Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske | 1hr 28min
It shouldn’t be surprising that the artistic peak of Walt Disney animations can be narrowed down to the period that the entrepreneur himself was alive, overseeing the production of each feature film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs up until The Jungle Book. It is there that the studio flourished with artistic ambition, driven by the vision of Disney himself who, quite unusually, exerted his influence as auteur from the position of producer rather than director. So caught up in the nostalgia of childhood, every single one of these beloved films have at some point been claimed as the definitive best for some sentimental reason, though none quite reach the magnificent stylistic and narrative heights of Pinocchio – just the second feature film to come from Disney, marking the pinnacle of his cinematic innovation.
To praise the landmark in animating mechanical motions and weather effects that Pinocchio exhibits is not to simply boil its triumph down to its technical advancements, though Walt Disney certainly belongs in the same conversation as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, all being filmmakers who push boundaries in the realms of both technology and art. Where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs possesses a more primitive, picturesque splendour though, Pinocchio feels tangibly alive in its movements, orchestrating an entire symphony of cuckoo clocks that chime, click, and dance in polyrhythmic, mechanical beats. A mother spanks her child, a hunter shoots a bird, a bee flies off a flower, and a love of whimsical contraptions bursts forth from Geppetto’s beautifully anarchic workshop, where the old woodcarver plays with his creations. All around this space, Disney layers and obstructs his compositions with those random assorted pieces, detailing some of the finest hand-drawn illustrations captured on film, and specifically evoking the expressive, cluttered mise-en-scène that Josef von Sternberg pioneered a mere decade earlier.
From the tiny perspective of Jiminy Cricket, this crowded Italian cottage might as well be a playground blown up to a magnificent scale, turning countertops into cliffs and bookshelves into caves. Toy Story would take some inspiration from this 55 years later by expanding a simple kid’s bedroom into an entire landscape of possibilities, and there is even the common thematic thread between the two of toys wishing to be real, though Pinocchio is especially active in using its camerawork to stretch the eccentric wonder of its world. As Jiminy Cricket heads towards the workshop to seek refuge for the night, Disney adopts his point-of-view, energetically hopping up and down with him, and later we watch Geppetto dance with his newest marionette from inside the bowl of his goldfish, Cleo. There, the curved glass playfully distorts Pinocchio’s movements, comically stretching his face to fanciful effect.
It isn’t until after Geppetto’s wish is granted by the Blue Fairy and finds that Pinocchio has sprung to life that we depart his workshop for the wider world, and the film steps up its rich stylistic immersion once again with a shot that might just be Disney’s finest moment. The multiplane camera his studio developed years earlier allows a robust depth of field comparable to live-action film, but it is put to especially excellent use here in the sheer coordination of its multiple moveable layers, together simulating one long take gliding across rooftops and under bridges of this humble Italian village. As we descend from the bell tower, watching doors fly open and children running through the streets, it is evident that Disney is specifically using this shot to mark an exciting new chapter in his narrative, introducing Pinocchio to an entire world of possibilities.
Scattered through the film are similarly dynamic camera movements making the most of the gorgeous townscape, notable among them being the inspired overhead tracking shot that passes buildings and trees through the foreground as Pinocchio skips off with his shady new friends, Honest John and Giddy. Even when Disney isn’t dollying in on the two sleazy foxes over the stairs of a greasy bar or pouring down needles of rain upon Geppetto searching for his lost boy, we are often left to sit in glorious, still images that seem carved from wood with their tactile, grainy textures.
By the time the boy puppet arrives at Stromboli’s travelling show as his newest act to sing the musical number ‘I Got No Strings’, the central allegory driving Pinocchio’s narrative has properly settled in, using these “strings” to represent the parental restrictions that slowly ease up as a child grows older. Becoming human, or to become “real” as the film posits, is not just a matter of claiming one’s independence. To be human is to be guided by one’s moral conscience, embodied here by our narrator, Jiminy Cricket, whose asides to the camera turn him into a one-man Greek Chorus. His attempt at explaining the complex concept of morality in simple terms to Pinocchio leaves him a little lost for words, and so it is only when each test of integrity comes around that he can offer advice for the puppet to either accept or ignore.
It follows then that if a child can become “real” by proving they can be trusted with responsibility, then the opposite will see a transformation of a different kind. As Pinocchio tries to fib his way out of accountability, his nose grows and grows, eventually springing a nest with eggs and birds on the end of it. It is a humiliating physical transformation that distances him even further from his dream of being human, though compared to what awaits him at Pleasure Island, it is a relatively tame punishment.
It is upon this strange isle that Disney essentially creates a mini-horror film for children, sending a boatload of boys to a carnival where they can indulge all their wildest impulses. Once again, cluttered mise-en-scène dominates the scenery, and its visual transformation from bright, Art Deco-inspired amusement park to dystopian ruin over the course of one night also signals the degradation of these boys’ souls. If one submits to their most base animal instincts, Disney reasons, then their outside might as well match what’s inside, and as such the children on this island are transformed into donkeys and shipped off to work in mines and circuses. It is a horrific thing to watch, so much so that even the camera looks away at the final stage of Lampwick’s bone-creaking metamorphosis, rendered through haunting shadows cast against a wall. For all the magic and whimsy present in Pinocchio, it is strikingly grounded for a Disney film, giving real weight to the choices its young protagonist makes.
There is some unfortunate narrative hand-waving leading into the film’s final act, which while being a resplendent sequence in itself, is not terribly well set-up, as the Blue Fairy intervenes for the third time to let Pinocchio finally prove his worth. Geppetto’s search for his lost boy has led him into the mouth of the fearsome whale, Monstro, and in the underwater battle with the beast, Disney concludes his magnificent experiment in animating truly invigorating action. Geppetto’s dying lamplights bounce off the surface of the water inside Monstro’s cavernous belly, and as he and Pinocchio make their decisive escape, Disney creates powerful visual movements in his waves, currents, bubbles, and splashes, each one intricately sculpted through the precise arrangement of visible droplets and streams of white foam.
With this dazzling whirlwind of a set piece closing out the film, Pinocchio’s astonishing scope and scale effectively exceeds virtually every other Disney animation that came before and after, building a world that seems to never stop shifting around its characters. Purely within context of their emotional arcs though, the pay-off carries a sweet tenderness to it. The lesson that Pinocchio learnt much earlier in the film after obliviously playing with fire returns here in his rescue of Geppetto, using his new knowledge to rile up Monstro and make a quick escape. Even more rewarding than that though is how this deed demonstrates his innate selflessness, finally validating him as a ”real” boy with a conscience.
For Geppetto, the anxieties of parenting prove to be worth it, as he finally gains a son no longer under his control, and yet who is fully active in loving and protecting him. To be “brave, truthful, and unselfish” – that is what it means to be human, Disney suggests, and the dynamic visual expression of this moral fable in all its dark, whimsical temptations backs it up as a staggering accomplishment of both meticulous hand-drawn animation and rich, allegorical storytelling.
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