Friday, January 30, 2015

Disney's Pinocchio: Second thoughts

Cracking these out while I'm still recently en-memoried about the movies in question. Lacy says she expects more of you are waiting for the later films, which means I'm building up for good stuff :D

I hope, anyway. You've Lebowski'd me before.

Pinocchio is a major step up for Disney infusing art into a movie. There's real soul to (almost) everything that hits the screen, whether it's the lushly detailed woodwork in Gepetto's workshop (thank you Rachel) or the vibrant, childlike innocence that perfuses the title character, or even... well, you know, that part. More of everything is going on on the screen and the animation just seems to take these tremendous strides forward.

Now if the same could be said of the story, we'd have a real winner on our hands, but it turns out that there's a reason I forgot most of it - it's fairly forgettable. Instead of one cohesive tale about a puppet yearning to be a real boy, we have three separate stories that could have been short books in a children's series, capped off by the inevitable resolution. "Pinocchio the Puppet," "Pinocchio's Misbegotten and Horrifying Adventure" and "Pinocchio at Sea" would be the titles. Alright maybe that middle one is a bit off its hinge but IT IS VERY TRUE more about that later. Back to the point, our wooden-headed friend is naive and pleasant and a true innocent (seriously does this movie only take like... two days?) but as a result is a flat character. Which is kind of an issue when the movie tells us that he's supposed to have a character arc if he wants to earn his not-wooden status. There's a word I vastly enjoy: gormless. That's Pinocchio at every part of this movie, even in the third act where he's supposed to demonstrate ingenuity, bravery and nobility.

I suppose the real star of this movie is the Blue Fairy, since she's really a star no wait hold on back the fish delivery van up a bit the real star of the movie is Jiminy "Fancy" Cricket, a hobo who likes to flirt with wooden ladies and hopes to land a job as a puppet's conscience. For all that he sometimes seems to be talking, or even doing anything, just to fill the empty space that would be left by Pinocchio failing his way through life, Jiminy is a much better window into the story than our balsam buddy could ever be. There's no telling what's going in on Pinocchio's head; he's very much like an infant given voice and agency, but lacking the most basic of human needs. Jiminy's presence creates conflict by informing said obtuse puppet that he has the power to choose.

That's the real center of conflict and the moral in the film; that what Pinocchio needs to find to become real is the power within himself to choose, apart from what anyone is telling him to do. If he wants to be a real boy and not a puppet, he has to stop being a puppet. Strings hold him down. I was whacking my head against the couch trying to find any kind of valid answer for why, for instance, he goes with Dishonest John even after Jiminy has told him flat-out not to. It's because Dishonest John provided an impetus, named an ambition, and so Pinocchio acted in that direction. Jiminy gave an instruction, but Dishonest John provided a whole stage direction - "Be an actor." Lampwick (thanks again Rachel) does the same thing. This says something about both characters - Pinocchio is driven by simple desires almost completely by inertia, whereas Jiminy - because he fails to realize that - is a poor excuse for a conscience. His attempts to merely instruct, rather than explain, fail to give Pinocchio purpose. Jiminy treats him like a puppet, and a puppet he stays.

So that's the major theme of the story, and I really wish it had been put out there more prominently. On the surface we're supposed to say Jiminy Cricket is a fine conscience because he says what's right, but there is a reason it never plays out for him. I don't think he really deserved that gold star in the end.

By the way, I was under the impression that the nose thing happened all the time, but it only ever took place once in the whole story and the Blue Fairy was there the whole time. That might just be a cultural thing, though; people make long-nose references about telling fibs all the time. Also flaming trouser references, but anyway. I don't know if it was actually such a big thing in the original or if Disney just felt like it wasn't necessary to keep including. But hot spankity damn is Pinocchio one hell of a bad liar. "And then they chopped me up into firewood." I mean holy smokes bud.

So, analysis time. Well, moreso. Animation's gone up a notch. They did the Blue Fairy in the same style as the humans from the previous film, but they did a sharper job this time. Gepetto is drawn with the more exaggerated style, and it creates a much more engaging character. The two pets are charming and full of personality as well. Pinocchio is of course tremendously obtuse and naive in looks, but it fits. Jiminy Cricket has a design that doesn't look even remotely like a cricket, but given his role I feel like it works for him. The villains, curiously, are all vast and even obese; is this supposed to be a character flaw a la Nedry? I don't think so. I think it indicates that the problems in life are often much larger than can be reckoned with alone. There are three villains here, one for each act, and while ostensibly all three are motivated by greed, there's a darker undertone to each of them. Stromboli desires control; even the wonder of a puppet that moves on its own is not enough for him, he needs to control this puppet too. The Coachman is just THE DEVIL I HATE HIM the embodiment of Sloth as a deadly sin, a being who instead of working himself, procures labor via cursing those who would shirk the obligations of life. That's right, he uses sloth to punish the slothful so HE can be slothful. Monstro the whale is Wrath, a berserk force of nature furious that anything could escape his grasp (and probably a bit peeved about the whole sneeze thing). There's a contrast between how these villains are animated compared to the other characters - it's looser and often weaker if you compare their art to the others, like they're half-rotoscoping and half-creating (all created in Monstro's case, he just looks a bit sloppy).

Of course we also have Dishonest John and his pal. It was weird to see talking animal characters in a human universe, but if those are the rules then I'll abide by them. Whatever. It's funny; nobody in this film ever gets their comeuppance. There's a vicious moral there. This is actually a pretty dark film, when you come right down to it.

No avoiding it any more: HOLY CRAP IT WAS DISTURBING WHO ALLOWED THAT. Seriously. There was no part of that that wasn't extremely unpleasant to watch. If you wanted to scare kids straight... let me put it this way, I'm not even blinking an eye at how they put Disney Satan in the next movie, because this part was worse. That said, I have to talk about how it ties into the larger theme. The origin of choice in the human context is the power to say "no." Pinocchio rejects becoming a donkey, but he does so on Lampwick's implicit directive - his expressed pain, fear and misery coupled with the horror of witnessing the transformation. So it's still not really a choice. Lampwick's final word also gives our wood golem a new directive: "return to parent as solution to problem." Lampwick of course does not get to, but it's noteworthy that Pinocchio makes every effort to return to his father after this and doesn't get sidetracked anymore. Also I think they poisoned the beer with the transformation element, that's when it all started.

Anyway, moving on from THAT because holy crap folks. Pinocchio's first real choices involve defying his father (in his usual naive way) to undertake an escape plan rather than stay put. So in some ways it could be argued that he has a character arc that moves forward. Except... there's nothing in his prior experience that should suggest to him that he can make a plan, or that he should build a fire to make Monstro sneeze, or really anything. The whole "I'll be bold and noble now" character comes out of nowhere because we have zero context for where those personality elements originated. Which seriously weakens it, I think. When they got back to land and Pinocchio was "dead," I was actually confused simply because I didn't follow any sort of "sacrifice" or other indicator of bravery and selflessness during the Monstro sequence on his part. Just a golem serving his creator. I'd like that not to have been the case, and maybe a rewatch (that will never ever happen thanks Pleasure Island) would say differently, but for me... it just wasn't there.

On to music! This was a fun score, quite a few songs, but of course there was one theme leading the pack by miles and they knew it too. When You Wish Upon A Star has a fantastic melody and a wondrous, aspirational quality to the musical phrasing wherein every four-bar is waiting to resolve. It's pleasant, wistful, hopeful and moves forward very well. The other songs are bouncy and catchy, but much like the songs in Snow White they're largely repetitive and don't go anywhere. And they lean on nonsense words. Of course, that was a thing musically back then - jazz scat, songs like Bli-Blip, Inka Dinka Doo, etc. - but still. Learn to words, guys. Who knows? (Well you guys probably do.) Maybe it's just a trend of one hit song and then a bunch of catchy filler every movie. Guess we'll see going forward.

Ultimately, it's a better movie than Snow White was, and the animation is much improved, but there's still something needed in the storytelling department to bring out those themes and make them shine. And holy crap next time just go POOF or something, don't do THAT for transformations. All the stress.


  1. Unfortunately now that you mention it, I recall a lot of the classic Disney animated films have trouble with character agency, as if a protagonist is someone to whom things happen, rather than someone who makes things happen, other than saying "I don't like this very much" by the third act. I think this only starts to get better in the 1990s.

    And you've got a point about books where every chapter is a separate adventure (or long book series where every adventure matters) being turned into movies when they would fit a television format better. I do know of at least one 52-episode Pinocchio anime series... thanks to a compilation movie that really couldn't hide its being an abridged TV series.

  2. Fun fact: This movie actually did, at one point get re-released as a series of short subjects, so you weren't at all off the mark with that observation.

    They never get quite this heavy again, which I think is all to the good, Pinocchio is a little overwhelming in my book.

    Yeah, When You Wish Upon A Star is not only the star number of this movie, but possibly of Disney as a whole-- they've been using it as their "anthem" ever since. Curiously in several countries (including Sweden and Japan), it's become a standard Christmas carol.

  3. "Cracking these out while I'm still recently en-memoried about the movies in question. Lacy says she expects more of you are waiting for the later films, which means I'm building up for good stuff :D"

    Yes, I don't think you have anything to worry about there! I'm quite sure sooner or later you're going to hit one you *love*. I don't know which one it'll be, but I think it very very likely.

    1. I think if nothing else, we'll hit that when we get to the Renaissance era, that was a decade of straight classics. But we've still got Cinderella, Alice, Peter Pan, and Sleeping Beauty ahead of us, any of those could also easily be the one where it all comes together. I think it won't be any of the package features (if they even do them), even the best of them are uneven.

  4. Great notes on character motivation here. A lot of stuff I never even considered.

    Regarding the darkness: The movie goes pretty easy in comparison to the book, in which (spoilers) the cricket doesn't make it past Act I; the Blue Girl is explicitly a ghost; and the Fox and the Cat receive a grisly comeuppance after *hanging Pinocchio by the neck and leaving him for dead*.

    Which makes it all the more impressive that the film still ends with no resolution for Lampwick & co. For all we know, those kids remain donkeys and Pleasure Island continues to operate. I think you'll find the later films less willing to follow that road.