The Essential Movie Library #93: Pinocchio (1940)

Something at least complicated if not subversive lies in any story about a puppet’s passage to boyhood where the boy turns out to be less interesting than the puppet

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Walt Disney had a nuclear imagination before the advent of nuclear, some comprehension of apocalypse and rapture deep in his genes. This animated follow-up to the phenomenal Snow White and the Seven Dwarves three years earlier (the highest grossing sound picture ever upon its release) was a box office bomb, and reportedly Disney went into the deep depression of someone who knows he topped himself to little avail. In a time that had darkened considerably in those previous three years, the public may have felt confronted too overtly by the darkness in Pinocchio; the voluptuously named Pleasure Island—not Fun Island or Pastime Island or Hangin’ With the Homies Island or even, for that matter, Disneyland—is scary on a level so primal as to render absurd parental deliberations about PG-13 movies decades later. As Pinocchio fan and Brazil director Terry Gilliam has noted, something at least complicated if not subversive lies in any story about a puppet’s passage to boyhood where the boy turns out to be less interesting than the puppet.

At odds with everything ominous about the Disney sensibility, and not even getting into the questionable morality of trying to traumatize children into morality (as the malevolence that runs through all Disney’s cartoon features fully intends), is the inescapable gorgeousness of the endeavor: the gold standard of animation for as long as gold standards are worth anything. Completely crafted by hand—nearly half a century before computer imaging, need we remind ourselves—the underwater sequences in particular are a wonder to behold. And while something, anything, from Japanese anime (Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress, even the pornographic Urotsukidōji) would surely have been the hipper choice here, in the end the scales are tipped toward classicism by “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the most beautiful song in movies as sung by Cliff Edwards playing Jiminy Cricket, the jabbering, duded-up cockroach obliterated by a sledgehammer in the original story.

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