The characters, like those in Snow White, are sharply delineated: a cast of players, humorous and dramatic, who compensate for the somewhat insipid personality of Pinocchio himself. First and foremost there is Jimmy Cricket – voiced by veteran Hollywood entertainer, Cliff Edwards, and visualized by the young Disney animator, Ward Kimball (who was on the point of resigning from the studio when Disney, unexpectedly, asked him to handle the character). As Pinocchio’s pint-sized conscience with a crusading spirit, Jimmy became central to the story development, anticipating the action and then commenting upon it, Chorus-like, in contemporary Americanese: as when, watching the Blue Fairy bring the puppet to life, he whistles through his teeth ‘What they can’t do these days!’
Then there is Geppetto, the addled old woodcarver with a heart of gold; J. Worthington Foulfellow (otherwise known as Honest John) the foxy villain with the extravagant gestures and language of a character from Dickens: ‘Ah, the merry laughter of little, innocent children wending their way to school – thirsty little minds rushing to the fountain of knowledge!’; Gideon, Honest John’s dumb, feline side-kick with a flair for slapstick comedy that reminds one of Harpo Marx; Stromboli, the puppet-master whose volcanic Latin temperament threatens Pinocchio’s existence; the demonic, cockney Coachman with his one-way tickets to Pleasure Island; Lampwick, the tough-talking lad who shows Pinocchio the ways of the world; Figaro, the impish kitten; Cleo, the coquettish goldfish; and the Blue Fairy -beautiful, mysterious and ethereal.
The film’s mood is, perhaps, darker than that of any other Disney feature – turning to stark terror with Lampwick’s transformation into a braying donkey – but it is a mood that is constantly relieved by passages of comedy and pathos in such dramatically contrasting sequences as the amusing episode in which Honest John and Gideon persuade Pinocchio to become an actor and carry him off to the theatre, and the poignant scene in which Geppetto wanders the streets, in torrential rain, searching for his lost boy.
In every respect, Pinocchio is a unique achievement. It has been estimated that, were the film to be made today, it would cost a prohibitive $50,000,000. But then Pinocchio could never be made again: it was so completely a product of its age and of that remarkable guild of artists and technicians that was the Disney studio.
There are those who talk (usually in derogatory terms) of ‘the Disney style’, as if it were something that was always predictable, always created to a given formula. But it is a fallacy that is belied by the amazing diversity of the five animated masterpieces which Disney produced in his prolific pre-war days. Each film has an individuality all its own: Snow White, the very first and, therefore, original and pioneering – a film filled with simple, innocent joyousness; Fantasia, the grand cinematic experiment at uniting high art with popular culture, flawed but utterly fascinating; Bambi, the elegant landscape painting, graceful and picturesque; Dumbo, the gay, heart-warming miniature.
And Pinocchio – the greatest of them all: the quintessence of Disney and the epitome of the art of animation.
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Printed in Animator Issue 16 (Summer 1986)