Pinocchio – Best Pictures of 1940 (#10)

He may be an idiot, but we can't help but love him.

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?

An example of the lush animation of "Pinocchio."

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.

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11 Comments

Filed under 1940, Yearly Best Pictures

11 responses to “Pinocchio – Best Pictures of 1940 (#10)

  1. There are better Disney Animations, of course, but this one has magnificent animation and sound. The story isn’t really good, but it’s what you get.

  2. I have all kinds of fond memories on this one. It was for one the first animated film I saw in the theatre, and my father (who is now 80) was my escort. It is arguable Disney’s greatest work to this day, and it does certainly rank among the best films of 1940.

    Magnificent essay Jason!

    • Thank you Sam! Movies like this always evoke fond childhood memories and that may be part of the reason I am so forgiving of its faults. I don’t know about it being Disney’s greatest, but it is one of his top 5.

  3. I’m not a big Disney fan (hardly saw any of them as a child which is probably why), but enjoyed your piece on this one. And definitely agree that hand-drawn animation has an appeal which computers will never equal.

    • That’s interesting. I wonder how much of our appreciation for movies like these have to do with our childhood memories, as I said to Sam above. I have a similar appreciation for The Neverending Story even though I watched it recently and it paled in comparison to my memory. But if someone has never seen the movie as a child, it must look pretty sad.

  4. Pingback: Dee Dee, Mother’s Day, Staging of “Little Shop of Horrors,” Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” Branagh’s “Thor” « Wonders in the Dark

  5. I third the hand-drawn animation, but of course I will almost always be biased toward the hand over the machine when it comes to art. 🙂

    I do love Fantasia, though I haven’t seen it for many years. I remember watching it as a very young child and being utterly amazed that anyone could combine classical music and cartoons in that way. I saw Fantasia 2000 in IMAX when that one came out and it failed to move me the same way, though some of the animation was lovely. But anyway, Pinocchio — you are right, it is well done. I love the “I’ve got no strings” song. It never occurred to me to think much about the film before, because the whale freaked me out so much when I was younger, I kept everything Pinocchio at arms’ length for years afterward!

  6. Gijs Grob

    ‘Pinocchio’ is the most lush feature film Disney made – later features, including ‘Bambi’ are less elaborate in their design and effect animation. B.T.W. even ‘Bambi’ lost at the box office – World War II was not a good time to release animated feature films, and an important part of the foreign market was unreachable at the time. After ‘Bambi’ Disney wouldn’t release a real feature until ‘Cinderella’ in 1950, sticking to cheaper package features inbetween.

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