In honor of their seventy-fifth anniversary in 2015, I present a pair of reviews for my two favorite Disney animated releases, both released in the same year, 1940, and both far more challenging and transformative than any feature film the company has yet released since. The two introductory paragraphs of the reviews are identical or nearly identical, but the meat of the reviews are film-specific.
Fresh off of reinventing cinema with the 1937 release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Walt Disney and his band of merry auteurs certainly made enough money to rest on their laurels and produce what would have assuredly been a hugely successful similar film. Another princess, another band of silly sidekicks, another all-time expressionist cinematic villain, you get the deal. Things would have gone down smoothly, and Disney and friends would have been laughing all the way to the bank. Except for one thing: for all his grubby corporatism and power-hungry megalomania, Walt Disney genuinely loved film, and he genuinely loved testing the waters for what film was capable of, and no one, not even the corporate masters he answered to, was going to tell him otherwise. He was a man of boundless vision, a child in a cinematic toybox, a person driven by ego and pulsing personal joys and for whom his company was a means to immortalize his dreams and nightmares on celluloid for everyone in the world to see. He made films because he wanted to watch them, and after Snow White, he didn’t want to watch another princess story. He was hungry, and having changed things forever, he wanted to do it yet again.
Like all children lost in their toyboxs, however, Disney often let his imagination get the best of him, and his self-centeredness held that wherever he went money would follow. A hard reality check was in order. He simply couldn’t fathom that just because he found something fun, everyone else might not necessarily fall in love all the same. Which is why, after Snow White, several of his company’s following features were matched only in their forward-thinking artistic perfection by their crippling financial failures. Disney’s 1941 release Dumbo was a big success and provided enough funding for the company to stay alive while shilling out package deals throughout the rest of the ’40s for a cheap, quick buck, but Disney’s trifecta of post-Snow White efforts are about as radical as they come.
Within this cluster of game-changing, commercially doomed releases, Pinocchio is not Disney’s most ostentatious production (especially positioned next to the deeply impressionist, humanity-as-evil musings of Bambi and the non-narrative presentational quality of the images-and-sound film that is Fantasia). It’s more subtle radicalism, however, may qualify it as Disney’s most daring, strangest beast. Especially because it takes the general form of a more typical Disney film about a wooden puppet (well that would be Pinocchio himself) who wants to be a real boy and runs away from his creator Geppetto, the only person who truly loves him, and chases after an independence he doesn’t yet understand. Within this package lurks a highly moralistic reality play that openly comments on its own animated quality and at points approaches genuine expressionist horror of all things. Disney’s best features were and are generally its fairy tales, and Pinocchio is its heaviest parable, its most burning work of diabolical whimsy and destruction, and the fairest fairy tale ever essayed on film.
Pinocchio’s narrative has the generalized quality of a traditional story, but deep down it answers to the gods of emotion over logic and subtly inverts its narrative structure at every turn. Most famously, the story is actually quite episodic and rambling, generally following Pinocchio as he confronts various Faustian gambits and, of all things, almost always makes the wrong decisions in addressing them (the film depicts him smoking with shocking matter-of-fact-ness, for instance). Stromboli (Disney ever prone to racism, this time against Eastern European Gypsies), Honest John, and Gideon approach him like moralist inventions designed to frighten and tempt children. When we expect a narrative to boil underneath these confrontations, Disney throws us a curveball and introduces Monstro the whale, swallowing Geppetto, to conclude the work on a sequence of such operatic grandeur it cannot but latch onto the mind. Vigorously scribbled into the frame as if to explicitly call attention to the character’s non-logical qualities, Monstro approaches not as a logical extension of the film but as an emotional extension. Pinocchio, after having lost touch with his father Geppetto while wandering around a world out to destroy him, must confront Monstro as the demon whale from hell who comes to punish him for his sins.
For, once Geppetto is lost to Pinocchio, the old puppet-maker’s life’s work is lost to the world, and the world, in the form of Monstro, must come to retrieve him from his time on Earth. Monstro is not a whale but a beacon of guilt, a physical manifestation of the worry of a child about what may happen to his parents when they are forgotten, and a manifestation of Pinocchio’s existential guilt about forgetting the only person who truly loved him. Having met the world and become a real boy by giving in to temptation, he forgot the greatest truth of being a real human: love and affection, and Pinocchio battling Monstro is the only way he can truly reconnect with humanity. This deeply elemental, even primitive, focus on narrative obstacles coming as direct emotional distillations of human fears is part of what makes Pinocchio such a fascinating, scary film. It does not so much have a narrative as tackle emotions and confront fears in the only way it knows how.
Yet films live and die not by story but storytelling, and it is Pinocchio’s animated storytelling that ensures its life. Light and creamy in the center with hard-shadows ever-skulking behind, Disney’s work owes its greatest artistic inventions primarily to that ever-active filmic fairy tale production machine that came before it: German Expressionism. Beyond that, it owes a startling amount to Weimar era silent German horror, using expressive silences and deep, burning shadow to underline the thoughtful, simple emotions of the film’s crisis. It’s a wicked, sometimes merciless film, especially when Pinocchio is stranded in a hellish carnival when torture collides with commerce (doesn’t it always?) where children are sold around the land, but not before being turned into donkeys. The film’s most famous image sees a child make the transformation kicking and screaming in shadow, his screams contorted and malformed into an aching, piercingly inhuman warble. Here, and throughout, Pinocchio remembers the long history of bitter Germanic fairy tales; they were, at their core, childrens’ horror shows with a moralistic quotient a mile high designed to scare children into submission, and no filmic fairy tale, Disney or otherwise, has rekindled this spirit of anxiety and shrieking sadness more than Pinocchio.
There’s no escaping Pinocchio’s rampant moralism; it is, at its most distilled, a wonderfully expressive moral fable, an encapsulation of parental fears about their children leaving and going out into the world, and a (devoutly) traditional tale about familial love and care in a decidedly un-traditional packaging. It is also much more though. Many films know parental fears good and well, but so very few introduce childhood fears and interpret them as children can, shooting back and forth between overpowering emotions that overcome the mind and force it into wide-eyed shock. Pinocchio understands the childhood fear of finding oneself within a dangerously big, wide open world and not even being able to begin understanding it, and it doesn’t so much judge children as shove them headfirst up against a world out to prey on their corruptible innocence. Pinocchio is naïve in many ways (and a problematic textbook conservative case for the governing importance of family morals). But few films approach the horrors of childhood with such bluntness and undiluted worry, and fewer still do it with such unparalleled artistic mastery.