Avoiding the darker implications made by Carlo Collodi’s novel, Disney’s adaptation of The Adventures of Pinocchio focuses solely on the innocence of a child in the face of temptation, using the eponymous puppet’s perilous journey as a funhouse-mirror version of adolescent life. By skipping school, lying and swilling ale, Pinocchio suffers surrealistic consequences for common youthful transgressions, becoming more inhuman with each avoidance of his conscience’s better judgment.
Told from the perspective of the boy’s conscience, a grasshopper puzzlingly named Jiminy Cricket, the cautionary tale opens by firelight in the workshop of woodcarver Geppetto. Without wife or child, the lonely craftsman fills his time by giving life to mechanical items, adorning his ornate cuckoo clocks and music boxes with pink elephants, happy families and carousing drunks. Geppetto captures his aspirations in his elaborate creations, but none more so than his boyish marionette, dubbed Pinocchio, whom he prays will transform into a flesh-and-blood child before his eyes.
As the craftsman rests, The Blue Fairy, summoned by his nocturnal yearning, grants the old man’s wish and converts the mass of carved wood and string into a sentient being. Though it resembles and behaves like an ordinary child, the transfiguration remains incomplete, only to be finished when the puppet proves that he can discern between right and wrong and avoid the seductiveness of youthful rebellion. The prospective boy agrees, but doesn’t comprehend the effort required to become a well-rounded human, merely mimicking the behavior and emotional responses of those around him, never questioning intent or seeking advice from his conscience.
The child’s inexperience begets blind faith and Pinocchio finds himself confronted by avarice, gluttony and dishonesty, succumbing to vice on every available occasion. Outside of Geppetto's care, the naive babe stumbles into the clutches of two anthropomorphic street urchins, a wily pair that hoodwink the lad into enslavement through the promise of fame and unrestricted pleasure. Miles away from home and abandoned by Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio finds solace in his exotic locale (ironically named “Pleasure Island”), sucking down cheap cigars, playing billiards and chugging pints of cold beer.
Symbolizing the woes of blue-collar creature comforts, Pinocchio’s slide into amorality has serious repercussions and every child enchanted by the island’s lack of restrictions slowly morphs into a braying, ornery jackass. Sprouting a tail and floppy ears, Pinocchio fears the irreversibility of his actions and nearly gives up the fight to become a “real boy,” spared only by the arrival of his voice of reason, Jiminy Cricket.
The reunited pair traverse water and land to make the long journey home, but find Geppetto away from his post and his once vibrant workshop completely vacant. Crestfallen, the duo sulk before receiving a mysterious letter by way of white swallow, detailing the disappearance of the craftsman and his clipper ship. On a mission to locate his lost son, the heartbroken father’s vessel went adrift and was swallowed by a hulking sperm whale. Utilizing the resolve gained through personal experience and human error, Pinocchio manages to track his creator and save him from digestion, starting a fire in the stomach of the great beast that sends a plume of dense smoke into its throat, forcing expectoration and spewing the raft back into the ocean.
The sharpness of the animation emphasizes the size of the great creature, shown through deep blues and bulging eyes, swimming through the foamy water at magnificent speed and with maximum force. Color stenciling also adds a natural texture to the characters, not unlike a charcoal drawing, particularly in the subtle smear of the image, as if it was smoothed by a human finger. The darker woodgrain of interiors is nicely off-set by a wide array of shading, reflected in the colorful coat of the "Pleasure Island" coachmen and the knickknacks on the walls of Geppetto’s shop.
Pinocchio excels mostly through these minute artistic details, rarely capturing the flights of fancy found in Snow White’s kaleidoscopic visuals or Fantasia’s thematic complexity. Its symbols are fairly easy to decipher for a mature audience (i.e. whale = burden of loss) and its premise may be a thinly veiled plea for conformity, but the intended audience will find common ground with the title character and connect with his struggle to develop into a functioning adult. In this capacity, Pinocchio is a success, but when held under a microscope, it never strikes a comfortable balance between its fairy-tale roots and its contemporary satirical targets.
Pinocchio (Walt Disney Productions, 1940)
Directed by Hamilton Luske (supervising director) and Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director)
Written by Carlo Collodi (novel), Ted Sears (story adaptation), Otto Englander (story adaptation), Webb Smith (story adaptation), William Cottrell (story adaptation), Joseph Sabo (story adaptation), Erdman Penner (story adaptation) and Aurelius Battaglia (story adaptation)