Following the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Walt Disney and his fledgling studio were rolling in confidence, experience, and enough money to make dreams come true. New facilities were purchased, old debts were paid, and Walt’s vision of what was possible was positively boundless. If not for his brother Roy handling the finances, the studio might have gone bankrupt all over again, because two animated feature projects were greenlit at the same time. The first would become Fantasia, which ended up being slightly delayed (and I’ll discuss that when the time comes). The “backup project” was moved to the forefront to keep the studio in the green.
Based on The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, Walt’s goal was tell a simple morality tale for kids. Unlike with modern audiences, however, Walt believed as his contemporaries did, that the way to drive the point home was not to coddle them, but to really scare the bejeezus out of them and make them think. The original short story was expanded, and Walt tweaked the title character considerably to make him far more sympathetic than the repugnant little punk (yeah, I said it!) found in Collodi’s tale.
The story is told through the flashback point of view of Jiminy Cricket, who tells the audience that his story involves a wish coming true. As he opens the tale, he finds himself in the workshop of Geppetto, who is finishing the work on a marionette. As he retires to bed, he makes a wish that Pinocchio could be a real boy. The Blue Fairy brings the marionette to life, but tells him that he can only become a real boy if proves himself to be brave, true, and selfless. Jiminy is appointed to be Pinocchio’s conscience.
From day one, Pinocchio is greeted with temptation. On his way to school, he’s sidetracked by Honest John and Gideon, who lead him into Stromboli’s puppet show, where he becomes the feature attraction. But rather than freedom, Pinocchio’s talents earn him a cage. The Blue Fairy sets him free after he promises to her to be good, but she warns him this will be the last time she can help.
Honest John and Gideon, meanwhile, get into a deal to herd up stray little boys to take to Pleasure Island. Pinocchio is once more swept up into their con and is led to a place seemingly with no rules and no supervision to tell them otherwise. The boys there are smoking, gambling, drinking, and randomly destroying anything they wish completely on whim. The horrifying truth is revealed in a sequence that was filmed in similar style to that used by Alfred Hitchcock (great artists steal!), when Jiminy learns that the boys are being transformed into donkeys and sold into slavery. Pinocchio escapes, only partially transformed.
Returning home, the workshop is empty. A letter from the Blue Fairy says that Geppetto went out in search of his boy, but has been swallowed by Monstro, the great whale. Geppetto lives in the whale’s belly, unable to escape. Pinocchio jumps into the sea with Jiminy, determined to stage a rescue, where he is swallowed and reunited. They all escape the whale, who then chases after them, destroying their raft. They wash up on the beach, and Pinocchio is found lifeless. Geppetto and Jiminy mourn him, but the Blue Fairy intervenes, deciding that Pinocchio has proven his merit. He is reborn as a human boy, with no trace of the donkey bits.
Animation began on the film in September 1938 while the script was still undergoing development. Under the supervision of Joe Grant, Disney’s model department created three-dimensional models for all of the characters in the film, known as maquettes, which were used to inform the animators how to draw the characters from any possible angle. Working models were likewise made of of Geppetto’s multiple cuckoo clocks, Stromboli’s wagon, and the Coachman’s carriage. Animation on the vehicles proved to be too complicated, so the maquettes were filmed using stop motion animation, each frame of footage being transferred to animation cels alongside the characters. As with Snow White, actors were filmed in live action, which the animators used as an animation guide, studying the movements and incorporating slightly exaggerated poses and expressions.
It wasn’t just character animation that was taken to the next level. Most people don’t think about special effects in an animated film, often taking it for granted. What this means is that everything you see in a film that isn’t a character represents an effect. This could be vehicles, buildings, backgrounds, props, weather effects, lighting, smoke, shadows… you get the idea. While you wrap your brain around that, consider what’s actually seen in this film, from Geppetto’s workshop to fairy dust to violent storms and beyond. Consider the underwater footage alone: ripples, bubbles, waves… Pinocchio pushed effects animation to groundbreaking levels, the techniques of which have been continually built upon for all subsequent Disney projects and set the standards for other studios to try to mimic. It’s not for nothing that this film is considered not only one of the greatest animated films of all time, but also the most perfect animation ever achieved. What’s more, through all of the advances of the last 80 years, Pinocchio has maintained that title, proving itself time and again to be a masterclass in animated storytelling.
And it’s not just animation that gets acknowledged. The film’s music won the Oscar for both Best Original Score and Best Original Song. The song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” has gone on to become the studio’s anthem, now heard at the beginning of every Disney release, accompanying the logo. No doubt you’re humming it right now as you read this. (And if you’re not, what kind of a monster are you?!) These awards were the first win for Disney on either of these fronts, and it was the first time both of those awards had been won by the same film. This is rare enough for Hollywood as a whole. It wouldn’t happen again for Disney until 1989’s The Little Mermaid, but it would begin a streak that ran through Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas. Pretty easy to see why they call that the “Disney Renaissance,” isn’t it? For all of those films, the studio went back to basics on all fronts and rediscovered what they felt had been lost since Walt’s era. Pinocchio especially was scrutinized in detail to recreate the formula for Disney magic.
With that in mind, what if I told you that Pinocchio bombed on its initial release?
The film opened to positive reviews, with virtually every critic acknowledging how it blasted past the already impossible benchmarks set by Snow White. See, this is where restraint comes into play. Feeling the tidal wave of success as he was, Walt pushed the boundaries on everything, and that costs money. Pinocchio had twice the budget of Snow White. Of the $2.2 million it took to make, Disney only reclaimed $1 million of that by late that year after a February release. The thing is, the box office had very little to do with the movie itself, which time would prove. Due to the beginning of World War II, the British, European, and Asian box office markets were cut off. The film would be re-released in 1945 and later, after the war, allowing it to find its profits on the long haul. In the meantime, Walt was driven into a depression over the initial box office, and Roy wrangled the studio finances to ensure a similar fate would not strike future projects. Fantasia was already proving to be something of a burden on that front, and Pinocchio‘s results, combined with the war and other imposed limitations, would change the spirit of intent behind Walt’s plans for that film, due to be released later that same year.
Beyond the box office receipts, Pinocchio‘s legacy had far reaching effects. For example, the characters and motifs can still be found at the Disney parks across the world. The characters appeared in stage shows and can still be found in video games.
Taking a page directly from Walt’s playbook, George Lucas essentially “threw money” at his animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which boasted a budget of double that of anything else on screen at that time, financed directly from Lucas’ own pocket. The results speak for themselves, as the studio’s animation developed by leaps and bounds every season. Despite recouping the profits by other means, it was, of course, unsustainable. As such, Disney clipped the budget considerably when developing the next series, Star Wars: Rebels, after buying Lucasfilm. It’s funny to me how history sometimes repeats itself.
Of course, success breeds knock-offs. Without permission, Filmation released in 1987 Pinocchio and the Emperor of the Night, set a year after the events of the Disney classic. It was a critical and commercial failure, and while Disney sued for copyright infringement, Filmation skated out on grounds that Collodi’s tale was in the public domain. Pay no attention to the obvious expansions in the story that Disney put into place that were drawn upon for this mess.
The studio briefly considered a sequel of its own in the mid-2000s. John Lasseter cancelled Pinocchio II in 2006, shortly after being named as the the studio’s Chief Creative Officer. Sometimes I’m forced to wonder why such wisdom and restraint isn’t shown more often. But… try and try again. A live-action version is in the works as of 2015, alongside an entire lineup of such remakes, the first handful of which we’ve now already seen.
Be that as it may, Pinocchio‘s legacy continues to live on for the right reasons. I can tell you from personal experience that art and animation students still use it as as a teaching reference. It’s unimaginable to me to think how this film was made while the techniques used to create it were being developed at the same time. But again, the end result speaks for itself. Pinocchio is considered to be an apex cartoon by every measurable standard, timeless and near-perfect. As a victim of its own achievements, it set the example that pushed Disney and his team to develop new technologies and ever-higher standards for a fraction of the cost. For better or worse, the bar was irrevocably set high for the studio and for audiences alike. That’s where real creativity comes into being: how to do more with less.