Walt Disney’s Pinocchio – Animation Masterwork

Brian Sibley gives a retrospective view of Pinocchio as the film goes on release once more.

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…

Not my verdict on Pinocchio, but that of American critic, Archer Win-stein, writing in 1940. And, forty-six years on, I see no reason to disagree with his judgement. Pinocchio is the most wondrous animated film ever made, and Walt Disney’s greatest masterpiece – his Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Lavish, vibrant, beautiful and charged with emotion, Pinocchio shows the Disney magic at its most powerfully potent. From its opening sequence – in which Jimmy Cricket, lit by a spotlight, croons the song which was to become Disney’s personal anthem, ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ – the film seizes the imagination and holds it a willing captive for an hour and a half.

In 1938, Walt Disney and his artists were still elated by the phenomenal success of their first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. There had been seep-tics who had doubted if a cinema audience would sit through a 90-minute cartoon film, but Disney had proved them wrong. As the studio began work on Pinocchio, the aim now was to produce the finest animated film money and talent would allow.

The result was stunning: a film with a luxuriant illustrative style, a fluidity of line and astonishing special effects. The result was also costly: the final production figure for the film was $2,600,000, with some individual sequences costing thousands of dollars apiece. One such episode, early in the film and lasting for just thirty seconds, cost $25,000: Jimmy Cricket opens a copy of the book, Pinocchio, and the camera trucks into an illustration of a starlit Alpine village, panning across the roof-tops and down between the houses to the cobbled street in front of Geppetto’s workshop. It is a sequence which establishes a seemingly unsurpassable standard of animation, but which is only a prelude to greater marvels.

Marvels like the scene in which we see the village awakening to a new day. Shot, like the earlier sequence, on the multiplane camera, it opens with an aerial view of the village, doves whirling round the chimney-pots and weather-vanes and a tolling bell summoning the children to school. As the camera moves in and out of the twisting lanes, the screen explodes with minutely-observed activity; diminutive, but perfectly-detailed, figures pour out of the houses onto the streets: a fussy mother gives her child’s face a final wipe before sending him off to school, a goose-girl passes by driving a gaggle of geese, an old man totters out to take the sun, an aproned baker hurries round a corner, a house-proud matron swabs her doorstep and a group of boys sail tiny paper boats in a tank by the village pump.

Pinocchio. Copyright Walt Disney Productions. Click pic for larger image.

Pinocchio is full of such transient delights, and never more so than in the underwater sequence in which Pinocchio and Jimmy Cricket search for Monstro the whale. The studio had experimented with a similar setting in the 1938 ‘Silly Symphony’, Merbabies, but not with the consummate brilliance achieved here. At a story conference at the studio in 1938, Disney had bubbled over with enthusiasm for this sequence: ‘The underwater stuff is a swell place for the multiplane, diffusing and putting haze between, with shafts of light coming down. I would like to see a lot of multiplane on this.’ And the artists gave him what he asked – and more.

Consider the way in which patterns of light filter through the water and play upon the rocks and coral reefs; the way in which Pinocchio moves -half walking, half floating; the way in which streams of bubbles rise to the surface; and the way in which the whole screen appears to ripple as a shoal of terrified tuna rush frantically towards and past the camera with Monstro in pursuit. And when, on the seascape above, the whale chases the little raft carrying Geppetto and Pinocchio, the crashing waves and flumes of spray are animated with a skill which combines realism – the sheer weight and volume of whale and water – with an impressionistic quality that reminds one of the Japanese sea-paintings of Hokusai.

Not all the effects, however, are executed on such a grand scale. Equally powerful are the smaller set-pieces such as the dazzling star-burst which attends the magic of the Blue Fairy; the swirling fog that shrouds the Red Lobster Inn, where sinister dealings go on; the violent thunderstorm which illuminates the interior of Stromboli’s caravan hung with lifeless puppets; and the sequence in which a paddle-steamer heads for the open sea and Pleasure Island (one of the least expensive scenes in the picture, but which received a round of applause at the premiere screening).

Neither before, nor subsequently, did Disney lavish such care on a film or achieve such sumptuous results. By the skilful use of highlighting, the characters – particularly the furry ones – are rendered softer and rounder, and the backgrounds against which these characters perform are matchlessly realised.

There is, for example, the celebrated sequence Set in Geppetto’s workshop: shelves stacked and crammed with toys, musical-boxes and exotically decorated pipes, a wall covered with animated clocks too numerous and too diverse to take in at a glance, and an extraordinary attention to small details such as the faces carved on the handles of Geppetto’s chisels and the curling wood-shavings that litter the work-bench.

And the same meticulousness is to be found in all the settings for Pinocchio: in the village, with its archways, squares, steps and bridges and its meandering streets of jostling houses; in the cathedral vastness of Monstro’s belly, ribs rising into the gloom like flying butresses; and among the carnival attractions on Pleasure Island – at first a glorious playground for undisciplined fun, but later a frightening graveyard of broken promises.

The constant visual appeal of Pinocchio is partly created by the film’s endlessly imaginative camera direction as when, during the opening moments of the picture, the camera hops cricket-like towards Geppetto’s lighted window. And, again, in a later sequence where Pinocchio is abducted by the fox and the cat, the action is viewed from the minikin perspective of Jimmy Cricket.

The cricket (who, in Carlo Collodi’s original story, was flattened with a mallet hurled by Pinocchio) became a character of major importance in the Disney film – not just by providing the wooden hero with a sympathetic companion, but also in helping to establish the movie s sense of scale. Jimmy walks tight-rope on the string of a violin; preaches at Pinocchio from the pulpit of a lily; finds himself floored by a cannonade of pool balls; and, in one of the film’s most memorable shots, floats on his umbrella past the huge blood-shot eye of Monstro the whale.

But all these felicities of style would have been valueless if what they were a part of had not been so perfectly conceived. The story itself is compellingly told, a tightly-structured adaptation of Collodi’s discursive narrative (originally written for magazine serialization), immeasurably enhanced by Leigh Harline’s Academy Award-winning score and the songs for which Ned Washington wrote such happy lyrics.

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