Over time, many a movie made for children (or anyone, for that matter) are going to be forgotten, sought after only by die hard fans and film buffs. There are movies of my own childhood that I have seen many times, yet now are known only to a few of my generation. This is even true with the powerhouse of Disney. Had it not been for Disney Plus, certain films of lesser popularity like Oliver & Company (1988), Meet the Robinsons (2007), The Black Cauldron (1985), Robin Hood (1973), The Sword in the Stone (1963), The Great Mouse Detective (1986), A Goofy Movie (1995), and The Princess and the Frog (2009) would be almost swept under the rug, especially when compared to other monolith films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Bambi (1942), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and The Lion King (1994), just to name a few (not to mention the Pixar ones).
Which brings us to Pinocchio, a film that has most definitely pierced through the aspects of time and affected all generations of youth. For over eight decades, it has been sitting near the top of every list of great animated films. What is surprising after every viewing is how well it holds up when you consider it does not bow down to the typical Disney formula. Being the second Disney animated film (after Snow White), it does not deal with a prince or princess. Though there are memorable songs (one in particular which we will discuss), it is not seen as a musical (I doubt many are seeing a live musical stage version of this anytime soon).
Still, the strong morals are hidden plainly. We meet the ever so kind, young at heart Geppetto, just finishing his work on the titular puppet. When he wishes the creation to be a real boy, the blue fairy (who, when you think of it, is one of the most underrated powerful characters in the mouse house lore) grants his wish. “Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and some day, you will be a real boy.”, she instructs firmly but gently, as he is given an official conscience in the form of Jiminy Cricket (my mother’s personal favorite Disney character).
As his adventures begin the next, Pinocchio (who is not given an age, but I would wager him to be around the age of 6 or 7) indeed encounters hardships and trials, mostly given to him by Honest John and his sidekick Gideon (who voice is credited to the legendary Mel Blanc). This leads to countless adventures that stay with children (especially boys) decades after.
What strikes me is how clearly the quest for Pinocchio to be a real boy is portrayed. The film never says he wants to be given the title “good boy” (though he strives to), but a real one. Like any child, he can be rather simple minded (to say the least): asking “Why?” countless times, repeating things he just heard because he can, and learning the consequences of certain acts of mischief. No doubt that the latter is best shown in one of the most well known scenes in film, in which Pinocchio starts telling a lie, and his nose begins to grow until it supports a bird nest. The scene sticks with you even long after you realize a nose won’t grow.
More of the lessons taught to kids are a little more subtle, but not any less affecting. This leads us to one of the darkest segments in any children’s film: Pleasure Island. After escaping the life of an actor (“I’d rather be smart than be an actor.”), Pinocchio is again misguided by Honest John into joining a group of mischievous boys on a trip to Pleasure Island, where they are allowed to do basically anything they want (“Being bad is a lot of fun, ain’t it?!?!”).
This leads to the discovery that the boys are turned into donkeys and are sold off as slaves. I cannot be alone in saying this had a humongous impact on me as a child. While I am sure I was one to get into forms of trouble, I thankfully never got to the point of fighting, smoking, drinking, and breaking windows. When Pinocchio finds out his mistake and tosses his cigar, that was possibly the time I truly said I would never smoke (it took me a while after turning 21 for me to actually enjoy wine). The only thing that I still did was play pool (though scenes from the film still resonate with me when I play).
The film’s final segment shows Pinocchio in search of his father who has been swallowed by the great whale Monstro. It is in the sequence where many a child can first experience a sense of character growth, as the titular puppet sets out against all odds (and, in a sense, wisdom) to be reunited with his father. When they do eventually meet, one of the more understated touching moments occurs. Gepetto has seen his son has grown donkey ears and donkey tale, not to mention having a “hee haw” moment. Acting rather embarrassed, Gepetto simply gives him another hug, saying having him back is all that matters. Though a quick moment, it is a powerful one that brings to mind the parable of the lost son.
The animation of the film is breathtaking. As the film was being made in the late 1930s, Walt and his animators clearly did not have the computer tech to make their visions come to life. That being said, the detail is marvelous: no other film has yet to make a more exquisite and complex look at clocks. Like all Disney films that followed, the supporting characters are able to steal scenes, and the clear winners of Pinocchio are Figaro the cat and Cleo the Goldfish (though how that fish stays in her tank at the end of the Monstro scene is beyond me).
Speaking of Monstro, that last action sequence is stellar: it took me till I was in my teens to see it without closing my eyes. It is preceded by one of the first truly great underwater segments in the history of cinema. Though underwater sequences in animation has been exemplified in the last few decades (most notably The Little Mermaid and Finding Nemo), the material shown on the ocean floor still holds up as well as it did in 1940.
Parents, I have mentioned the fact that the film is indeed dark. There is also, by today’s standards, mild swearing (the other word for donkey is used at least twice). Still, it is not dark for the sake of being dark, but for the reason to inform. Though they are your kids, I would say the film is essential for all kids to see before they reach the age of 10 or so.
There is one lesson from the film that has surpassed all others, and that is in the film’s most enduring contribution to modern society: “When you Wish upon a Star.” Though it may not be everyone’s favorite song from the Disney canon (the debate of best disney song will likely never end), it is easily the most important, as it is the main theme of the company to this day. While I can’t speak for those who grew up before 1940, I know wishing upon a star is something that will occur more often for kids long after they see this film.
One may even see the idea of wishing on a star as a way for kids to learn how to start praying, which is obviously more affective. It lets kids know that God hears you, makes no difference who you are.