TWO DISSOLVE WRITERS KEEP THE PINOCCHIO CONVERSATION GOING…
Tasha: So Nathan, have you read Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures Of Pinocchio, the basis for Disney’s animated film? It’s an incredibly disturbing book. Many of the basics we see in the movie are there—Pinocchio is carved from wood by an old man who wishes for a son, he comes to life, he runs away at the behest of a scheming fox and cat, he ends up in a puppet show, he goes to a place where boys enjoy themselves until they turn into donkeys, he rescues his creator from the belly of a giant fish, and he becomes a real boy. But Collodi’s version is so much darker and more disturbing. It originated as a newspaper serial, so it’s made up of short episodes, almost all of which involve death, mutilation, or some grotesque betrayal. Pinocchio is a selfish little beast, aggressive and violent and constantly defying authority. He deliberately betrays his father and the good fairy over and over, including at one point when he’s behaved himself for a year and is literally one day away from becoming a real boy. (Like a movie cop, killed by the villain one week from retirement.) Pinocchio bites off one of the cat’s paws, when she attacks him while dressed as a bandit, and she repays him by hanging him, leading to a morbid sequence where he’s menaced by black rabbit undertakers. Later, she and the fox end up blind, lame, and starving, and Pinocchio—in spite of his own constant moral failings and repentances—laughs at them and tells them it serves them right. He befriends Lampwick and sees him become a donkey, as in the film—but he also re-encounters donkey Lampwick later, just in time to watch him die of overwork. Most strikingly, he straight-up murders the Jiminy Cricket equivalent who tries to give him good advice, and is subsequently haunted by its ghost.
Walt Disney Animation has a longtime habit of basing animated movies on classic fairy tales and children’s novels, but redrafting them considerably to make them more whimsical, innocent, and sentimental. The company’s first animated feature, Snow White, stuck close to the source material (apart from streamlining out the wicked witch’s earlier, redundant attempts to kill Snow White), but Pinocchio was its second feature, and decades of sweetening up children’s stories started here, with a puppet protagonist who’s naïve and easily led rather than malicious, and who behaves like a cheerful young child rather than an amoral id-monster.
That said, Pinocchio has some surprisingly dark material. Monstro the whale is animated as a terrifying force of nature. The whole business with the donkeys on Pleasure Island is unnerving and nightmarish. It’s a little off-color, too: Jiminy Cricket is quite the little skirt-chaser, gawping at salacious can-can puppets, manhandling the ass of a big-bustled ceramic doll, and flirting with clockwork women. And don’t get me started on Stromboli’s Dance Of The Disturbingly Well-Defined Buttocks. (Okay, go ahead and get me started: That dance is hilarious.) And while I hate Disney’s habit of putting characters through fake deaths and instant revivals, I still have to admit that the lovingly painted image of Pinocchio’s “corpse” floating face-down is pretty unsettling. What do you make of the movie’s being retooled for children, while still carrying so much horror, and so many mildly risque gags for adults?
Nathan: I have not read Collodi’s The Adventures Of Pinocchio, although I have heard that is indeed a nasty piece of work, much darker and more disturbing than the Walt Disney version. And that’s remarkable, because the Walt Disney version is dark and disturbing in its own right. It brings to mind Spring Breakers, which had a slightly more adult take on the pleasures and perversions of Pleasure Island. I suspect part of the reason Pinocchio can get away with being so disturbing is Jiminy Cricket, our narrator and entryway into what appears to be a cozy, sentimental, but fundamentally lonely world. For a movie that doesn’t last 90 minutes, Pinocchio devotes an awful lot of time to establishing the comfy security of home. It’s easy to see why Jiminy Cricket would want to hang out there, sexy inanimate ladies and all.
We see the story through Jiminy’s eyes, and he’s quite the irrepressible little pipsqueak, part Mickey Mouse-like paragon of squeaky innocence, part conscience, and part song-and-dance man. We spend nearly half an hour luxuriating sadly in Geppetto’s almost unbearable loneliness, a pining for human companionship so extreme that he has created a mechanical universe of his own devising, and treats his cat and goldfish (a disturbingly oversexualized goldfish, I might add) better and more closely than most people treat actual children. We feel for Geppetto, this childless man obsessed with children’s toys and make-believe, where it almost begins to feel like the universe owes him a child surrogate, though Pinocchio being as dark as it is, that gift feels like a curse most of the time.
Tasha: I hadn’t really thought about the loneliness of Pinocchio, but now that you mention it, I think you’ve put your finger on something important about the story. I always thought of his relationship with his kitten Figaro (reportedly one of Walt Disney’s favorite Disney characters, which explains why there’s so much kitten business in this pre-Internet movie) and fish Cleo as dotty but sweet, but it’s striking how much time he spends on them—first talking to them individually and making them say good night to each other, then introducing them individually to Pinocchio, then making sure they reunite with his puppet-son one by one in the belly of the whale, then pointing out Pinocchio’s revival to them one by one. The creepy, needy, paternal business of “Here, Figaro, react to this. Now you react, Cleo,” is a running pattern throughout the film.
And it is remarkable, now that you mention it, how sterile and mechanical his warm little home is, with its endless clockwork devices—and its lush painted backdrops, which give the place a heavy, solid feel, but also make it feel fixed in time, caught in a frozen moment. Jiminy Cricket’s repeated playful attempts to interact with Geppetto’s toys as if they’re people suggest his own loneliness, but also point up the degree to which his home is a space out of time, where the rules are different, animals are people, puppets come to life… and everyone’s more than a little insane.
Nathan: I think if Pinocchio didn’t have this first act of sentimental, dewy innocence, with its Merrie Melodies-style business with the animals and the mechanical dancers and Jiminy Cricket, its second-act darkness would be much less palatable. It needs to first establish that goodness exists in the world, and is embodied in characters like Geppetto and Jiminy Cricket. Then its immersion in a creepy world of thieves, con artists, and the completely amoral and debauched would be too disturbing for children and adults alike. It can’t simply throw the audience into the deep, scalding water of everything that happens to Pinocchio once he leaves house for school, and is confronted with all of the ugliness in the world.
This time around, I really connected to Pinocchio as a harrowing cautionary tale about the dangers of entering show-business, the first instrument of Pinocchio’s self-destruction. He doesn’t even know what “fame” is, only that he’s supposed to go to something called “school” that sounds way boring, but each step he takes to get further into the business leads him closer to his doom. He is quite literally sold from one exploitative show-business creep to another like property. What do you think of Pinocchio as a show-business allegory? And what do you see as its darkest and most disturbing element?
Tasha: I never really took Pinocchio’s time with Stromboli seriously as a metaphor for the way agencies and managers can use onerous contracts to own an actor. I can see that it’s there, but for me, their interaction really has more to do with stranger danger, and the way kids can feel helpless when ordered around by adults, especially when they’re too young to have a sense of who in the adult world really has legal authority over them. Pinocchio seems to follow whoever gives him orders—I don’t get the sense that he runs away to join Stromboli out of a sense that school is boring, so much as because it’s the most recent thing an adult has told him to do. His performance onstage is a delight, because he never gets hammy about playing for the audience: He seems to be experiencing the entire show as a complete innocent, a toddler taking in everything around him with wonder. Contrast this with his later performance on Pleasure Island, where he’s imitating Lampwick as best he can, and praising the virtues of being bad. He’s already grown up just a little, enough to communicate why he’s enjoying himself, instead of just gawping. The whole story (both here and in the original version) is a moral lesson about not assuming everyone has your best interests at heart, and not listening to people who push you in questionable directions, because fun without cost is probably fun with a hidden cost.
Speaking of which, I think Pinocchio’s most disturbing element is the Coachman, whose sheer maliciousness makes a lot of other Disney villains look tame. I find him considerably creepier than Monstro the Geppetto-eating whale. The fact that he terrifies the fox and cat, who had no compunctions about selling Pinocchio into slavery, is an early indication that the Coachman is seriously bad news. But the scene where he’s ripping the clothes off newly donkeyed boys, while some of them beg and weep for mercy and their mammas, is just paralyzingly cruel. Monstro is raw power; the Coachman is gloating sadism, actively enjoying hurting and terrifying children. That said, my discomfort with him may just come from an adult perspective; I definitely remember finding Monstro scarier when I saw this as a kid. Did you see Pinocchio in childhood, and did it read differently for you then?
Nathan: I did see Pinocchio as a child, and it traumatized me in the best possible way. I think part of what was different about it this time around was that I was seeing it as a new parent. Before, I saw it as a cautionary warning of how difficult it is to follow the straight and narrow path when the world is full of temptations that are alluring on the surface, but nightmarish just underneath. Now I see it as a film about how difficult it is to really take care of someone, to protect your kids from a world that seemingly wants to destroy their innocence the moment they’re out of your sight. The Coachman is, as you suggested, the most terrifying representation of that evil.
Now might be a good place to talk about the movie’s songs, which reflect its incredibly broad emotional palette, from the sentimentality of “When You Wish Upon a Star” to the morbid wit of “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee.” To me, “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” is the film in a nutshell: It’s ostensibly a cheerful little ditty about the pleasures of show-business, but just under the surface, it’s incredibly dark and sinister, the song of a creepy anthropomorphized Pied Piper attempting to lure innocents to their corruption and doom. What did you think of the music of Pinocchio and what are your final thoughts on the enduring legacy on this seminal nightmare-inducer?
Tasha: “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” remains amazing to me, because it’s a perfect example of a classic Disney song—upbeat, catchy, memorable, sing-along-ready—and yet the film swallows most of it. If you listen closely, you can hear the fox going through verse after verse as he leads Pinocchio down the primrose path, but the audio focus is all on Jiminy Cricket’s fussing as he tries to catch up. Practically every other animated film stops the chatter in its tracks for the songs, and Disney musicals in particular tend to forward the plot considerably during the songs, so this feels like a really unusual approach. Can you imagine if the second and third verses of “Let It Go” or “Under The Sea” or “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” were almost completely lost under the sound of a secondary character talking to himself?
I think “When You Wish Upon A Star” has rightly been framed as the Disney song to end all Disney songs—the one we still hear a snatch of over the Disney logo whenever it plays before Disney projects—because its “live your fantasies” message sums up Walt Disney’s drive, which made American animation happen in the form it did. It’s sentimental, but in the best Disney way—it feels innocent and sincere enough to not come across as calculated or manipulative. Some of that is putting it in the mouth of such a humble character, someone introduced wearing rags and patches and desperate for a home, but still clearly keeping his spirits up.
The film’s minor songs—“Give A Little Whistle” and “Little Wooden Head”—are also well-crafted and catchy enough, but the other big standout is “I’ve Got No Strings,” and given the performance, with Dickie Jones’ fairly toneless, shouty delivery and all the silly accents and repetitive near-nonsense lyrics, I’m going to suggest the credit should go to composer Leigh Harline and lyricist Ned Washington. We also have Harline to thank for the tunes to “Heigh Ho” and “Whistle While You Work”—he was the sound of early Disney, just as Pinocchio was its look. Disney Animation, with its long history of wishing on stars and making dreams happen, owes a lot to those guys, and so do all of us who grew up humming these songs—and absorbing their messages in the process.
Don’t miss Genevieve Koski’s Keynote on how Pinocchio gave Disney, and animation, some of it’s biggest breakthroughs. And on Thursday, Noel Murray will cap the discussion with a look at seven pre-Pinocchio cartoons that represent “the old, weird Disney.” Stay tuned.