It’s 1937 and Walt Disney Productions premieres Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to thunderous applause, both financially and critically. The film, as we discussed in the last article, was a gamble for the studio. No one had ever attempted a full-length feature animated film before, and no one could predict how audiences would react to it. Luckily for Walt and company, it was a smashing success.
Then the studio had to figure out where it would go from there.
People flocked to the cinema in the 1930s as a form of escapism from the Great Depression, but Hollywood began to struggle in the early 1940s, before finding its boom during the mid-40s, when many technical challenges were a thing of the past and studios benefited from war propaganda. This is the line that our next film, Pinocchio, straddled when it was released in February of 1940.
As the United States was coping and struggling with the brewing war across the Atlantic, big changes began to brew at the studio as well.
Understandably, Walt did not want Snow White to be a fluke. He believed in the staying power of animation, as shown in his letter to Gus Van Schmus, the general manager of Radio City Music Hall:
“We have to prove to the public that Snow White and feature cartoons are not just a passing novelty, but that they have a very definite place in the entertainment world and are here to stay.”
In that vein, the studio had undergone drastic changes by the time of Pinocchio’s release. Nearly 800 employees were added to the payroll, and rather than simply adding on to the Hyperion studio lot, Walt decided to build a new studio entirely, ultimately choosing a piece of land in Burbank, which has remained the Mouse’s home since.
In the midst of this planning, Walt and his employees began working on Bambi by the fall of 1938. Yet, as indicated by the headline of this article, you’ll know Bambi wasn’t the next feature to be produced by the studio, despite that being the plan.
Bambi proved too difficult – too sensitive, as Neal Gabler describes in Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination – with its realistic animation, and so it was postponed in favor of an Italian story about a little wooden boy.
Disney’s second animated feature film is considered by some a pinnacle of animation, and a masterpiece, but both its production and final product belie those accolades.
Just like Bambi, Pinocchio provided a rocky road to completion. Walt rushed into it, feeling he had to after the shelving of Bambi, and the film began running into both story and aesthetic problems, such as making the titular character, who is unmistakably unlikable in the original story, both someone an audience could root for, as well as animated just right. All of this led to headaches for Walt and animators alike.
It didn’t take long for Pinocchio to become the second shelved project, as Walt instead turned his attentions to arguably his most ambitious work, tentatively titled The Concert Feature. (Keep in mind this was all while a new studio was being built, two films were incomplete, and preliminary work was beginning on Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.) While it may seem that all of this was far more than the studio could handle, and in many ways it was, Walt became re-energized, and even as he continued work on The Concert Feature, he finally turned his attention back to Pinocchio, despite it coming across as a chore.
Many of Pinocchio’s backstage problems stemmed from animation, yet ultimately it’s the story that lets the film down.
When the studio figured out the role of Jiminy Cricket, who originally had a much smaller and much different role to play, they thought they had solved many of the story problems they were running into. With that mindset, they then had to figure out what Jiminy would like that, and the task fell upon animator Ward Kimball. It was hard; Walt dismissed several incarnations, before approving the final look, which differed significantly from a cricket, according to Kimball: “He was a cricket because we called him a cricket.”
However, it was the animation for Pinocchio himself that proved most crucial. Originally animated by Fred Moore, the argument that broke out at the studio was whether or not Pinocchio was more puppet or boy. It’s a fair question to ask – literally, Pinocchio is a puppet, but a puppet who acts like a boy, wants to be a boy, and ultimately becomes a boy. But how would an audience respond to the stilted animation of a character who is made of wood?
After Moore’s failed attempt, the animation was taken over by Milt Kahl, one of Walt’s Nine Old Men and one of my personal favorite animators. Beautifully, he was able to take a wooden puppet and imbue him with the softness and life of a young boy which, according to reports, made Walt flip (in a good way). Watching Pinocchio move in the film is endlessly entertaining – not to mention breathtaking.
In fact, many critics at the time acknowledged the improved animation, such as Otis Ferguson who wrote for The New Republic: “… it brings the cartoon to a level of perfection that the word cartoon will not cover.”
In this regard, Walt, who wanted to push the boundaries of animation (which is why he created the entire underwater sequence at the end of the film), absolutely succeeded with the film. The film utilized the art of rotoscoping once more but at the suggestion of Joe Grant, they also used physical models on which to base their drawings. Another new technique was the “blend,” which combined dry and airbrushing, and became a very expensive process. Still, they paid off – at least artistically.
There were more serious problems with the film. Critics who rightfully praised the animation also rightfully recognized the film’s story problems, which were strikingly less tight and streamlined than in Snow White.
There is a reason Pinocchio is remembered primarily for its first song, “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which remains as beautiful and hopeful as ever, as well was one of the most well-known movie songs of all time. Its plot, if you can even call it that, sorely lacks either of those things.
The best way to describe this film is episodic. Each set piece moves along at an uneven pace, holding the hands of the audience as they’re led from Point A to Point B to Point C. Each mark that the film hits feels obligatory and forced, rather than natural, as stories should be. It also takes the film ages to get anywhere – it is more than 15 minutes before Pinocchio is made real by the Blue Fairy, and while those first 15 minutes provide some charming moments getting to know Geppetto and his workship (including a segment entirely showing off his colorful hand-made clocks), they still come across as a drag.
This film can easily be divided into chapters, and that’s not to its benefit. Pinocchio and Jiminy, the two characters with “arcs” in the film (one to become a real boy, and the other to become a bonafide Conscience), wind up thin and, frankly, frustrating. It is easy to root for Pinocchio, largely because of singular emotional beats during his and Geppetto’s searches for one another, though not because of his individual character.
Set pieces do work in this film – the plot of boys being lured to their demise and turned into donkeys on Pleasure Island, as well as the aggressive Monstro, are appropriately terrifying. The film goes to dark places, and they work in their moments, but do nothing to service the overall film. It’s moving to watch at the time, but as the film stiltedly moves to the next plot point, as mandated by progression, previous scenes become blurred and forgettable moments of the past.
Ultimately, nothing feels earned in this film. It has a happy ending, but was the journey to get there worthwhile? Arguably, no, not with the plot problems that plagued it throughout. And these problems showed in the final numbers for the film.
Reviews were mixed, as indicated above, and attendance was well below that of Snow White. While Walt blamed Gone with the Wind, which had been released only a couple of weeks before, and the growing war, the fact of the matter is that whatever kept audiences away, it had an impact. Pinocchio made $2 million, based on a $2.7 million investment, and understandably shook Walt’s confidence. Still, there were far bigger matters ahead for the studio, and as Walt has become known for, they had to progress and look ahead, as you’ll read next week when we take on Fantasia.
The information and quotes from this article can largely be found in Neal Gabler’s Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination and Michael Barrier’s Hollywood Cartoons.