Tag Archives: Pinocchio

By the Book: Pinocchio

Well, so far I moved back through the ages, so I guess it’s time to tackle a movie from Disney’s golden age. Pinocchio started, like a lot of classic novels, as a serials, which soon became popular and lead to a novel. Nowadays it has become common to analyse Pinocchio like a book for “adults” (because, you know, children’s books don’t require analysing in the minds of serious academics, we first have to declare them as “adult” to take them seriously), leading to the stories being read in a literature-historical contexts, with parallels drawn especially to the concept of the fool. But when Disney made the movie, it was still mostly seen as an educational book, used to teach children that bad deeds have bad consequences. This is therefore the most prominent aspect in the movie.

1. The Setting

To be frank: The world which is created around Pinocchio is rather odd, even odder than usual in a fairy tale. There just don’t seem to be any logical rules to it, and it’s sometimes aggravating how everyone expects Pinocchio to act reasonable even though nothing about the world he lives in is reasonable (at one point he even gets arrested for the “crime of foolishness” when he goes to the police after the fox conned him out of his money).

The Disney version amplifies this even more. Seeing a talking, clothed fox acting all surprised because he comes across a living marionette is just strange. It also doesn’t help that there seems to be no consistency to what Pinocchio can survive and what not. How he can “die” towards the end, even though he apparently can easily walk under water and has no bones or anything else which could break is anybody’s guess. The Disney version is also very dark, mostly due to the animation.

2. The Animation

I have pointed out in the past already how expressive the animation in the early Disney movies is, and Pinocchio is the prime example for this. The only really inviting place in the whole movie is Gepetto’s hut, everything else is full of shadows and has a sinister vibe to it. It’s sometimes unpleasant to look it, not because of the animation is bad, but because it’s deliberately designed to be unsettling. Especially in the Pleasure Island scenes the use of shadows and strange angles signal from the get go that there is something off about this place. Pinocchio is often hold up as a masterpiece of animation, and on a technical level there is no arguing about it. The story, well, that one is another matter.

3. Characters and Plot

I’ll do both section in one this time around, because the plot centres around Pinocchio even more than usual, since the main theme is his learning curve. And there is a fundamental difference between the source text and the movie, which influences more or less every decision Disney made regarding the characters.

2 pinocchioIn the original version, Pinocchio is, in lack of a better term, born bad. He is selfish, lacks compassion and shows no appreciation for what Gepetto does for him. One early episode involves Gepetto selling his warm coat in order to buy school books for Pinocchio. Pinocchio in turn sells the school books so that he can see Stromboli’s marionette show. He only learns through experience to feel compassion (or to care about Gepetto at all).

Disney’s Pinocchio on the other hand starts out as a blank slate. He immediately connects to Gepetto simply on the ground of him being his father and provider. And when he ends up in dangerous situations it’s not because he is selfish, but because he is gullible, easily lead astray by dangerous advice. This change of character is also the reason Jiminy Cricket even exists. There is a Cricket in the original novel, but its appearance is very short-lived, in every sense of the world, since Pinocchio almost immediately kills it and it only turns up later in ghost form and berates him for his wrongdoings. That Disney greatly expanded the role and made Jiminy, quite literally, Pinocchio’s consciences is necessary because of the naivety they added to his character. If Jiminy weren’t there to warn him, there would be no way that we could truly fault Pinocchio for his actions. He is, after all, just a puppet, barely a day old, so it would be more than harsh to punish him for believing his elders. But since there is Jiminy as voice of reason, the responsibility shifts back to Pinocchio for listening to the fun advice over the trustworthy one.

2 JiminyJiminy himself is, btw, a giant hypocrite. The whole movie he does nothing but preach towards Pinocchio, which would be okay, since that’s his job. But it’s a little bit grating that he himself doesn’t practice what he preaches most of the time and is often not there the very moment Pinocchio needs his advice the most (he also keeps ogling women made out of wood, which is just weird). The Blue Fairy gives him a job, new clothes, but is this enough for him? No, he also wants a gold medal. One thing for sure, if I had to pick a role model for my children, it certainly wouldn’t be Jiminy, and if I were the Blue Fairy, I would have told him that he should be satisfied with what he gets.

2 blue fairySpeaking of the Blue Fairy (actually the Blue Haired Fairy, but I guess blond looks more attractive?): She is the ultimate Deus-ex-machina, in the book even more than in the movie. There she just randomly turns up, becomes some sort of mother figure for Pinocchio and usually helps him out should he really come to the danger of dying (or to test him). In the movie her involvement is slightly better explained. In the book Gepetto just happened to create a marionette out of magic wood, in the movie the Blue Fairy spelled him alive as a reward for Gepetto. This is partly an improvement because this way the Blue Fairy’s interest in Pinocchio and her being somewhat of his mother makes more sense. But it’s also a very strange reward, since the “happy outcome” entirely hinges on a piece of wood proving himself and not on Gepetto’s actions. Where exactly was the Blue Fairy when he was in the stomach of a whale? And for that matter: Why is it that the only good adult person in the movie has to endure greater hardship than any of the other truly villainous adults?

This is already a problem of the novel which gets amplified by Disney’s typical black and white approach to characters. With Pinocchio it’s easy, whoever was in the hut when Pinocchio became alive is good, all the other characters are only there to lead him astray. Lampwick is a little bit of a special case, though, because while he is a “bad boy”, he actually means well with Pinocchio, looks out for him and tries to teach him his “wisdom”. Well, you could argue that he does it mostly because he likes himself in the leader role, but his “evilness” mostly consists of skipping school, smoking, drinking and destroying stuff in a house which is built for exactly this purpose. And this makes the fact that he and the other boys on Pleasure Island are the only ones who get a permanent punishment even worse (in the book he gets sold and Pinocchio finds him dying after a life full of hard work – just in case you wanted to know for sure what you only suspected).

Honest John and Gideon sell Pinocchio twice and get away with it (and the gold). Stromboli (who isn’t really a villain in the novel) holds him like a slave and gets away with it (and the gold). The Coachman turns hordes of boys into donkeys and then sells them to the salt mines, where they will have a short and painful live (and I really don’t want to know what he does with the ones who still talk). And gets away with it. For all we know his operation is still in full swing. So what exactly is the message of the movie? Don’t trust anyone but your parents, be honest as long as you are a child, but when you reach adulthood you have the power to do whatever you want?

One thing for sure: Neither The Hunchback of Notre Dame, nor The Black Cauldron is the darkest movie Disney ever made, this honour belongs to Pinocchio. And it is not because Disney went for the dark imaginary out of a whim, it’s because Pinocchio is a very messed up story which resulted in a very messed up movie. The truth is: Disney actually disneyfied the story considerably. At least Pinocchio doesn’t get his feet burned away because he sleeps too close to the fire or gets hanged.

The whole point in both, the novel and the movie, seems to be that whenever Pinocchio (or another boy – girls are apparently always following their parents advice) does something bad or foolish, he gets punished in the most gruesome way, and the only reason he survives long enough to see the end of the book is because he is a puppet and the blue fairy turns up whenever the situation becomes really dire (though the original serial did end with Pinocchio dying – the part with the Blue Fairy was added later, which explains why she turns up so randomly).

4. The Music

The interesting part about the songs in Pinocchio is that they are all justified by plot. Usually when characters sing in a Disney movie, I tend to take it more symbolically. Meaning, those people do not really prance around in order to shoot their feelings to the world, it is more like a transitional element. But in Pinocchio the songs feel more like something which is actually happening within the story. They also hold up particularly well. “When you wish upon a star” is naturally to this day the Disney hymn whose meaning not just for this specific movie about for the Disney company in general I have already analysed in the past. The other songs aren’t necessarily Disney classics, but they are memorable enough that Marvel can put a creepy version of “No strings on me” into a trailer and expect the audience to recognize it.

5. The Conclusion

Yeah, I guess it should be very obviously by now: I don’t like the book, I don’t love the movie. But if one had to make a movie based on Pinocchio, it should be like the Disney version. It should display this level of careful animation and dark images and it should attach a nice “when you wish upon a star” message to it to soften the dark aspects a little bit. And to its credit, while very exaggerated, it does address true dangers. The people who promise teenagers a great career or lure children away from their parents with sweets, those are the predators a child is protected best from when it is aware of them. I’m not a fan of using fear in child rearing, but if this movie will keep children from going with a stranger, a week of nightmares about the coachman might be the lesser of two evils.2 Figaro


The Sidekick Song

Let’s talk about the usual cast of a Disney movie: There is a hero and/or a heroine. Note that there isn’t always a love story in the focus. It’s the relationship Disney (well, more or less every movie company out there) defaults to, but it can just as well be about mentor and mentee, owner and pet, friends, children and parents or a combination of any of them. Then there is the villain or antagonist. And finally, there is the supporting cast. In this group the most notable characters are the so-called “sidekicks”.

It’s a little bit ironic, because the word “sidekick” sounds like it is referring to someone unimportant. But in fact the sidekicks tend to be the most important helpers of the heroes or heroines. Not always, though. In Snow White the audience gets the whole spectrum so to speak, from the cutesy animals which mostly provide some laughs, over the slightly more useful dwarves to Grumpy who even has his own character arc. A sidekick with an own song though is nearly always important (that doesn’t mean that there aren’t important sidekicks which don’t sing, though).

I waited so long to write about this kind of song because it is really hard to pin down. Like the “I want” song and the villain song, the Sidekick song belongs to what I like to call “character songs”. Those are songs which are designed to either introduce a character or allow him to voice his thoughts.  But unlike the “I want” or the villain song, which tend to fulfil a very specific function in a movie, the Sidekick song can be more or less about everything. “A friend like me” for example has the clear purpose to introduce the Genie to the audience. “Be Our Guest” is not so much about introducing the characters (which we already met), but revealing their feelings. A song like “Under the sea” on the other hand is not directly about Sebastian  himself but instead showcases his opinion concerning Ariel’s wish to life on land.

What Disney’s sidekick song have in common is that they usually come with an upbeat tune and a clever text. They tend to loosen the tension, allowing some unusual tunes and are usually a lot of fun. Note though that not every song which is sung by a sidekick is automatically a sidekick song, and it is sometimes hard to draw a line. Sometimes it is easy, for example if the Sidekick takes the place of the narrator in a movie (see Big Mama in Fox and Hound or Alan-A-Dale in Robin Hood), but sometimes it is a little bit more complicated. Does count Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother as a sidekick? She is only for one scene in the movie. Is “When you wish upon a star” one? It is sung by Jiminy, but he just happens to be the character who sings this song. I consider “Give a little whistle” his true sidekick song.

When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
When you meet temptation and the urge is very strong,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
Not just a little squeak,
pucker up and blow.
And if your whistle’s weak, yell “Jiminy Cricket!”

Take the straight and narrow path
and if you start to slide,
give a little whistle!
Give a little whistle!
And always let your conscience be your guide.

Unlike “When you wish upon a star” this one only works in the context of the movie, and is about Jiminy and his promise to be there and guide Pinocchio. Though there is not one scene in the movie in which whistling or yelling actually helps. Whenever Pinocchio does that, Jiminy is too far away to hear him, and whenever he meets temptation, he doesn’t listen to Jiminy at all. Still, the song establishes how their relationship is supposed to work. “When you wish upon a star” on the other hand has no direct connection to Jiminy, it is more the theme of the movie itself. And therefore I wouldn’t consider it a Sidekick song, even though it is sung by one.

The “Keep Hoping” Song

In my article about the Disney composers, I mentioned “When you wish upon a star”. Which is, in a lot of ways, the conclusion song of Pinocchio, but it is so much more than that.

This type of songs is a speciality of Disney – lyrics which centre around the concept that if you hold on your faith, something good will eventually happen to you. The concept creeps in a lot of songs – most obviously in the “I want” Song “A Dream is a Wish your Heart makes”:

“No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.”

But there are also songs which are written for the sole purpose of conveying Disney’s message of optimism. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves has “With a Smile and a Song”,  The Rescuers “Someone’s waiting for you”, aso. They are rarer than one might think, but I think there are enough to deserve an own category. Especially since this is the very core of most Disney movies, as voiced in Disney’s anathema:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you.

I really love the line “makes no difference who you are”. Disney’s message of hope is for everyone, no exceptions.

If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do.

I think the part a lot of people overlook is “if your heart is in your dream”. Just wishing isn’t enough. This has to be something your heart is set on. And if your heart is set on something, it is more than just the star which will help you out. The star will give you the hope you might need, but you still have to keep trying.

Fate is kind
She brings to those who love
The sweet fulfillment of
Their secret longing

And yet another condition on getting your wish fulfilled: You have to be a loving person. You give to the world and the world will give back to you eventually.

Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through.
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true.

It might sound like a bolt promise, but isn’t it true? That sometimes life just gives you a break? Some say the song is foolish for promising that wishing upon stars is solving all of your problems. Disney even felt the need to clarify in “The Princess and the Frog” that just wishing isn’t enough, you need to work towards you dreams, too. But I never felt that the song claimed that life is that easy. To me it was always an anathema of hope. And while it is by far not my favourite tune, it is nevertheless a song I can fully get behind. We all need a little bit of hope in our lifes.