You buttered your bread, now sleep in it!

Pinocchio (1940)

James: We both remembered the various sequences, the traumas that the titular character experiences through the story, but what surprised us most about Pinocchio was just how gorgeous it is. It’s a fun story, to be sure, with a more substantial dramatic throughline than Snow White, but either because we’d never noticed as kids or because we’d forgotten, we were completely unprepared for how beautiful the animation could be. The characters move fluidly and naturally, the scenery is sumptuous and the action setpieces (like the escape from the whale) are breathtaking. While the more intricate animation was at times flawed (for example the faces in crowd scenes, or the cat’s attempts to pull more human expressions), there’s something lovely about almost every animated movement in the picture. The eyes still aren’t perfect, but they are more cartoony than those of the previous film. They are less nuanced by design, and overall are more successful. Overall, gorgeous animation.

Too gorgeous, in some cases.


Anne: To paraphrase Imelda Staunton in Cranford, it was a series of continuous delights (except for Stromboli’s bottom, as you quite rightly point out). When we were watching the sequence right at the beginning when all of the clocks start chiming, my first thought was that the animators were just plain showing off.

It’s really amazing. And as you pointed out, every single moment of the film has something eye-catching in it. They could have phoned in the fish in the ocean sequence, but they didn’t. They created twenty different kinds of fish. (By the way, IMDB tells me that the animators who worked on The Little Mermaid fifty years later looked to Pinocchio to see how they handled the characters being underwater.) That’s the way the world is, which is why this movie is so thrilling, I think–the animators and inkers and everybody created a complete world for the characters to inhabit. It’s a fantasy world, of course, but it’s almost as detailed as reality.

I definitely saw an improvement in the characters’ facial expressions between Snow White and Pinocchio, but I think they really hit the jackpot with Jiminy Cricket. First of all, he has no facial definition, so I have to imagine that creating very specific expressions for him was fairly easy, compared to animating a human being, or trying to make a cat have human expressions. He is also just a delight of a character, bringing a little levity to what is otherwise a true downer of a story. (I mean, okay, happy ending, but poor little Pinocchio is just put through the wringer before he gets there!) In talking about Gilbert and Sullivan recently, you pointed out that writers often have more fun developing characters who aren’t essential to the plot; Jiminy Cricket is pretty much superfluous to the events of the story, but man, Pinocchio would certainly be a lesser movie without him.

James: Jiminy Cricket is inessential to the plot, true, but seemingly vital to the audience. Against all odds, this little tramp insect is the audience’s way into the film, a fun little character with whom we empathise as Pinocchio is constructed and finally given life. Without Jiminy, the first fifteen minutes would only be observable, as our protagonist doesn’t yet even exist.

As with Snow White, the structure of the film is again a curious one, a sequence of shorter adventures which barely connect to each other. You could split the film into 15-20 minute chunks  and play them separately, without losing much dramatic momentum (the only running thread through the middle of the film is Geppetto searching for Pinocchio, which is almost entirely unfelt on Pinocchio’s side). Each little story has a beginning, middle and end before the next one can begin. Part of this will come from Disney’s experience with shorts, and part will come from the book’s narrative structure (a book which started out as a weekly serial). Despite this serial structure, it has a stronger narrative feel than Snow White. There are very few moments where the protagonist is just biding his time, and when he is Jiminy is actively trying to help him escape whatever danger he’s in. Whereas Snow White spends most of the film waiting for the Queen to show up, there’s only a few minutes where Pinocchio is, say, smoking heartily and unaware of the danger. The protagonists are much more active, and that helps an audience to engage with the character, especially a young audience. Not only is he more active, but Pinocchio is also genuinely heroic at the end: he risks his life to save Geppetto’s.

Anne: Aha! That’s my cue. Pinocchio is a really interesting protagonist in that at the start, whether or not he will be the hero of his own life remains to be seen (to paraphrase some more classic literature). But it really does seem like it’s going to be Jiminy Cricket’s movie (I would postulate that Mr. Cricket does in fact steal the movie, but let that pass for the moment)–he sings the opening song, and we see the introduction of Gepetto and the entrance of the Blue Fairy through his eyes. By the end of the movie, Pinocchio has–as you put it last night–EARNED his position as protagonist. From the moment he reads the (conveniently dove-delivered) note that says Gepetto has been swallowed by the whale, Pinocchio springs into action, and from then on, he drives the story. Before that, he was being swept along by the current of the plot, so to speak.

We were talking last night about Jiminy Cricket as the original Disney sidekick/conscience character, and how many parallels he has in later Disney films. My first instinct was to compare him to demoted dragon Mushu in Mulan, who isn’t really qualified to protect Mulan as she goes to war, but who steps up to the challenge and earns back his place among the ancestors. (Not quite as cute as the Blue Fairy giving Jiminy a badge certifying him as an official Conscience, however.)

But Pinocchio himself isn’t much like Mulan, really. She is clearly the protagonist of her story from the first moment, and it doesn’t take her long to set the plot in motion. A few minutes of discussion later and we had hit upon a more apt comparison: Kuzco and Pacha from The Emperor’s New Groove. Although Kuzco isn’t an innocent, he is totally oblivious and also not much of a hero–as emperor, he is entitled and arrogant and spoiled, and if it weren’t for the marvelous Yzma, we would probably tag him as the villain. But something happens to him–he is turned into a llama. LLAMA FACE.

Pacha is a peasant who, earlier that day, tried to save his home by pleading with the Emperor to build his summer palace on a different mountain. He is not looking for trouble or adventure, when he discovers the unconscious llama Kuzco in his cart. Suddenly the two are allied, by virtue of proximity. Kuzco has to get back to the palace; the reluctant Pacha has to get him there. Pacha, like Jiminy Cricket, falls into the role of protector/conscience/agent of change. We root for Pacha and boo hiss the selfish Kuzco, until Kuzco saves Pacha from falling off a crumbling canyon wall (BOO-YAH), and becomes a character worth rooting for.

Pinocchio is certainly not unlikeable at the start of the film, but he is a cipher for other, more interesting characters until he sets off to find and save Gepetto. But as I see it, by the end of the film we don’t have a protagonist and a sidekick anymore–we have two protagonists. And it’s the same with Kuzco and Pacha. In the end, both characters have had a significant journey and work as equal partners. One of the most affecting moments of Pinocchio for me was when Pinocchio reaches the ocean and begins to wordlessly tie a rock to his tail so that he will sink. He says, “Goodbye, Jiminy,” and Jiminy replies, “Goodbye? I may be live bait down there, but I’m with ya.” The carefree hobo Jiminy who almost ditched Pinocchio after “I Got No Strings” has evolved into a brave committed cricket who will stick it out till the end.

James: I suppose that it’s two protagonists for two different parts of the audience: kids and their parents. Pinocchio is obviously there for the kids to empathise with. He’s trying to have fun, going with what seems like a good idea despite what he’s told by his conscience, and there are always ramifications. He learns at every step, doing things wrong and understanding what he should have done instead. At times the messages are so unsubtle you bruise.  ‘Kids, go to school or you’ll be abducted by actors!’ ‘Kids, don’t lie or you’ll be deformed by a fairy!’, ‘Kids, don’t drink and smoke or you’ll be turned into a donkey!’. Not particularly original lessons, and certainly not done delicately. But it works for the protagonist: he learns. He tries to go to school, he stops lying, and he presumably quits drinking and smoking, although we don’t see how the nicotine withdrawal affects him after the film’s end. The kids at home grow with Pinocchio, face some horrors with him, and hopefully learn a little by the end.

But the parents have a protagonist too. Jiminy Cricket is a new parent, thinking it’ll be easy. All he has to do is tell the kid what’s right, and he’s sorted for life. But it isn’t that easy. Of course it isn’t. The kid doesn’t listen, not because he’s mean or rude, just because he’s a kid. He goes off and does stupid things, despite his guardian’s advice. And then Jiminy even questions his own advice, contemplating that he might have been wrong to stop Pinocchio from going along with the actors. He knows that he’s fallible, he recognises that he might not have all the right answers, but his main concern is always for the boy’s safety, and he’ll look out for him no matter what, live bait or not. Geppetto may be a pretty lousy father (he doesn’t even walk him to school on his first day, when Pinocchio is only a few hours old!), but Jiminy is there through thick and thin, land and sea, and his success as a parent earns him a little gold badge.


Curiously, the lessons don’t stretch to the antagonists. The Queen in Snow White suffers all the way through her acts of villainy, and is defeated distinctly (and a mite brutally). By comparison, none of the antagonistic figures in Pinocchio get any kind of comeuppance. The victory is only that Pinocchio survives, not that the villain is defeated. Stromboli loses his act, but he will surely go on to further crimes. The whale (evil or not) is still left to persecute other sea creatures, swallow other ships. Honest John gets his money and gets away scott free. The Coachman who runs Pleasure Island continues his business, and the poor boys (one’s called Alexander! Awww!) remain at his mercy, turned into donkeys for sale to salt mines. There’s no happy ending for them; their punishment serves as the cautionary tale to Pinocchio and the kids watching. Hopefully, though, these things are forgotten by the final sequence so that the ending can be unmarred. Maybe it can be tied up in ‘Pinocchio 2: Lampwick’s Revenge’.

Anne: Oh, poor Lampwick. And Alexander. *sniffles*

Before I wrap this entry up, I want to give a shout-out to Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith, who wrote the soundtrack music to Pinocchio. Expertly done, and beautifully coordinated with the movements of the characters. I noticed it particularly in the opening scene–Jiminy Cricket’s every jump was underscored, and I especially loved the music under Figaro the cat opening the window. Wonderfully descriptive. The songs are good but there aren’t enough of them–about halfway through, you said, “There aren’t any more songs left!” I find “When You Wish Upon a Star” completely magical–and you commented that it must have been a surprise for the original audiences to discover that a cricket was singing! “Give a Little Whistle” is the original “Tiny Scout” song (that’s from An Affair to Remember) without the aggressively cute children. And “I Got No Strings” is a cheery little ditty that ought to be fun, but in context it’s just incredibly sad, because despite being a fully autonomous puppet, Pinocchio is definitely not free. As W.S. Gilbert put it, “Ah, is not one so tied / a pris’ner still?”

I find the scoring somewhat difficult, but I’m going to give Pinocchio a 9/10 for sheer beauty of animation, attention to detail, and Jiminy Cricket.

James: It does have its narrative flaws – I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit of retribution come to the villains – but really it does everything it sets out to do, and does it well. Beautiful, dark and funny, I’m with you on a 9/10.

Anne: And with that, we–and Smitteny Cricket–bid you adieu!

-Anne and James


One thought on “You buttered your bread, now sleep in it!

  1. Pingback: Pinocchio’s Prize: The Velveteen Equation (Part 2) | My Blog, aka, Sorry My Mind Must Have Wandered

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