Director: Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske
Sequence Directors: William Roberts, Norman Ferguson, Jack Kinney, Wilfred Jackson, T. Hee
Writer: Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner, Aurelius Battaglia
Score: Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, Oliver Wallace
Producer: Walt Disney
Starring: Dickie Jones, Cliff Edwards, Evelyn Venable, Christian Rub, Mel Blanc
Distribution: RKO Radio Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 28 min.
Pinocchio is one of two films released in 1940 that was produced by Walt Disney. The other was Fantasia, a long, non-narrative arthouse film. Although some people have called it kitschy or pretentious in its self-importance, which isn't wrong, I still see Fantasia as an excellent film. It includes some fantastic cuts of animation and a strong thematic arc about anthropomorphism in art despite its lack of a narrative, and I can't bring myself to say it's a bad thing that the film set out to convince people that animation was an art form that deserved to be taken seriously. No amount of pretension can invalidate the images Fantasia puts on the screen.
Still, Pinocchio may be the stronger argument for what animation is capable of. The titular Pinocchio is one of the more unique characters in film, and this is owed almost entirely to the film's visual components. The dark, moody tones of the film's world, the judicious use of the multiplane camera, the visible brushstrokes on the characters, the way Pinocchio moves, and the visible difference between the characters animated freehand and the rotoscoped Blue Fairy. Entirely through techniques like these, Disney's animators adapted a fairy tale into a statement on the tension between art as a business and art for its own sake.
One of the first shots in the film is from the perspective of Jiminy Cricket, the narrator and deuteragonist. We see through his eyes as he hops toward the woodcarver Geppetto's workshop; the camera moves up and down repeatedly while approaching the shop's window. When we get close enough, the up and down movement lets us see how the film's use of the multiplane camera separates the interior of Geppetto's home from the world outside, placing the two spaces on different layers. Pinocchio is a dark, gritty film whose setting is cold and unhappy, but Geppetto's workshop is another plane of existence, warm and tranquil.
Once we're inside Geppetto's workshop, we see it's full of his creations. He has clocks, music boxes, and, of course, the marionette Pinocchio, all pieces of art he created that improve his living space. Consider the premise of the story Pinocchio is based on: A woodcarver creates a wooden puppet and wishes for it to become a real boy, thus causing the puppet to come to life and aspire to be human. By depicting Geppetto's workshop as a place replete with his works of art, the Disney adaptation of Pinocchio prompts us to recognize that the titular character is one such work. The narrative becomes that of art having tangible impact on a person's life; if Pinocchio comes to embody Geppetto's hope, he will become a "real boy."
If that's the subject of Pinocchio, it seems a rather ingenious touch that the Blue Fairy is animated differently from the other characters. She is the source of the "realness" Pinocchio pursues, so rather than being animated freehand like every other character in the film, she's rotoscoped. The way she looks and moves gains a presence that feels closer to reality than the rest of the film - closer to the humanity Pinocchio wants to achieve.
Perhaps the most famous piece of Pinocchio's story is that the puppet's nose grows whenever he lies. The Blue Fairy says this is meant to represent how "a lie keeps growing and growing until it is as plain as the nose on your face." However, it takes on a new meaning when we consider Pinocchio himself as art. His nose doesn't just grow, it sprouts branches, leaves, and flowers, and we're reminded that he's made of wood. When he lies, he becomes something further from a "real boy."
That he is portrayed as a work of art personified is why I feel Pinocchio is a unique character. He is distinctly not human, and his arc does not revolve around overcoming personal flaws or dealing with specific problems; he's too impressionable for that. Rather, his arc revolves around how people interacts with him, which is determined by what use they have for him; the people he encounters all intend to use artistic expression to different ends, but only one of them will make him a real boy.
Late in the film we're introduced to Pleasure Island, a place where children are permitted to engage in wanton violence and vice as they please. This place is not portrayed kindly. Rather, it extends from the grimy moodiness of the rest of the film's world. It offers an escape only by feeding into the desire to destroy the world for being so profoundly unpleasant. It could be called a form of art, but it's art in a cynical, purely profit-motivated mode, and it threatens to turn Pinocchio into something other than a real boy. Disney had goals for the art his studio created, and Pleasure Island is the opposite of those goals.
The dichotomy between the "good" art of Geppetto's workshop and the "bad" art of Pleasure Island could be read as a condemnation of escapism, but the film is smarter than that. It captures the interaction between escapism, the viewer, and the world; some characters escape to a better, more stable place and some escape to an easily destructible and solipsistic one.
In Pinocchio, the only true escape from ugliness is found in Geppetto's workshop. He wants Pinocchio to understand the world for what it is, but not to lose hope, the ideal conveyed by one of the lyrics in the film's most famous song: "When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are." Geppetto himself represents an ideal conveyed in a less well-remembered but equally important lyric in the song: "If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme." Pinocchio is an escapist fantasy, and the film's goal is to put him in the hands of a man who hopes for a better world.
By modern American standards for animated films, Pinocchio is dark, hardline, and bizarre. But it's also inspired, intelligent, and visually stunning. The themes its animators chose to evoke visually make for an unexpected, but perfect mode of presentation for a moralistic tale intended to teach children right from wrong. It's an ideal example of every element in a production coming together to form something greater than the sum of its parts.