Movie Review - Pinocchio

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Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen
Walt Disney Productions

If you were to hear just the first seven notes of “When You Wish upon a Star”, I think very likely your first thought would be of Walt Disney rather than Jimminy Cricket. Even just the first three notes might be enough to bring up images of white castles on a blue background, anticipating the opening credits of yet another animated masterpiece. Such is the legacy of Pinocchio, that it became the quintessential Disney picture, without being either the most popular or the best remembered. After all, it has the standard charm that Walt Disney wanted to put into his films, and the usual artistic excellence, and its mystic paganism is quaint enough to have gone largely unnoticed for the past seventy years—and these things make up the very essence of Disney.

Intentions do count for something, though. I think by the time Pinocchio came around, people had largely forgotten that “Jimminy Cricket” was a clever way to take the Lord’s name in vain without anybody being shocked about it; and so when they go so far as to give one of the most prominent characters a corrupted version of Jesus’ name and Messianic title, we probably should assume that they didn’t really mean it that way. Of course, some of us are still at least a little startled by it, or by minced oaths like “gosh”, “gee” and “golly”, and the best intentions in the world can’t fix that entirely.

Other potentially offensive phrases include “What the…” “Well I’ll be…” and a few occurrences of the dual-purpose term “jackass”. “Stupid” and “shut up” are household-by-household concerns, “sakes alive” is of somewhat dubious origin, and it’s unclear from the context whether “gypsy” is meant to be a derogatory term.

Cultural Stumbling-Blocks:
I think we also have to keep in mind that not every time a bad thing is shown in the movies is it meant to be shown as good. Wine bottles, beer mugs and references to champagne are all portrayed in a negative light, so I didn’t find them particularly offensive. What I was uncomfortable with was the brief, seemingly amusing portrayal of drunkenness (even if it was only in a wooden figurine). Cigar-smoking is painted negatively, as is pool-playing, while pipe smoking is given the traditional old-fashioned rendering.

Sexual Content:
I had initially thought that the Blue Fairy was going to be the character whose immodesty was worth talking about, and I’m certainly going to mention it (her neckline’s rather low, and her arms are bare), but, actually, the dolls are worse. I thought it somewhat perverse to advertise puppets by highlighting their sexual appeal, and I found it a little on the disconcerting side to count the number of times the moviemakers gave a talking insect the task of responding lustfully to inanimate (but scantily clad) objects. For that matter, I was a bit uncomfortable when the Blue Fairy batted her lashes at a reluctant J. Cricket and instantly transformed his hesitation to willing, blushing service. I suppose it’s just knowing that somebody had to come up with these ideas, and a lot of other somebodies had to fit them into the script and animation, and all the while nobody could object that this miscellaneous sexual content was inconsistent with Walt Disney’s morality, because, really, it wasn’t.

There are a lot of inconsistencies in Walt Disney’s code of ethics that tend to go unnoticed amidst the general quaintness of his pictures. Even aside from the existential muddle over Pinocchio’s “realness”, or lack of it, we have on the one hand a message that goodness is objective (remember what happens during the fibbing scene), and on the other, a message that the only way to know the difference between right and wrong is to act on feeling (as in, “always let your conscience be your guide”). It even goes so far as to set up a semi-divine judge (the Blue Fairy, who has the authority to “forgive you this once”), while appointing an individual little boy’s conscience the “Lord high keeper of the knowledge of right and wrong, counselor in the moment of temptation, and guide along the straight and narrow path.”

Of course, there’s also the subject of the value of good works that could be discussed (found in statements like “Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish, and someday you will be a real boy,” and “You deserve to have your wish come true.”), or the issue of humans and pine blocks interacting in father/son relationships, or the question of whether it’s “snitching” to tell a parent that their child has run away. There’s also the question of whether or not school is “the fountain of knowledge,” or whether it is the difference between good boys and “stupid”, “disobedient” ones, or whether home educators can find it any more interesting than other people to hear the father and son go back and forth about the point of schooling: “Besides, tomorrow you’ve got to go to school.”—“Why?”—“To learn things and get smart.”— “Why?”—“Because.”

In the songs, there are suggestions of irresponsibility and selfish individualism (“I’ve got no strings, so I have fun. I’m not tied up to anyone.”), feminine unfaithfulness (“Down where the Volga flows, there’s a Russian rendezvous, where me and Ivan go, but I’d rather go with you!”), practical atheism (“When you get in trouble and you don’t know right from wrong, give a little whistle!”), crass optimism (“Anything your heart desires will come to you.”), and, most memorably, astrolatry (pointing back to those first seven notes we’re so familiar with).

Just a reminder: directing adoration and petition to stars isn’t any cuter or quainter than worshipping any other created being; and it isn’t any more acceptable for us to smile while the characters in the movie are engaged in prayer to the lesser lights than it is for us to smile when they pray to rocks or fish… or Buddha, for that matter.

There’s a hint at feminism in the fawning deference J. Cricket gives to “Your Honor” the Blue Fairy… and in letting her replace God as the giver of life, of course; but I think feminism is one of the lesser concerns about that particular scene.

Pinocchio really is a good example of all the bad things that tended to go on in early Disney movies, and while it’s also a good example of the positive messages that can be found in them, I personally would have to suspend the use of my own “conscience” to give the movie an over-all positive rating. The worldview is just too jumbled, and the sexual content a little too pointed, for my taste and conviction; and while I enjoyed some of the more wholesome aspects of the movie, and the more impressive animation techniques, I really don’t think I will be watching the movie again. It was good, in some ways, but, like so much of Disney’s morality, it wasn’t good enough.

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