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Disney Review - Pinocchio

I’ve always been fond of this film. While most Disney movies have their Snow Whites or the Ariels or their Mulans or Cinderellas at their centre, Pinocchio is one of those rare instances where a male character is the centre of the plot. Someone that I, as a little boy myself though certainly less made of wood than our naïve hero, could identify with. Not a love story in sight, it’s always made a nice change from the constant stream of Disney Princesses and waiting for that some day when their prince will come. Our lead character doesn’t want a magic kiss, he just wants to be a real boy, and it’s a refreshing change. As a kid I enjoyed this movie, and I was worried going in that the lens of adulthood might sour the experience. But unlike Snow White, Pinocchio has aged much better, has a lot to offer and in places it’s loads of fun.

Let’s start with the bit I liked the best – Jiminy Cricket. It’s easy to see why this character became such an icon for the Disney Company as a whole. From the get-go with his opening rendition of “When You Wish Upon A Star” and his direct-to-audience introduction to the story, he’s more engaging than anything we got from Snow White. And that’s what makes this film work better than its predecessor – we have an interesting, comic (without being silly) narrator guiding us through the story. Snow White, in comparison, opened with a silent book statically telling us the state of play followed by the absurdly innocent Snow White having another conversation with birds. Jiminy Cricket is by no means innocent – he’s experienced some of the world and knows what’s what, which complements perfectly with Pinocchio’s newborn simplicity. That’s what was really missing from Snow White – we had Grumpy, sure who seemed to have a healthily cynical eye as to what was going on, but his character is fairly low in the mix. In Pinocchio it’s as if they’ve realised it’s best to bring someone like Grumpy to the foreground and give relief to the innocent Snow White (and it also means we don’t have to spend ages watching Pinocchio talk to mute birds and squirrels). But Jiminy is more entertaining to watch than Grumpy – he seems to seriously enjoy life however it presents itself to him. He’s bouncing around Geppetto’s workshop to the music-boxes without a care in the world, throws himself into the role of Pinocchio’s conscience with enthusiasm and gusto so that you can’t help but go along with him. He cares about the little wooden boy put into his care, and thus so do we. And it helps that the cricket has a sense of the snark about him too, with one-liners coming thick and fast (“what does an actor need with a conscience anyway?”), a happy change from the saccharine blandness and tweeness of the dialogue in Snow White.

That’s generally what puts Pinocchio above Snow White – it’s less twee. Sure, it’s still a Disney film, we still have a Blue Fairy stating that “a boy who won’t be good might just as well be made of wood” and other childlike rhyming platitudes, but the story overall is treated with a sophisticated level of holistic storytelling that was absent from the previous film. Every sequence works towards the advancement of the story, there’s no lengthy comedy washing-up sequences here. The animators and writers still haven’t quite got out of the habit of relying on gags to fill time – for example, how many comedy moments with clocks and music-boxes does Jiminy Cricket really need? – but for the most part everything is there to serve the plot and very little is wasted. Our main characters feel more three dimensional, their dialogue more natural revealing an actual character with relatable motivations rather than, say, the Wicked Queen who just wants Snow White dead cause she’s Evil (or Snow White who just wants her prince and to sing with the animals some more). Which makes us care more. When Pinocchio ignores his conscience and goes off with Honest Jon and Gideon to be an actor or to Pleasure Island, we feel Jiminy’s exasperation and worry. There’s real emotion in Geppetto’s search of the rainy streets of the town for his missing son. The pinnacle of this is the sequence in Pleasure Island where Lampwick transforms into a donkey. I mentioned last time how scary Snow White eating the apple was – this turns the horror up tenfold as we see the initial changes happen slowly and almost comically. Then there’s Lampwick’s panic and terror once he realises what’s happening, his hands turning into hoofs. Then that famous moment where we see  Lampwick’s silhouette, screaming for his mother, turn into a donkey and he loses all ability for speech or rational thought. And then, the scariest part of all, Pinocchio begins to transform in exactly the same way. Unlike Snow White fleeing through the forest, here I found I really cared about what happened to the wooden boy and whether Jiminy could get him out of what he’d got into this time. When Pinocchio later works out how to break his father out of Monstro the Whale, one can’t help but feel proud at how far this little guy has come.

Have to have a few words in praise of Dicky Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. The part could have been incredibly annoying, as many cute child characters are, but Jones keeps it on the right side of irritating and brings a nice warmth and charm to the part. He’s innocent, without being annoyingly so (unlike Snow White…), and as I said, I found myself caring as to how he got out of the messes he got into. And his unknowing humour when it comes to learning the basics of life is entertaining – his discovery of fire springs to mind. Endearing, not annoying, and plays off very well with Jiminy Cricket. In fact, I’m going to be interested to see how Jiminy Cricket comes across in those future films where he’s going solo without Pinocchio, as the two work very well together as it is.

Oh, and how about those songs? It’s easy to see how this score won awards back in the day – it’s so catchy and memorable. Sure, there’s “When You Wish Upon A Star” which has become the Disney anthem (and rightly so), but even the minor, lesser known songs, like “Little Wooden Head” and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” stick in the brain and go round and round for hours. It’s rare that I see a Disney film where I like the whole score, usually there’s at least one or two I’m not that impressed with, but not the case here. I’m thinking, hopefully not for the first time, I’m going to have to chase down the soundtrack for this movie.

Overall impressions: Disney’s clearly learnt a lot about feature-length storytelling in the time since Snow White, and Pinocchio is all the better for it. It works better as a cohesive unit, every sequence working towards the overall story, with engaging characters and a catchy soundtrack. Definitely one of those films from my childhood that stands the test of time.

Next time, hippos in tutus and magical mops. It’s Fantasia