Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Pinocchio

After the phenomenal success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, a dream project that had taken years to bring to the screen, Walt Disney wasn’t entirely sure what to do for an encore. Snow White had been a meticulous demonstration of the capabilities of feature-length animation. For his next trick, Walt knew he had to push the envelope even further.

In spring of 1937, about 8 months before the premiere of Snow White, Walt bought the rights to Felix Salten’s novel Bambi, A Life In The Woods, intending it to be the studio’s second animated feature. A few months later, animator Norm Ferguson brought in a copy of the Italian children’s book The Adventures Of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Walt immediately saw its possibilities and put Pinocchio in line to become Movie #3.

But by 1938, the team had run into trouble with Bambi. The challenge of animating realistic deer had proven to be more difficult than anticipated. So Walt switched things up and moved Pinocchio to the head of the line.

In many ways, Disney simply stuck with what worked about Snow White. Both are based on classic works of children’s literature. Indeed, both films start with the literal opening of a book, a bit of cinematic shorthand for “based on a classic story” that the studio and countless other filmmakers still use to this day.

But there are some key differences in the source material. Snow White was based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Their version dated back about a century or so and different variations of the Snow White story had been around before the Grimms codified it. Pinocchio was based on an Italian novel that had originally been serialized in a children’s magazine beginning in 1881. Those stories were collected in 1883 and first translated into English in 1892. With astounding speed, it became one of the most translated and beloved children’s books of all time. So even though Pinocchio may have seemed like a tale as old as time (to borrow a phrase from a much later Disney fairy tale), it had really only been around for about 50 years.

The episodic nature of Collodi’s book leant itself to Disney’s gag-focused style of storytelling. But some of the darker elements of the book would need to be cut or changed to suit Walt’s taste.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Pinocchio is their favorite Disney movie. I’ve also known people who absolutely hated it as a child. More often than not, both of these groups cite the exact same reason for either loving or hating it: it’s too scary. Well, it’s nothing compared to Collodi’s book. In the original, Pinocchio is a horrible little brat and compulsive liar who immediately starts kicking Geppetto the second the old woodcarver finishes giving him feet. The book does have a talking cricket who tries to give Pinocchio some advice but the puppet kills it with a hammer. Talk about a grim fairy tale.

Disney’s first order of business was to make Pinocchio himself more likable. He softened and humanized the design of the character considerably. It’s a testament to the animators’ talent that you can even tell the difference when Pinocchio does eventually turn into a real boy. Apart from his exposed wooden arms and legs, his dominant feature is his head, with its expressive face and floppy shock of black hair. It’s very easy to forget that Pinocchio is a puppet.

Another key to that illusion is the casting of young Dickie Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. Jones would have been around 11 or 12 when he recorded the part, which I believe would have made this one of the first times an actual child provided the voice of an animated child. (There might be others…don’t @ me about this.) The other main juvenile role, the ill-fated Lampwick, was voiced by Frankie Darro, who was 10 years older than Dickie Jones.

Disney’s other brilliant idea was promoting the dead cricket to co-star status. Jiminy Cricket (voiced by popular singer/actor Cliff Edwards) became the prototype for a long line of Disney supporting characters voiced by celebrities. He starts the movie singing “When You Wish Upon A Star,” then breaks the fourth wall and comments on it (“Pretty, huh?”). He’s quick with a snappy comeback or an aside and speaks a modern American dialect. It is not a big leap to get from Jiminy Cricket to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Jiminy Cricket also became one of the few characters introduced in a feature that became a full-fledged, stand-alone star in his own right. Sure, Disney is happy to keep their characters active through little cameos and appearances in comics, games and merchandising. But Jiminy Cricket was able to join the Disney pantheon alongside such icons as Mickey, Donald and Goofy. His cheery, home-spun demeanor made him an ideal host for educational films and TV specials throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Dickie Jones and Cliff Edwards make a terrific pair as Pinocchio and Jiminy. Together, they provide a real feeling of innocence and optimism, which certainly helps the movie stay warm and inviting even when things get dark. And let’s face it, Pinocchio gets pretty darn dark even with Collodi’s sharpest edges filed down.

It’s clear from the get-go that characters like Honest John (a.k.a. J. Worthington Foulfellow), Gideon and the puppet-master Stromboli are up to no good. But it isn’t clear just how bad things are going to get until Stromboli tosses Pinocchio into a birdcage as Geppetto braves a torrential rainstorm to track him down. It’s right around the time the Blue Fairy demonstrates that lying causes Pinocchio’s nose to grow (something that only happens once in the movie, despite how indelible that image has become) that the movie really crosses over into nightmare territory.

Pinocchio’s next stop is Pleasure Island, where the sinister Coachman rounds up disobedient little boys, offers them every hedonistic delight a prepubescent mind could imagine, then sells them into slavery once they’ve made literal jackasses of themselves. This sequence alone is probably responsible for countless bad dreams. Pleasure Island itself is like a cross between Atlantic City, Coney Island and Thunderdome: one of the “attractions” is just a big tent where everybody beats each other up. And Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey is genuinely disturbing. A lot of it happens in shadow but you actually see his hands transform into hooves. No other movie, animated or live action, would come close to an effect like that for decades.

But I think one of the biggest reasons that the Pleasure Island sequence had such a big impact on kids is that it remains unresolved. Lampwick and the rest of the kids are not rescued. Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio consider themselves lucky to escape with their own lives. Of all the little details in Pinocchio that I think would be changed if Disney made this movie today (including all the smoking, drinking and the weird sexual tension between the obviously underage Pinocchio and the various female puppets during the “I’ve Got No Strings” number), this is one that stands out the most. Today’s play-it-safe filmmaking by committee would demand that Jiminy and Pinocchio go back to rescue those kids. It’d probably derail the rest of the movie but they’d still try to shoehorn it in somehow.

All of this brings us to Monstro the whale. If Pleasure Island didn’t give you nightmares as a kid, Monstro probably did. Monstro lives up to his name. He looks completely unlike any other character in the Disney canon. He looks less like a character and more like a background painting come to life. Monstro is a force of nature that dominates the screen. And the final showdown with Monstro offers some of the most stunning effects animation ever produced, every frame of which was produced by hand. It’s simply breathtaking.

To this day, Pinocchio remains a high-water mark for hand-drawn animation. Every single frame is rich with extraordinary detail, whether it’s Geppetto’s workshop, Pleasure Island or the belly of the whale. And the Disney animators took everything they learned from Snow White and kicked it to the next level. The characters are a fluid, seamless blend of realistic humans (ironically, the Blue Fairy is the most realistic character in the film), slightly caricatured figures (Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman), anthropomorphized animals (Jiminy Cricket and Honest John), regular animals (Cleo, Figaro and Monstro), and puppets, both living and otherwise. Somehow, this odd mix works. You never question why a fox and a cat are walking around, dressed in people-clothes and making shady deals with humans. The animators give each character weight and personality that establishes their place in this fantastic world.

Pinocchio would also make history as the first animated feature to win competitive Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. These days, Disney wins one or both of those categories more often than not but back then, it was very much the exception, not the rule. “When You Wish Upon A Star” was an instant classic that soon became the official theme of Walt Disney Studios. Today you hear it every time you watch a Disney movie.

Creatively, Pinocchio was a home run, at least as good if not better than Snow White. Financially, it was another story. Pinocchio had cost twice as much as Snow White but it didn’t come close to matching its spectacular box office success. At least part of this was due to the fact that European and Asian markets were closed off thanks to the outbreak of World War II. But even taking that into account, Pinocchio was a huge disappointment for both the studio and for Walt Disney personally.

Today, of course, Pinocchio is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Some even consider it to be Disney’s crowning achievement. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. It’d be kind of depressing to think that it’s all downhill from here when I’m only two columns in to this project. But Pinocchio has more than earned its reputation as one of the finest animated features of all time. It’s funny, touching, scary, dazzling to look at and impossible to forget.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

In 1937, Walt Disney had something to prove.

He’d arrived in Hollywood from Kansas City in 1923. A cartoonist with aspirations of becoming a live-action movie director, he began to make a name for himself with the Alice Comedies, a series of hybrid short films that combined live-action and animation, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of the earliest recurring characters to have his own distinct personality.

Oswald had been created for producer Charles Mintz, who distributed the cartoons through Universal. In 1928, Disney tried to up his fee for the cartoons but Mintz refused, offering less money and reminding Disney that he owned the rights to Oswald. If Disney didn’t accept the terms, Mintz would just find somebody else who would. Disney walked away from Oswald, created Mickey Mouse and made history.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. There would be a lot of trial and error, more unfavorable business deals, and key collaborators would both enter and leave Walt’s life (perhaps most notably, Walt’s long-time friend and partner Ub Iwerks, who left in 1930). Still, by most any yardstick, Disney was a huge success by 1937. Mickey Mouse was recognized around the world, the Silly Symphonies series was a smash hit, and Walt had already won 6 Academy Awards (out of an eventual 22, still the most ever won by an individual). He was 36 years old. And yet, he still had something to prove.

Disney wanted to break out of the short subject rut and into feature filmmaking with an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White. Outside of the studio, literally no one thought this was a good idea. Even inside the studio, folks were skeptical. Walt’s brother, Roy, and wife, Lillian, both tried to talk him out of it. Throughout Hollywood, the project was referred to as “Disney’s Folly”. Walt thought he could make it for around $250,000. It ended up costing close to $1.5 million and he’d have to mortgage his house to help finance it. It took around three years to make and when it finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937, it changed everything.

It’s impossible to imagine today just how revolutionary Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs must have been to audiences at the time. Today, most people consider it to be a genteel, rather old-fashioned picture, a relic from Hollywood’s golden age. But no one had ever told a complex story with a beginning, middle and end in animation before. Up until then, animated cartoons were only designed to hold the attention for about 8 minutes with a series of gags and maybe a quick song or two. There were even those who doubted that people could physically take a feature-length animated cartoon. All the bright colors would probably lead to eyestrain and headaches.

Most of all, animated cartoons up to this point were only intended to provoke one of two simple emotions: happy or sad. Sure, people loved characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse but they weren’t emotionally invested in them. You didn’t hope that they’d find a true and lasting love and you certainly never worried that one of them might actually die.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs did all that. It told a familiar story in a way that made it seem brand new. It seamlessly integrated the exaggerated animation style of the dwarfs with some of the most realistic human characters the medium had yet seen. It introduced no less than 8 original songs, most of which went on to become instantly recognizable standards including “Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. And, as far as I know, it did all this without causing a single migraine or seizure.

It’s clear from the opening titles that Walt Disney had put everything on the line with this production. A personalized title card early on reads, “My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production.” That sounds as much like a goodbye as a hello, as though Walt was resigned to the possibility of failure and was saying, “Well, boys…we gave it our best shot. Thanks for trying.”

As it turned out, everyone else also sincerely appreciated their creative endeavors. Even today, it’s impossible not to respect the artistry behind Snow White, even if you find elements of it dated. The stunning backgrounds, the fluid movement of the characters, the design elements, everything comes together to create a lush spectacle that’s simply beautiful to look at.

Disney’s success with short subjects translated surprisingly well to creating Snow White‘s story structure. As with the shorts, the story was broken down into a series of interconnected gags, with the distinct personalities of the Seven Dwarfs serving as the driving force behind many of them. But gags are sprinkled throughout the film. If the movie had been a flop, Disney could easily have excised the “Whistle While You Work” sequence and released it as a stand-alone Silly Symphony.

The vocal performances are also key to selling the story. The dwarfs’ design gets you halfway there but it’s the voices of Pinto Colvig, Roy Atwell, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan and others who bring them to life. Lucille La Verne had been an actress for over fifty years when she voiced the evil Queen, both in her vain, “fairest-of-them-all” form and as the apple-poisoning old hag. Both voices are terrifying and intimidating in their own unique ways. La Verne retired from acting after Snow White, perhaps realizing she’d already achieved immortality.

The most divisive voice these days is Adriana Caselotti as Snow White herself. Her high-pitched, tremulous voice has been parodied for generations at this point. But it’s frankly perfect for the character. It’s nowhere near as one-note as those parodies might have you remembering. And the character is meant to be as pure and innocent as the driven snow, after all. If Caselotti’s voice has since come to sound like a cliché, that’s because it works.

In later years, Disney would become a bit overprotective of Snow White’s voice. Jack Benny famously wanted to hire Caselotti for his radio show but Walt refused, not wanting anything to ruin the mystique of that perfect voice. Caselotti probably lost quite a bit of work over the years thanks to Walt. Still, she never seemed to hold a grudge, at least not publicly, and became the first female voice actor to be named a Disney Legend in 1994. Even so, from today’s perspective at least, it does seem like Walt was a bit of a dick about it.

The public went wild for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. For a little while, it was the highest-grossing film of all time (at least until Gone With The Wind came along). The movie landed Walt and the dwarfs on the cover of Time magazine. At the Oscars, Shirley Temple presented Walt with an honorary Academy Award and seven mini-Oscars, recognizing the film as “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”.

The movie’s music also earned a nomination for Best Scoring. This was at the 10th Oscars and, like many categories in the ceremony’s early years, they were still trying to figure this one out. At the time, the nomination went to the head of the studio’s music department and pretty much every studio was guaranteed a nomination for whatever movie they chose to submit. Snow White, and everything else that year, lost to the Deanna Durbin musical One Hundred Men And A Girl. Its “score” consisted of two original songs and a whole bunch of classical music. Realizing that it wasn’t entirely fair to make people compete with the likes of Mozart and Wagner, the Academy changed the category’s rules in time for the next ceremony.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs changed movies forever. It paved the way for every single animated feature film that would follow, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that audiences could be made to care just as deeply about a series of drawings as they did about flesh-and-blood characters. The Disney Era had begun.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Introducing Disney±

In the history of Hollywood, there has never been another studio quite like Disney. It’s a studio with an identity, a brand name recognized around the world. Sure, Universal had their monsters and MGM had musicals but they never focused on them to the exclusion of everything else. Even when Disney branched into live-action production, it was a very specific kind of family-friendly live-action production. Even after his death, Walt Disney’s name was featured more prominently than even the studio’s biggest stars.

It’s this immediately recognizable identity that has allowed Disney to prosper in areas like theme parks, merchandising and now, streaming services. Since launching in November, Disney+ has signed up more than 28 million subscribers. More than half of those are in households with kids under 10. As social distancing takes hold, I would expect those numbers to go up in the weeks to come.

Like everyone else under the sun with access to pop culture, I grew up with Disney. But my Disney in the 70s and 80s was a slightly tarnished studio still trying to find its way after the death of its founder. Walt died in December of 1966, three years before I was born. So even though I could enter The Wonderful World Of Disney every Sunday night on NBC, Walt himself wasn’t around to serve as my host. The studio was still releasing plenty of movies but none of them really captivated me or any of my friends. The Apple Dumpling Gang just couldn’t compete with Luke, Han and Leia.

But despite the fact that Disney was on the struggle bus for my entire childhood, it still commanded respect. Disneyland and Walt Disney World remained the dream vacation destinations for just about every kid I knew. The regular re-releases of their animated classics were treated like events and served as a vivid reminder of the studio’s potential for greatness. And my family and I dutifully went to see each new animated feature as it came out with a feeling of anticipation. Maybe this’ll be the one that puts them back on top. It’s like we were cheering them on, rooting for them to succeed.

Disney is a long way away from being the underdog anymore. Today, they’re the most powerful and successful studio in Hollywood. So I thought it might be fun to take a look back and try to figure out how they got here. That’s the purpose of this new column which I’m calling (what else?) Disney Plus-Or-Minus (or Disney± if you prefer the stylized look…and thanks to my old pal Bill Hunt for his help with the snazzy graphic).

Every week, I’ll be prying open the Disney Vault and examining both its treasures and its trash. We’ll begin at the beginning with 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and proceed chronologically from there. I’ll only be looking at theatrical features released under the main Disney umbrella, nothing made-for-TV or direct-to-video, no Marvel or Lucasfilm or any other labels or subsidiaries. I will be including Pixar, since their history is inextricably combined with Disney at this point. Right now, I’m not planning on including anything from Touchstone or Hollywood Pictures, although I might revisit that choice when the time comes. There are certainly Touchstone films that Disney would like to reclaim for itself, so we’ll see.

I’m going to do my best to make this as comprehensive as possible but I’m resigned to the fact that I may not be able to track down every last movie on the list. Disney’s track record is actually better than most studios when it comes to releasing deep catalog titles on home video. But if they don’t want you to see something, they really don’t want you to see it. Despite their initial boasts, Disney+ was never going to provide access to every single item in their library. So I’ll do my best but if the only way I can find something is by paying hundreds of dollars for an out-of-print DVD, I’m gonna have to skip it.

Also, since Walt Disney was no stranger to the Academy Awards, some of these columns will also count toward my other on-going project, An Honor To Be Nominated. I hope you’ll join me on this journey through the Magic Kingdom as we rediscover classic favorites, uncover forgotten obscurities and try to make sense of this thing called Disney. It promises to be a fun, if bumpy, ride.