Monday, March 7, 2011

The Chronological Canon: Pinocchio

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a smash hit. The first animated feature in the world was a critical and financial success for Disney, and the world wanted more. It would've been easy to feed all that demand something similar to Snow White - another romantic princess story, perhaps, or even a direct sequel - b ut Uncle Walt wasn't interested in repeating himself or playing it safe. Instead, he decided to follow up the simple romantic tale of a princess with an episodic and bizarre boy's adventure story: Pinocchio.

Having changed the worlds of animation, cinema, and musical storytelling with Snow White, it would be easy to believe the Disney animators might hit the fabled sophomore slump with their second outing, but Pinocchio doesn't just live up to its legendary predecessor, it exceeds it.

That step-up in quality is apparent almost immediately too, as the movie opens with Jiminy Cricket (through the voice of Cliff Edwards) crooning the song that would go on to become the Disney national anthem: "When You Wish Upon a Star." That's the stand-out in a group of songs (music by Leigh Harline and lyrics by Ned Washington) in which every one is a winner - from the infectious seduction of "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee," to the catchy swing of "Give a Little Whistle," to the sweet simplicity of "Little Wooden Head." Following up on the songs-as-storytelling notion they'd pioneered with Snow White, the songs in Pinocchio are even more integrated into the story - and twice as memorable.

I noticed during my latest viewing that Pinocchio is full of songs in its first half, and almost entirely devoid of them in the second (save for a brief reprise of "High-Diddle-Dee-Dee"). Intellectually, I started to think of that as a negative, but the truth is it really doesn't feel that way. It's totally right that the innocent beginning of the story is full of musical fun, but as the story gets darker and Pinocchio begins to mature, there's no time for such musical breaks. The weird, lopsided use of song actually makes complete sense.

The characters too, are an embarrassment of riches. Jiminy Cricket (the real star of the movie, in my humble opinion) is thoroughly delightful. Whoever's idea it was to take a minor, preachy character from Carlo Collodi's source novel and translate him into the heart of this film, it was a stroke of genius. Jiminy is the classic little guy with more moxie than stature. He's as much our guide through the story as he is Pinocchio's, and his presence makes the whole strange assortment gel.

Pinocchio himself is pretty adorable - a loveable kid who means well, but whose naiveté and tendency to get distracted keep getting him into trouble. Honest John is a fantastic foil - charismatic and malice mixed in a perfectly roguish package. Gepetto is both goofily endearing and eminently pitiable (especially in the movie's opening - desperate to give fatherly affection and sharing what he can with his cat, his fish, and his lifeless puppet). And if you don't love Figaro, well, I'm not sure you're capable of love.

Even characters whose appearances are relatively brief - like puppet master Stromboli and bad-boy Lampwick - make a big impression.Speaking of those last two, it's also to Pinocchio's credit that, for all its warmth and good-natured charm, the movie (like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) does not shy away from genuine darkness. In fact, for my money, Lampwick's big scene on Pleasure Island is among the most frightening scenes to appear in mainstream, family entertainment.

Let's look at it: we start with Pinocchio and Lampwick enjoying cigars, what appears to be beer, and pool in a Pleasure Island billiards joint. Pinocchio is enamored with Lampwick's swagger, but to Jiminy (and the audience), he's an obnoxious blowhard. We don't like Lampy very much, yet what comes next is still deeply disturbing. Slowly, piece by piece, he begins to transform into a donkey. He's literally becoming the jackass we see him to be. But the transformation doesn't only reflect his true nature - it also reveals more of it. When he realizes what's happening, the braggadocio and affectations of adulthood all instantly disappear, and Lampwick is reduced to a frightened child desperately crying for his mother. As he loses his hands (oh that shot of his shaking hands becoming hooves!) and finally loses even his voice, he throws himself into a mindless, terrified tantrum, smashing up the inside of the pool hall with his new mule legs. This brash young kid who had been so annoying moments before is suddenly an object of horrified pity - that's powerful storytelling.

Equally powerful (or nearly anyway), but with the opposite emotion, is the reunion of Pinocchio and Gepetto. Down at the bottom of the ocean, swallowed by the terrifying Monstro, the pair couldn't be in more dire straits, yet they're elated upon seeing each other once again. Gepetto's instant and complete forgiveness of Pinocchio is a beautiful expression of fatherly love, and proves the impetus for the pair's salvation, and Pinocchio's ultimate transformation into a real boy.

I'm sure if I looked really hard for faults, I could come up with something. I'm sure I could say Pinocchio isn't a nearly perfect movie, but I think by now you would know that I was lying, whether you could see my nose or not.

I'm giving Pinocchio a perfect score of 10 out of 10 mice.

There's lots more content related to this movie coming during the rest of this month - a comparison between the movie and the Carlo Collodi novel, a look at how the story's connection to the Biblical tale of Jonah, a character spotlight on a member of the supporting cast who went on to have a career outside of the movie (hint: no, I don't mean Jiminy), and more!

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