20 March, 2009

Movie Review: Pinocchio (1940)

So many movies seem like they were made just to make a few dollars and fill a few minutes with entertainment. Flat scenes hastily strung together with trite filler. Conventional moments that drag on for two hours, never breathing fresh air. Especially kids' films. So long as the message is right (even if obvious), no parents will be offended (nor children too frightened), and there's an occasional outrageous gag (often implausible) to keep the kids laughing, then it's fit to air.

Pinocchio isn't like that. It's clearly a film that was crafted by artists who knew that they were making art. Every frame is rich with visual humor and wonder; the workshop and home of the toymaker Gepetto is full of a lifetime of sentimental mementos, toys, and inventions. His cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo express more convincing emotion than many live human actors. The bumbling Jiminy Cricket--who's no sage and implacable wise man despite his top hat and role as "Conscience"--constantly interacts with the giant, cluttered world around him, arguing with glum gargoyles, hiding in voluptuous flowers, crawling inside of rusty locks. The clever soundtrack adds a musical dimension to the visual humor. In a song about whistling, Jiminy employs objects throughout the workshop to audibly accentuate his point: violin strings, singing saws, and a cuckoo clock marching band.

Every moment is full of visual and auditory marvels and amusements, but the film never seems cluttered or overwhelming, as the calm tone allows the viewer to get out of the film as much as he wants to put into it. That's a good thing for a children's movie; it means parents can watch it and have just as much fun, if not more, while their children can watch it without getting exhausted and confused. Jiminy Cricket is a comedian, but you can just as easily laugh as groan at him. He's the good-natured old man who always tries to be funny but is only successful sometimes. Just the trying is amusing, even if the specific jokes aren't. His likable personality as the wayward traveler with strength of character despite normal shortcomings makes him an excellent guide through this moral tale, which is willing to forgive people for their mistakes so long as they make a decent effort to do the right thing.

You all know the story: the lonely toymaker Gepetto wishes upon a star that his cute, new marionette puppet be turned into a real, live boy. The Blue Fairy grants the wish, naming Jiminy Cricket his conscience, and explains that he'll only become a true boy made of flesh and bone if he proves himself unselfish, honest, and brave. Of course, he then proceeds to dabble in all the wrong sins, but his virtue comes from recognizing his mistakes, regretting them, and moving forward anew.

Often he tries to take the easy street: skipping school, making mischief, telling lies, falling for scams. The consequences always quickly become clear. After some time on Pleasure Island smoking cigars, drinking mugs of beer, damaging property, and playing pool, he realizes that he's turning into a real jackass--literally--just like all the other "stupid boys" who abandon responsibility to have fun by wrecking havoc.

isn't a bright film, nor an antiseptic one. Pinocchio gets into real trouble and gets punished for it, and it isn't always clear that everyone will get out safe and sound and happily ever after at the end. At one point a marionette gets an axe thrown through his chest--he's rotten firewood now. And the final scenes involve a dark and dismal prison, a ferocious real-life monster, and some of the most beautiful and thrilling water animation I've ever seen.

I used to watch Pinocchio some twenty years ago, and I always though it was one of the scarier cartoons. It is. But it's also hilarious and beautiful, and its hope lies in its granting of wishes, forgiveness, and second chances.

Pinocchio is #334 on the TSPDT? list. It probably deserves to be higher. The film won Academy Awards for music categories for Leigh Harline (composer) and Ned Washington (lyricist), who certainly deserved them. Disney recently released the movie in a beautifully restored Blu-Ray edition, and it's definitely worth revisiting.

Pinocchio (1940)
d: Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen w: Ted Sears, et al.
(Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub)
TSPDT? #334

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