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WALT DISNEY’S PINOCCHIO

April 19, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Walt Disney’s Pinocchio

Pinocchio. 1940. USA. Produced by Walt Disney

Pinocchio. 1940. USA. Produced by Walt Disney

These notes accompany the screenings of Walt Disney’s Pinocchio on April 20, 21, and 22 in Theater 3.

As this is being written, the number one film at the box office for the second straight week is an animated work, Hop, about the picaresque adventures of the long-eared heir to a chocolate bunny factory. Hopping out to see Hop is not high on my agenda (hopping of any kind has not been on my agenda at all since the five-minute “Bunny Hop” craze over a half-century ago), but there has been a proud relationship between bunnies and the cinema for a long time, from John Bunny (the silent clown) to Bunny Lake (Otto Preminger’s abducted little girl). And of course, we can never lavish enough praise on that 14-carrot genius, Bugs. My favorite recent addition is the March Hare in Tim Burton’s The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, who steals the show at the Mad Hatter’s tea party. (This should not be confused with that other Tea Party, hosted by the Mad Haters.) Animated films seem to appear weekly and have become part of American mainstream cinema—Toy Story 3 was even nominated for best picture. This was not always the case.

Walt Disney lavished years of work on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it took him another three years to produce Pinocchio, another picaresque adventure of a youthful innocent, albeit a wood-headed marionette rather than a bunny. More time has now passed since Disney’s film than between Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s book and the Disney adaptation, both of which are legitimately considered classics. I thought Disney’s version was pretty scary for kids, especially with Monstro the whale (a mile-long shark in the book), but the film seems pretty tame by comparison with the book. I once took my nieces (their ages then in single digits) to see the movie, and the middle one, having seen the film before, got more and more anxious as the climax approached. By the time Monstro appeared she had climbed onto my lap in tears, and we had to do the unthinkable: wait for the others in the lobby. Collodi’s book is rife with violence and gore—Pinocchio’s feet burn off; four rabbit (there we go again) undertakers express their disappointment that Pinocchio is not dead—and there is copious self-mutilation. The cricket, the charming Jiminy (played by Cliff Edwards in the film) is squashed in an early chapter, but returns several times as a ghost. So Jiminy, J. Worthington Foulfellow/Honest John, and Stromboli are essentially the creations of Disney and his minions, and they are the most interesting and three-dimensional characters in the film. There is nothing in Collodi to rival the delightful songs, as his wood-headed hero stumbles from one calamity to the next.

There must have been something in the air in 1939–1940 in America, while Europe was entering upon its darkest age, that led to mindless optimism, generated by conservative filmmakers. In Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, Irene Dunne sings “Wishing Will Make It So,” while here Jiminy Cricket sings that “When You Wish Upon a Star,” your dreams come true. Disney went on to corner the market, with films like Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi, while his rival, Max Fleischer, failed to keep pace. Uncle Walt’s vision helped shape American feelings of “exceptionalism,” and it is understandable that his films reflected his politics and sanguine view of the world. In any case, my niece, terrified by Monstro, grew up to be a Republican.

I want to take note of the passing of Sidney Lumet at 86. Never an auteur favorite, his films often seemed visually constrained by his roots in live television. There seemed to be no clear worldview expressed over the course of his 50-year career, other than some of level of commitment to social activism. I was not a big fan of some of the films most often cited as his major achievements (Network, Dog Day Afternoon), and sometimes he seemed to be just going through the motions (Q&A). Still, he was responsible for many creditable films. My own favorites tended to be his smaller or more theatrical works: The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Sea Gull, or Garbo Talks. Katharine Hepburn’s performance in Long Day’s Journey into Night is as good as anything Garbo, Gish, or for that matter, Hepburn ever did.

You have just a few more days to appreciate the work of a genuine auteur, Charles Burnett, at MoMA. Try not to miss Nightjohn on Saturday, and Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property and Warming By the Devil’s Fire on Sunday. There is something ineffably deep, magical, and majestic about this guy.

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