Though it has often been under-rated in comparison with such celluloid siblings as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Cinderella, Bambi and Sleeping Beauty, Disney’s Pinocchio, originally released in 1940, is still the most consistently enjoyable and most completely realized of the studio’s full-length animated features. It has the most vividly distinctive voice characterization—by veteran vaudevillian Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket. It has the clearest, most accessible moral—”Always let your conscience be your guide.” It has the best score, by Ned Washington, Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith, including not only the sweetly optimistic “When You Wish upon a Star,” the de facto anthem of the Disney empire, but “Got No Strings,” “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” and “Give a Little Whistle.” And it also has the best visual moralizing gimmick: Pinocchio’s nose growing as he tells a lie.
An adaptation of the traditional story by Carlo Collodi, the tale centers on a boy puppet, the creation of the puppetmaker Geppetto, who is given life by a good fairy in response to Geppetto’s wish and is subsequently watched over by Jiminy, an itinerant insect minstrel and free-lance conscience.
Pinocchio has to cope with an array of villainous characters, especially the con-artist fox, Honest John, who sells Pinocchio to a traveling puppeteer, Stromboli, as a special stringless attraction. Later, Pinocchio, Jiminy and Geppetto are all swallowed by Monstro the whale. (Other potential traumas parents should be alert for are Pinocchio being locked in a cage by Stromboli, who also threatens to turn the hero into kindling, and Pleasure Island, a kind of little boys’ hell where misbehaving kids are turned into donkeys, braying “Mama!” in their distress.) The tone remains basically light, though. Jiminy, pleading Pinocchio’s case to the momentarily disenchanted fairy, addresses her as, “Your honor…I mean Miss Fairy.”
The peripheral details are fun too. Geppetto’s collection of cuckoo clocks includes one featuring a turkey which, at the strike of the hour, sticks its neck out while a butcher takes a swipe at it with an axe. Even Geppetto’s cat, Figaro—a rascally type who still manages to be cuddly in a sourpussy way—and Cleo the goldfish are memorable characters.
Fans of rewarded virtue will especially admire Pinocchio’s odyssey. But he is uniformly likable, never cloying like Bambi nor twittish like Peter Pan, and doggedly cheery even while literally in the belly of the whale. While modern kids may find the ending too low-key or the whole production too low-tech, this film is to children what Casablanca is to adults. (G)