Monday, July 13, 2009

The Great Movies: "Pinocchio"

Walt Disney (Producer), 1940

In his review of Pinocchio, Roger Ebert praises the famous children's cartoon both for its groundbreaking animation and for its enchanting storyline. I'm willing to stipulate the former, although as someone born after mid-century the "classic" Disney animation is to me merely the baseline, the ordinary animation that anything else must exceed in order to be any good. That is arguably a pretty strong tribute to its achievement, though.

As far as the storyline, it is just fairytale pablum with no distinction or edge. Ebert praises it for employing archetypes, but how hard is it to employ archetypes? They're archetypes! They're what will pop into our head naturally when we can't be bothered to come up with an original story! And the storytelling here is very slapdash, with the random behavior of the good fairy, the strange role of the narrator cricket, and the plot-generating "father-son" relationship based on an acquaintance of a couple of hours. Pinocchio's real claim to the Lazy Plotting Hall of Fame, though, is in the sequence when the boy-puppet returns to his "father's" home to find it abandoned. At this point, a bird flies by and drops a scroll informing our hero that the old woodworker has been swallowed by a notorious whale. What the hell?

Also, let the record show that the title character is vapid and annoying. As is the very idea of a Hollywood film for children that piously warns against the corrupt lifestyle of show-biz types.

Now no doubt you are thinking that little kids just don't care about this kind of thing, and that Pinocchio and the other similarly lousy Disney animated features have enchanted whole generations of children, and obviously you would be right on both counts. However, it is important to remember that children are not famous for their powers of discrimination. They'll be enchanted by any bright moving object you park them in front of. Starting them off with the classic Disney product isn't likely to do them any harm, but it's setting the bar pretty low.

On an unrelated but noteworthy topic: the Disney studio appears to have had an almost obsessive fascination with the buttocks. There are literally dozens of ass-related gags in Pinocchio -- they come at a rate of almost one per minute in the early scenes -- and it seems like every second shot features one or another character's rear end in an abnormally high, prominent, thrusting position. Once you notice it, it's kind of creepy.

Plot: Italian woodworker, unsatisfied with his prosperous lifestyle, fulfilling work, and hyperintelligent animal companions, whinges about his childlessness until a fairy appears to transform one of his handcrafted puppets into a "real boy." After the blank slate of a child has accumulated two or three hours of world experience, the woodworker sends him out into the world on his own, and the predictable dire consequences ensue. These problems are resolved through supernatural intervention, but then somehow (?) the woodworker gets swallowed by a whale. Whatever.

Visuals: A somewhat more complex version of Saturday cartoon animation, with the exception of the good fairy, who seems to drift in from a different cartoon altogether. A poorly-drawn one.

Dialog: Many gags, little wit, bad music.

Prognosis: My particular DVD copy happened to end with the video for a dance-pop version of "When You Wish Upon a Star" featuring some teenybopper chanteuse and that electronic pitch correction that will soon mark so much current pop music as being contemptibly late aughts. This had the effect of suddenly making the film itself seem like an intellectual masterpiece. But it isn't, really. It's just a kiddie cartoon, and it's not even in the same league with the many far superior kiddie cartoons that have made in the last few decades. Be my guest and let it rest.


Elaine said...

How can you resist a character like Lampwick?
Pinocchio was on his way to school--not being cruelly sent out alone into the world. This shows what a mistake it is to eschew education, right?
As with Snow to take the old fairy tale on its own terms and enjoy the frills that were added. Classics are not always the best works-- (I think "Citizen Kane" sucks.) Hi diddly dee dee, th sailor's life for me!

Rebel said...


Pinnochio???? Seriously? Is nothing sacred? ='(

I hearby forbid you from finishing the Harry Potter series... I couldn't bear to see you rip it apart too. Some works are simply meant to be enjoyed.

On the upside, I don't feel nearly as bad about critiquing the books I don't like, compared to this slaughter I'm positively sychophantic. =P

Jennifer said...

I don't think you're giving the average kid enough credit. Most are perfectly capable of rejecting crap. (It's not as easy to get kids to watch t.v. as you'd think.)

I'm also a little sensitive about the whole archetype/creativity thing, but that's a longer conversation than I want to embark on right now.

I do, however, thinking you're giving Pinocchio just about exactly the right amount of credit -- and I've often defended Disney against other attacks. Between Snow White (which precedes Pinocchio by two years) and Fantasia (released later the same year as Pinocchio), I'm not sure why Ebert would pick this film as the one revolutionizing animation and setting artistic precedents. But maybe I'm just prejudiced in favor of "Dance of the Hours."

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: The child is sent out into the world on his own, with the expectation that he will arrive at school. The movie actually follows a real-world logic on this point, as Gepetto had no reason to assume that his sudden automaton would spontaneously develop the knowledge to complete the trip.

@Rebel: ALL works are "simply meant to be enjoyed" in some way, aren't they? But we still get to talk about them.

What are some of the things you like about Pinocchio?

@Sependip: I stand without reservation by my observation regarding children and bright moving objects.

I know where you're going with the archetype thing, but like you don't want to take that hike right now. Certainly, you have a point. But I think I have a point, too.

I tried Fantasia four or five years ago. I thought I would be the perfect audience for it, but I wasn't. Outside of dorm-room stoners, I'm a little unclear how anyone could sit through the thing.

sister jen said...

I am perhaps freakishly unfond of Disney cartoon movies, and now that you have so aptly described the weird buttocks thing, I just know I'll never warm up to them...

Rebel said...

Granted... it's been a long time, I haven't seen Pinochio since I was 14 or so when it came out on video.

What did I like? 1. It's a morality tale. Do something bad - something bad will happen to you. Lying = your nose grows and everyone knows. Wandering off to play with the boys instead of going to school = you get turned into a donkey, and the whole thing ends up being less fun that you thought it would be. And the whole time you have a concrete expression of a conscience guiding him along the way trying to show him right from wrong.

2. It's genuinely a fairy tale. The Blue Fairy gives them their hearts desire. And unlike in Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty their 'hearts desire' is not just a rich prince. Gepetto longs for a son to love (who cares about a prosperous lifestyle and fulfilling work if you don't have anyone to enjoy it with). And Pinochio's only wish is to be a real boy... to have a life and to feel and to hurt and to love.

I really need to go watch it again, I'm sure your critiques are 'accurate' but I think you're missing the entire point of the movie.

Michael5000 said...

@Reb: You think I'm missing the entire point... of Pinocchio?!? Awesome!!

Thanks for the majority report, though. You and Ebert are approximately on the same page with this one. Both of you are critics whose views I pay attention to. It'd be all boring if we agreed about everything, though.

Elaine said...

Tsk M5000. Geppetto's puppet came to life! Shoemakers do not even know words like automaton. You need to have a sense of fun to watch an Italian fairy tale brought to life--suspend the critic a bit. You enjoyed the fairly pointless fluffy movie last reviewed...and those people were even less realistic than Pinocchio!

I'm with Rebel.

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: Well, critiquing movies is kind of inherent to a project of writing up movie critiques. So, by "suspend the critic a bit," I guess you are implying that I went into watching this movie wanting not to like it. But why would I do that? I went into watching this movie the way I go into watching every movie: hoping to be delighted by it. Alas, I felt it sucked. Shall I apologize to anyone who is bothered by that? Nah.

Obviously, one doesn't look for realism in an animated fantasy. I just think that plot coherence -- things happening for a reason -- is a nice touch.

Probably, my problem is that I don't have a sense of fun! I get that a lot.

Elaine said...

Hmm, well, it is hard to argue with someone whose sense of fun keeps them dancing just out of reach, rascally M5000. But looking at a children's tale out of adult eyes just doesn't work--as you amply demonstrate. The spun-sugar plot won't hold up under the hot light of movie maven critique...but then, it wasn't built to do so.
Let Pinocchio be Pinocchio... eh?
C'mon! I KNOW you know what I mean. Twice-told tales still have charm.

Michael5000 said...

@Elaine: No. I don't know what you mean. Plenty of spun-sugar plots hold up under movie maven critique, and plenty of children's tales look great out of adult eyes. Many more recent animated features for kids -- Shrek, Toy Stories, the Incredibles, Wall-E, -- are rock-solid by almost anyone's standards.

I am really not sure why I should let Pinocchio be Pinocchio any more than I should let, say, let Taxi Driver be Taxi Driver. This is the 68th movie I've covered in this series, but it's the first where anyone has suggested it should be in a special category protected from criticism. This puzzles me. And don't tell me it's because it's a children's movie, because you know full well you wouldn't flinch if I let fly at The Hannah Montana Movie or Barney's Great Adventure. Is it because you have happy memories of watching Pinocchio as a child? Because I think it's possible to think critically about the movie without upsetting those memories.

I'd still be interested in hearing more about why you think Pinocchio is great.

Elaine said...

No, I admit its not among the Great...and I think Snow White is the movie that was the great leap forward in production. I just think Pinocchio is kind of fun, and I agreed with Rebel's points.

From your lists, I have seen the first Toy Story-- loved it-- but it was, after all, written to have appeal to the broader spectrum. (I was sad when the kids outgrew Sesame Street--the same fun for adults slyly tucked into the interplay that was ostensibly for the very young.)

I just didn't think Pinocchio was as bad as you described. And, actually, if pressed I have to admit I am not sure I'd bother with critiquing this movie--except, you're stuck with Ebert's list. Maybe Pinocchio's day has passed... Go ahead! Throw him to the whale!