Movies That Matter: Pinocchio (1940)

Most of us saw Walt Disney’s Pinocchio when we were children.

It was exciting, funny, tuneful, and a bit scary.

In other words, great entertainment for the small fry.

But have you seen Pinocchio since becoming an adult?

It’s a whole other thing.

Pinocchio (1940) screens on Sunday, December 1, 2013, at 1:30 p.m. at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St., as part of the Movies That Matter film series. Robert W. Butler, former film critic for the Kansas City Star and now with the Library’s public affairs department, provides opening and closing remarks.

Admission is free.

After the huge success in 1937 of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney had planned for Bambi to be his next full-length animated film. But finding an appropriate animation style for that movie’s various forest creatures was proving a problem.

So when one of his animators gave Disney a copy of Carlo Collodi’s 1938 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, he jumped on the chance to make his next movie about the puppet who yearns to become a real boy.

But it wasn’t as easy a project as Disney had imagined. The Pinocchio of the book is selfish and mean. Nasty, in fact. And while his misbehavior was tolerable on the printed page, in a film it could be alienating.

So the Disney bunch went to work giving the puppet an overhaul. He was redesigned to look less like a severe marionette and more like a cute little boy (hinges were added to his knees and elbows). Pinocchio’s personality got an overhaul, too. Now he’s an innocent newborn whose lapses are the result not of selfishness or meanness but of his wide-eyed naïveté.

In the book Pinocchio squashes a cricket who tries to teach him right from wrong. For the movie the animators elevated the cricket to co-star status. Named Jiminy and voiced by recording sensation Cliff Edwards, this cricket provided a refreshing modern sensibility in the midst of a 19th-century fairy tale. Jiminy offered comic relief.

Plus, Jiminy sang two hit tunes – “Give a Little Whistle” and “When You Wish Upon a Star “ – the latter so popular that it became the official theme song of the Disney universe.

Seen now through adult eyes, it becomes clear that Pinocchio isn’t just lighthearted escapism. In fact, it may be the darkest film of Disney’s career, one in which the various evil characters – a scheming fox, a cruel puppet master, a fiendish coachman – go unpunished despite their efforts to corrupt our little hero.

And never before or since in a Disney feature has there been a sequence quite so disturbing as Pinocchio’s visit to Pleasure Island, where young boys are encouraged to engage in bratty behavior before being transformed into braying, terrified donkeys. It’s almost as if Uncle Walt was channeling Dante.

Running throughout is the idea of a fresh, untainted soul being exposed to the worse the world can offer. Will Pinocchio go with the flow or stick to a higher calling?

That dilemma is brilliantly summed up in the song “I’ve Got No Strings,” which finds Pinocchio delighting audiences at a puppet show by cavorting on stage without the need of a puppeteer.

I've got no strings
So I have fun
I'm not tied up to anyone
They've got strings
But you can see
There are no strings on me.

On one level it’s a catchy, visually diverting musical number about...well, about puppets.

But on another it’s a profound commentary on free will and man’s rejection of a higher authority (in this case the Blue Fairy who gave the puppet life, although you could effortlessly restate the situation as one of man in rebellion against God).

That’s pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ movie. But then, Pinocchio only appears to be a kids’ movie. In truth, it’s way too good for just kids.

Other films in the series “Movies That Matter: The Sequel”

Sundays at 1:30 p.m. in the Truman Forum at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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