So here’s the beginning of another meaningless, but no less personally satisfying, list – the countdown of the best of 1940, which begins with Pinocchio. And let’s be honest: Walt Disney’s animated classic may not be the best of Disney’s studio output, but it is such a viscerally satisfying retelling of the nineteenth century Italian fairy tale that many of us can’t help but overlook its weaknesses and celebrate its bewitching charm and sumptuous animation. The movie didn’t exactly triumph at the box office and, together with Disney’s high budget passion project Fantasia, Pinocchio edged the successful animation studio toward perilous economic times. Disney would rebuild his brand over the next couple of years with smash hits like Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942), but by the end of 1940 it looked as though the failures of that years slate of films foretold the demise of feature-length animation – which had been pioneered by Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.
Today Fantasia and Pinocchio are considered classics. I’ve never loved Fantasia – like all anthologies some sequences are better than others – but it has grown on me over the years. However I still feel like Pinocchio is an eminently more entertaining and watchable film.
I don’t suppose it’s necessary to rehash the story of the wooden boy who dreams of becoming a real boy and the adventures he braves along with a dapper cricket and a nose that grows with every lie. The narrative is something of a mess, but we don’t care as much as we would with a lesser movie because Disney managed to imbue his characters with a natural empathy, down to the detailed animation and the energetic voice-over work, especially for Pinocchio himself. Even though most of the danger in which Pinocchio falls stems from his own stupidity (I won’t call it naivety because the greenest rube could still follow directions), we tend to forgive him because, after all, just that morning he was a lifeless piece of world. Why wouldn’t a piece of cherry wood ignore his friends and traipse off with a couple of shady looking foxes?
The animation in Pinocchio is magnificent. The characters are richly realized against plush settings with a subtle color scheme reminiscent of old children’s books. (I won’t take the opportunity to lament the demise of hand drawn animation in favor of stark computer animation; take it as read.) This is a movie we don’t need to watch as a traditional narrative film; we could mute the sound and still marvel at the gorgeous work that Disney and his team produced.
So whatever Pinocchio’s shortcomings the movie will always be remembered with affection – if only for the iconic song “When You Wish Upon a Star” which seems to play on a never-ending loop in the castle at Disneyland. But the movie is better than one song. The episodes chronicle a boy’s growth and maturity (forget he isn’t a real boy yet – I’m talking metaphorically here) to a climatic and heartfelt reunion with his father, the kindhearted, but lonely toymaker Geppetto. It’s disorganized and messy, but full of enchantment and charm – enough to squeak in as the best of 1940 at number 10.