bunny and many other Warner Bros. characters. Walt Disney ultimately decided, however, that the cat should be mute, so all of the dialogue that Blanc recorded was cut. The only bit that remains in the film is a hiccup in the tavern scene.⁵
I have one major beef with the DVD: Common in the new generation of Disney DVD releases, one added extra features a contemporary pop star doing a remake of a classic song from the film. Here it’s Meaghan Jette Martin crooning “When You Wish Upon a Star”. Ick.
And one good feature: a selection of just the songs from the movie played in order with or without lyrics to sing along.
¹ Peter M. Nichols, The New York Times Essential Library: Children’s Movies; A Critic’s Guide to the Best Films Available on Video and DVD (New York: Times Books, 2003). After asserting that scary parts “should be weathered easily by the very young…” Nichols goes on to talk about the scene on Pleasure Island that features “smashing and destroying objects like stained-glass windows and the Mona Lisa. Kids like to wreck things, but this has a particularly nasty, creepy feel. One wonders why such objects are singled out. The Nazis were up to the same kind of violence at the time. Such destruction leaps out in a children’s film.”
² Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films; 4th Edition (New York: Disney Editions, 2000) p. 36.
³ Ibid., p. 37.
⁴ Ibid., p. 37.