Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had been a gamble for Walt Disney, but one that had paid off both critically and economically. But was Disney successful because of the novelty of a feature-length cartoon? Or was there something here that he could build on? Dozens of films later, we know the answer to that story, but as 1940 rolled around the answer was still unclear.
Pinocchio was to be Disney’s second attempt at success, and they took pains to differentiate it from its predecessor. While Snow White had been a fairy-tale of the Brothers Grimm variety, Pinocchio was based on a 57-year old Italian children’s novel. The former centered around women, a princess, and her evil step-mother, while the latter was a boys tale of adventure with a morale. We all know the story of Pinocchio: a puppet that wants to be a real boy, a nose that grows when he lies, and about the lengths that he goes to be reunited with his father. It’s an amazing story, told well. And yet, it was also a box-office failure. It seems inconceivable.
Read on for a recap and my thoughts on this second Disney classic.
Once Upon A Time – Film Recap
“Be a good boy, and always let your conscience be your guide.” – The Blue Fairy
One upon a time, there was a talking cricket: Jiminy Cricket. He was an itinerant cricket, traveling from town to town and house to house until he stumbled onto the home of Gepetto, a wood-carver and collector of clocks and wind-up toys– along with his cat, Figaro, and fish, Cleo. The cricket spies the old man putting the finishing touches on his newest marionette, which he names Pinocchio. Heading off to bed, Gepetto spies a wishing star outside his window and makes a wish: he wishes Pinocchio would be a real boy.
As everyone is asleep, the Blue Fairy appears and uses her magic to bring the puppet to life, but he is not yet a real boy. While he can move and talk, he must prove himself to be brave, truthful, and unselfish if he is to be given the ultimate gift of life. To help the not-yet-boy along his path, she appoints Jiminy Cricket as his conscience. He will follow Pinocchio and try to teach him the difference between right and wrong. Gepetto awakens and discovers that Pinocchio is alive! They dance and sing in joyous celebration, but the puppet-boy’s naiveté shows through when he lights his finger on fire. Gepetto puts it out (in the fish’s water bowl!), but that is enough for one night and they head to bed.
“A very lovely thought, but not at all practical.” – Jimminy Cricket
The next day, Gepetto ushers Pinocchio off to school with a brand new “A-B-C” book and an apple for the teacher. He points out the other children in the street and encourages Pinocchio to follow them to school. Not far ahead, a Fox and a Cat watch the children pass as they discuss a recent scam. As Pinocchio walks by, they spy a chance for easy money: they can sell the puppet-boy to Strombolli, the famous puppeteer. They interrupt Pinocchio’s walk to school, telling him about the “easy road to success” that is the theater. The pair are convincing and Pinocchio follows them to his new life of fame and fortune. Jiminy Cricket, who had slept in, finally catches up and tries to talk Pinocchio out of it, but fails.
Jiminy follows them to the theater, but arrives just as the show is about to start. Pinocchio comes out onto the stage, but he is clumsy and trips up the other puppets while he sings, “I’ve Got No Strings”. Strombolli is livid at first, but the audience eats it up as comedy . Together, they put on a good show. Jiminy realizes that Pinocchio can be successful as an actor and leaves. Back at home, Gepetto finds that Pinocchio still has not returned from school, and he goes back into the town to continue searching.
“What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?” – Jiminy Cricket
After the show, Strombolli counts his money in his wagon: he made a fortune. Pinocchio asks to go home for the night, but the puppeteer takes no chances and locks him in a birdcage before setting off to the next town. Jiminy had come by to wish Pinocchio good luck, but discovers the boy’s predicament. He fails to the pick the lock and just as as all hope seems lost, the Blue Fairy appears. She interrogates Pinocchio on what happened, but he lies repeatedly. Each time he fibs, his nose grows; it eventually grows so large that it sprouts twigs and a bird’s nest! She agrees to give Pinocchio another chance, but insists this will be the last time she helps them. She fixes Pinocchio’s nose and unlocks the cage, letting he and Jiminy escape into the night.
Not far away, Honest John and the Cat sing about their success, not realizing that Strombolli made many times more money than he paid them. A Coachman sees their greed and offers them even more money if they will provide him with “stupid little boys” that he can take to Pleasure Island. The pair agree.
“Don’t worry, they never come back… as BOYS.” – The Coachman
Jiminy and Pinocchio race back to Gepetto, but Pinocchio is stopped again by the Fox and the Cat when Jiminy gets too far ahead. The Fox diagnoses Pinocchio as a “nervous wreck” and gives him a “ticket” to a vacation on Pleasure Island. Before long, he is in the carriage with the Coachman while Jiminy desperately holds on below. Pinocchio makes a new friend, Lamp-Wick, who tells him all about the exciting land they will be visiting, where there are no rules and no school.
One boat ride later, the kids arrive at Pleasure Island, a gigantic fairgrounds filled with places to play games, smoke, or even destroy a replica house. Jiminy searches the throngs of boys for Pinocchio, but cannot find him. Hours later– or perhaps longer– the fair is in ruins and most of the kids have disappeared. Jiminy finally finds Pinocchio and Lamp-Wick playing pool and smoking cigars in a poolhall, but Pinocchio pushes him away by saying that Lamp-Wick is his real best friend. As he prepares to leave the island, Jiminy spies the Coachman loading donkeys wearing boys’ clothing onto the boat. When he sees one of them still able to talk, he figures it out: the bad kids are turning into donkeys. Jiminy runs back to warn Pinocchio, but it is too late: Lamp-Wick fully transforms and runs off, while Pinocchio grows ears and a tail. Jiminy and Pinocchio escape by climbing to a cliff overlooking the sea and diving in.
“Come on, quick! Before you get any worse!” – Jiminy Cricket
Finally back at Gepetto’s house, Pinoccho and Jiminy find it empty. A bird carries a message to the pair: Gepetto has been swallowed by Monstro the Whale, but he is still alive. Pinocchio and Jiminy rush off to find the whale and save Pinocchio’s father.
At the sea shore, Pinocchio and Jiminy grab onto heavy rocks and jump into the water, allowing them to sink and walk on the ocean floor. (Apparently, neither puppets nor talking crickets need to breathe.) They search the ocean, but scare away the fish when they ask about Monstro. Inside the belly of the whale, Gepetto is fishing off the side of a shipwreck where he (with Figaro and Cleo) has been living. They are nearly out of food as it has been a while since Monstro fed. The whale wakes to chase a school of fish, allowing Pinocchio to find him. As the boy swims toward the whale, Gepetto excitedly prepares for incoming fish. It all comes together as Monstro swallows Pinocchio, but he is caught in Gepetto’s fishing line and saved! Father and son reunited, the little family celebrates.
“I’m afraid we are done for.” – Gepetto
Pinocchio has a plan: they will light their boat on fire and escape on a small raft. Monstro will be forced to open his mouth because of the smoke, and they will escape. His plan worked and the family is spat out. An angry Monstro chases them, destroying their raft, but Pinocchio is able to drag his father to the shore. Gepetto awakens to find Pinocchio lying face down in the water, apparently dead.
At home, Gepetto and Jiminy mourn the little puppet, but the Blue Fairy appears and grants Gepetto his original wish: Pinocchio is made into a real boy! Jiminy is also given his reward, a solid gold badge that says “Conscience”. Everyone dances and celebrates and lives happily ever after. The end!
The Source – The Story Behind the Story
For his second animated film, Disney choose to adapt the 1883 novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, by Carlo Collodi. Originally printed as a series of serialized chapters (in Italian) starting in 1881, the work was finished as a novel and published two years later. The book is similar in tone to the finished film, but with more episodes and characters for Pinocchio to interact with. Even the timeframe is different: while the film takes place over only a few days, the book narrates action over several years. Despite its differences, both the film and the book share the fundamental story of a puppet who wants to be a real boy, and wins that dream through personal heroism and hard work. It is well worth a read for any fan of the movie.
To make the book suitable for a 90-minute film, Disney needed to simplify the plot, choosing three key events in Pinocchio’s life to focus on: the theater, the island of misbehaving children, and Gepetto’s rescue. The novel’s diverse cast of characters was also simplified, with antagonists combined or eliminated, and existing ones integrated differently into the plot. The Fox and the Cat are the best example of this style of adaptation: all of their scenes from the book were cut, but Disney added them into other scenes instead.
I want to take a close look at the way Disney adapted the characters, but before I do that it will be helpful to summarize the novel. Since I just recapped the film, I’ll understand if you don’t want to read two in a row. I’ll indent this so you an easily find the end:
Once upon a time, there was a talking piece of wood who was about to become a table leg. Fortunately, the carpenter realizes that the wood can talk and gives it to his friend Gepetto, a wood-carver, to make a puppet out of. And thus, Pinocchio was born!
Newly minted Pinocchio gets into trouble almost immediately, by stealing Gepetto’s wig and running out into the street. When his father catches him, he is arrested on suspicion of child abuse. Back at home, a Talking Cricket appears and attempts to tell Pinocchio the error of his ways, but the boy tosses a hammer at him and kills him. (Yes, Pinocchio kills the book version of Jiminy Cricket!) The next day, Pinocchio has no food and tries to beg, but instead manages to get his legs burnt off. Gepetto returns home after being released and offers to repair his legs (and provide lunch!) if Pinocchio will be a good boy. He agrees. Gepetto also sells his only coat to give his son an “A-B-C” book to take to school with him.
On the first day of school, Pinocchio learns of the marionette theater and wants to see the show. (He discovers this on his own, with no help from the Fox or the Cat.) He offers to sell his coat for admission, and is turned down– but they will take his book instead. He agrees. Once inside, the other puppets (also alive) recognize him and call out, “Pinocchio! Pinocchio!” The ruckus interrupts the show and the director (“Fire Eater”) comes out and takes Pinocchio back stage, threatening to burn him and the other offending puppets. Pinocchio offers to be burned to save the other puppets and Fire Eater is taken aback. He sends Pinocchio on his way, five gold coins (a small fortune!) richer.
On his way home, Pinocchio meets up with the Fox and the Cat who tell him of a magical field where planted gold coins will sprout into trees of money. They offer to take him there, but stop first for an elaborate meal at the Red Lobster Inn (the same inn where Honest John meets the Coachman, in the film). Pinoccho is left with the bill (one gold coin!) and also left alone as his companions have run along ahead. At midnight, he sets off to follow them but then the ghost of the Talking Cricket appears with a warning: Assassins are ahead; it is a trap. Pinocchio ignores the warnings and he is soon ambushed. While he manages to bite off the hand of one of the assassins (a cat’s paw), he is eventually captured and strung up in a tree, losing consciousness.
He wakes in a nearby house, being tended to by the Fairy with the Azure Hair. She is younger than her movie counterpart and asks Pinocchio to think of her as a sister. The Talking Cricket is also there and tells Pinocchio that his father is looking for him. Pinocchio makes up some lies as excuses, causing his nose to grow so large he cannot leave the house. Despite his dishonesty the Fairy invites Pinocchio and his father to come live with her. She fixes his nose (by calling a flock of woodpeckers!) and Pinocchio runs out of the house to find his father… and back into the waiting paws of the Fox and the Cat. (The cat is now a paw short, but he claims he donated it to a hungry wolf to eat.) They escort Pinocchio the rest of the way to their Field of Wonders where he buries his gold and leaves. They then dig his gold back up when he isn’t looking, but Pinocchio discovers the crime and reports it to the police… who promptly arrest him (for stupidity?) and throw him in jail. He remains in jail for months until he is finally pardoned.
He returns to the Fairy’s house, but she is no longer there. Starving, Pinocchio steals from a farmer but is forced to work as a guard dog to repay what he stole. Pinocchio saves the farmer’s chickens from some weasels and his debt is repaid. Returning again to the Fairy’s house, Pinocchio learns that she died of grief in his absence and that Gepetto, his father, has built a boat to sail to America to look for him. Pinocchio rushes to where his father is (thanks to the help of a friendly pigeon), but arrives only in time to see him swept under the waves. Pinocchio dives in to save him, but is told by a passing dolphin that he has been eaten by the Big Shark (the book’s version of Monstro).
Pinocchio finds himself on a distant shore, hungry and alone. He tries to beg for food, but is rebuffed because the populace expects him to do honest work in return. Eventually, he agrees to help a woman carrying water jugs but is shocked to see that it is the Fairy, but now much older. She convinces Pinocchio to attend school and he stays with her for several months, becoming an excellent student.
Months later, one of his school friends tells him that the Big Shark has been spotted at the beach and Pinocchio must decide whether to skip school or take the chance that he could find his father. Pinocchio decides the later, but discovers that it is a trick set by the other boys to make him skip school. They fight and one of the children is injured, with Pinocchio again hauled off to prison. He escapes from the guards but they sic a guard dog on him. He flees back to the beach and starts to swim, with the dog closely behind. The dog is a poor swimmer and is soon struggling in the water. Pinocchio goes back and rescues the guard dog who lets him leave. Moments later, Pinocchio is caught by a fisherman and nearly eaten, but the guard dog comes to his rescue, repaying the debt. Pinocchio returns home to his Fairy.
At the end of the school year, the Fairy agrees to make Pinocchio into a real boy at a party that she will hold for him the next day. Pinocchio gives invitations to all of his friends, but Lamp-Wick refuses. He cannot go to the party because he is going to a land of fun that night. Pinocchio argues with him until the coach arrives to take Lamp-Wick, but in a moment of weakness Pinocchio gets on with him. They are taken to an island where they party for five months, but they both catch “donkey fever” and start to transform. Before they can escape, they are fully transformed into donkeys and the Coachman collects them for sale.
Pinocchio is sold to a circus and is trained to do tricks for three months. Once he is well-trained, he is brought out to perform in front of an audience for the first time. He spies the Fairy in the stands, but she does not recognize him. He trips and breaks his leg– the vet says that he will be permanently lame. Disgusted, the circus master sells him to a furrier. To kill donkey-Pinocchio without harming his coat, the man ties a rock to him and throws him in the water to drown. While under water, he is attacked by fish until all his flesh is removed, leaving Pinocchio a puppet once again. Pinocchio tries to swim away, but at that moment is caught and eaten by the Big Shark.
Inside the shark’s belly, he finds Gepetto! His father had survived for two years by eating supplies he found on a shipwreck that the monster had swallowed. He also knows a way out (the shark has asthma and has to sleep with its mouth open), but since he cannot swim he could never use it to leave. Pinocchio offers to carry Gepetto and they escape that night, but all of the exertion takes its toll on he old man and he collapses shortly after they make it to shore.
As Pinocchio leads his father down a road, he passes the Fox and the Cat again but refuses to listen to them. He finds a farmer who offers him a job in exchange for food and lodging. The farmer has a dying donkey who Pinocchio recognizes as Lamp-Wick. Pinocchio remains with the farmer for many months as he cares for his father and gradually saves up some money. When Pinocchio has 50 pennies, he goes to town to buy himself new clothes but he finds one of the Fairy’s servants and is told that she too is sick. He gives all of his money away to help her and returns to his father empty-handed.
Later that night, Pinocchio is made into a real boy. He had become unselfish and true, giving all he had for both his father and the Fairy. Gepetto is made young again, and the pair are given a fortune of 50 gold coins. And they lived happily every after!
What I loved about Disney’s adaptation is the way he approached narrative efficiency. He sliced and diced, but retained the core of the characters to build a film that holds together better than the book. While the novel covers more episodes, the film avoids the repetition of Pinocchio falling into temptation over and over again, only to find the right path. By limiting it to three encounters that span days rather than years, the story is tighter and more believable.
But while he trimmed the episodes, I think it is more telling how Disney adapted his characters:
Blue Fairy – No longer the “Fairy with the Azure Hair”, the Blue Fairy is both more and less central in Pinocchio’s new story. Rather than a motherly figure, she becomes a mysterious one, only appearing when needed. The film also gives her the job of making Pinocchio “alive” in the first place, not just the one that makes him into a real boy at the end. This mystery is at the cost of Pinocchio coming to know or love her. She does not raise him while Gepetto is lost at sea, nor mourn him when he runs away. It is a shame that the only woman in the story becomes a plot device, rather than a developed individual.
Jiminy Cricket – Mr. Cricket has perhaps the most expanded role as it is his experience with becoming Pinocchio’s conscience that bookends the film. Not bad for a character that is killed almost immediately in the book! Jiminy gets much of the parental role that the Blue Fairy loses in the adaptation and is easily a second father to Pinocchio.
The Fox and the Cat – In the novel, the Fox and the Cat are memorable recurring antagonists– but Disney cut all of their scenes! Instead, they are seamlessly integrated into the stories of Strombolli and the Coachman, so much so that it is hard to imagine those stories working any other way. Because they never try to kill Pinocchio, Disney also takes out a lot of their punch, leaving instead two memorable villains that nonetheless demonstrate that wrong-doers are stupid. (In the film, the Fox is called “Honest John”, but he is not named in the book. Disney material outside the movie call them “Foulfellow” and “Gideon”.)
Strombolli – Known as “Fire Eater” in the novel, Strombolli has had his evil turned up a few notches. In the original, he sees Pinocchio’s selflessness and rewards him, sending him home with a fortune in gold. Disney went pure evil, having him trap Pinocchio so well that only the Blue Fairy could rescue him.
Monstro – Monstro also has his evil turned up. In the book, he is the Big Shark, but secretly asthmatic and has to sleep on the surface with his mouth open. He is evil, but pitiable. Monstro in the film is a force of nature, almost beyond good and evil.
Gepetto – Gepetto is pretty much the same in both versions. The film version of Gepetto is given two new friends (Figaro and Cleo, his cat and fish), but they are primarily treated as comic relief characters and do not speak.
I have to give Disney credit for taking a great book and building a strong movie. In the hands of a modern filmmaker, I could see someone trying to turn the film into an epic trilogy! Disney manages to distill the Pinocchio legend, without losing much if any of its charm.
Passing the Test – Gender and racial stereotypes
“They are your schoolmates… girls and boys.” – Gepetto.
Pinocchio is a story of a boy in a world of men. There are no human women in the story at all, only the Blue Fairy and Cleo (a fish). There is only the briefest mention that women even exist in this universe, when Gepetto tells Pinocchio that some of his schoolmates will be girls. In a movie that all but ignores that women exist, the Bechdel test does not stand a chance.
Daddy Issues – Parents and the role of parents in the film
“I’ll run right home and tell my father!” – Pinocchio
Despite the film’s complete lack of women, I like what the film is saying about parenthood: non-traditional families can be fantastic! While Snow White featured a single-parent as tyrannical, Pinocchio shows that a family is a family is a family, even if that family is a man, a boy, a cricket, a cat, and a fish.
Gepetto is a kind and loving father, but not a good father– at least at first. Why are we surprised that a man with no experience would botch his first day with an adolescent? He’s not prepared for his wish coming true, but he tries hard and never gives up his search for his lost son. Even in the belly of the whale, he does not lose hope. While I dislike his naiveté, I love his loyalty.
Jiminy Cricket is a second father to Pinocchio, but he is also unprepared. He cannot explain the difference between right and wrong in the beginning of the film, and how could he? He was an itinerant traveler, a hopping hobo, that was nice and kind but also unfamiliar with raising children. The Blue Fairy should have known better! Jiminy sticks with Pinocchio through think and thin, and it wasn’t just for the gold badge at the end.
In the book, the Blue Fairy acts as Pinocchio’s mother (after first trying to be his sister, but realizing that he needed more), but Disney largely moves this development onto Jiminy. Instead, she is caring but aloof, more of a God than a mother figure. She brought Pinocchio to life, but the rest was up to him.
So what does that leave us? A happy household of two men and the boy they are raising together. That is a beautiful image, even if it is not the one Disney intended.
Happily Ever After – Continuation in other Disney properties
“I’m gonna live to be one-hundred and three!” – Jiminy Cricket
Much like Snow White, Pinocchio was one of only a few Disney films to survive without a sequel. And while the story of Pinocchio and Gepetto came to an end (at least according to Disney), several of the secondary characters of the film returned in one form or another. Jiminy Cricket was the breakout star of the ensemble and returned seven years later as the star of the framing story in Fun and Fancy Free. I haven’t seen that film yet, but I look forward to getting to it soon.
Jiminy was adopted as a Disney mascot character and appeared frequently over the following decades, most notably in a series of educational shorts produced for the Mickey Mouse Club, the theme song of which I am uncontrollably humming right now. More recently, he briefly became Mickey’s conscience in an episode of House of Mouse. Figaro, Gepetto’s cat, was a favorite character of Walt Disney and was given his own series of seven shorts throughout the 1940s. In many of his subsequent appearances, he is a pet of Minnie Mouse. Cleo returned only for one of Figaro’s shorts, but had cameos in a number of other productions.
In the live-action Once Upon a Time, a pastiche of the Pinocchio story was a major part of the plot of the first season. In this version, Pinocchio has come to the real world and fallen into temptation again, this time experiencing Thailand instead of “Pleasure Island”. In this retelling, Gepetto is played by Tony Amendola, Pinocchio by Jakob Davies (child) and Eion Bailey (adult), Jiminy Cricket by Raphael Sbarge, and the Blue Fairy by Keegan Connor Tracy. Pinocchio eventually finds the courage to do what is right and is de-aged back to being a little boy, losing all memories of his life as a carefree adult.
“If your heart is in your dream, no request is too extreme.” – Jiminy Cricket
Pinocchio won two awards at the 13th Academy Awards in 1941: Best Song (“When You Wish Upon A Star”) and Best Score. As Snow White had won only an honorary award, these are the first two “real” awards won by a Walt Disney animated film.
Pinocchio was also added to the National Film Registry in 1994, as a sign of its important place in the art of filmmaking.
Pinocchio is a fantastic story, made all the better by Disney’s rich pallet and smart adapting decisions. It is surprisingly dark at times, especially in its depiction of the sins of Pleasure Island. (Can you believe they can show kids drinking and smoking!) Even so, it remains light-hearted and very much a “cartoon” with talking animals, the comic relief characters Figaro and Cleo, and perhaps a bit too much dancing.
This is a story about a son growing up… just a bit. Pinocchio learns to accept his responsibilities as a son and that the easy road is rarely the right one. Gepetto and Jiminy also grow as father figures, although their mistakes during Pinocchio’s first day are what really set the plot in motion. If I have a criticism, it is that Gepetto and Jiminy hardly seem to grow as characters. Pinocchio learns his lesson, but they do not. It would have been nice to see them behaving more fatherly in the close of the film.
I have written quite a lot about Pinocchio, but for good reason: it holds up better than Snow White does. It is still a product of its time, but a very good product and one that I enjoyed watching and learning about. I hope you enjoyed it as well.
Up next is 1940’s Fantasia, the first package film that I will look at in this blog. Accordingly, I will have one post first on the film overall, then look at each of the six separate segments individually. I can’t wait! I’d better learn something about classical music…
Previous Disney Diaries:
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