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80 Years Later: Pinocchio

13 May 20 words: Roshan Chandy

Roshan Chandy looks back on this Disney classic and all of its creepy delights...

Directors: Ben Sharpsteen and Hamilton Luske
Starring: Cliff Edwards, Dickie Jones, Christian Rub
Running time: 88 minutes

With their toe-tapping songs, cute critters and beautiful princesses, it’s easy to forget just how grim so much of Disney’s back-catalogue really is. I don’t think I’ve gone a week’s sleep without the weep-worthy image of Mufasa lying there motionless from The Lion King (1994) polluting my mind. Neither have I ever failed to be chilled to the bone by the shudder-inducing sound of shotguns hunting Bambi (1942). Even Dumbo (1941) - on paper, nothing more than a big, floppy-eared baby elephant - was fraught with startling and extremely relevant subtext about bullying and discrimination.

For all the fantastical flourishes, classic Disney productions revel in the grotesquery of reality; exposing our youngest audiences to a palpable divide between light and dark that dictates so much of the world we live in. The cloudy and sunny are puppeteered with marionette dexterity by Pinocchio (1940) which makes a very valid case for being Disney’s most twisted concoction to date.

It’s no surprise, to be honest, that this tale about a talking puppet who dreams of being a “real boy” is as scary as it is considering it originates from the pages of Carlo Collodi’s canonical 1883 source material. In the original novel, Pinocchio kills Jiminy Cricket, has his feet burned off and is hanged. Naturally such macabreness was far too bloody for the U certificate trappings of a family-friendly cartoon - even with Disney’s surprising propensity for violence.

Proof that Disney understood the mechanics of a fully-formed horror film

And yet - despite its universal age rating - Pinocchio still finds ways to shiver me timbers. Take the carnivalesque production design of Pleasure Island, for example, with its funhouse excesses of blow-up policemen, gurning clowns and the now dated sight of red-faced statues showering children in tobacco. A sure-fire tactic to scare kiddies off smoking for life!

These terrifying, almost Lynchian touches were all proof that Disney understood the mechanics of a fully-formed horror film. No matter how queasy the branches slithering out the young puppet’s nose are, they pale in comparison to the moral messages sprinkled by the effervescent Blue Fairy. She contemplates that “a lie keeps growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face”. That’s strong, chewy wording that echoes solemnly amidst the barefaced fibs made the norm in this “post-truth” era.

The same real-world gruel spools over those bulbous, blood-busting enlargements on Coachman’s face or Lampwick’s fleshy, bodily mutation into a donkey. For instance, neither images are as creepy as the former’s confession that he enjoys “collecting stupid little boys” nor as perverse as the reasoning for the latter’s transformation because he’s “disobedient”.

This movie doesn’t have quite the emotional sucker punch of The Lion King or even the hour-lengthed elan of Cinderella (1951). At 88 minutes, the film is in slightly baggier form and arguably overstretches its welcome once proceedings move off dry land and into a whale’s belly. But Pinocchio is at its strongest when reminding viewers that the scariest apparitions are those closest to home. Like all the finest horror stories, for that, we must commend it.

Did you know? The Blue Fairy was modelled after Evelyn Venable, who was also the model for the Columbia Pictures logo.

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