Is there a more terrifying children’s film than Disney’s second animated classic Pinocchio? It’s unlikely. Others may spring to mind – perhaps The Hole or Monster House. But contemplate, for a second, the sheer unrelenting horror of Pinocchio, a morality tale that features a puppet master who locks a child in a cage, a child catcher who turns boys into donkeys to sell them, and a whale created in the depths of hell (maybe). Then think, for a second, about the ending. It’s all well and good for Pinocchio himself, he’s a real boy now, and with his family. But remember those kids who are now asinine slaves to the salt mines? There is no resolution for them, they are condemned to a short life of hauling carts underground, whipped by cruel masters who are unaware that they used to be children. They tasted sin, and now they must suffer for it.
With such an unremittingly bleak outlook for these boys, Disney’s second film becomes something far darker than many remember. The iconic moments from Pinocchio – the desire to be a real boy, the nose that grows, wishing on a star – remain firmly ensconced in the public consciousness, but they belie the seriously dark tone of the film. The best Disney films have a bit of fear to leaven the sweetness, but Pinocchio, whilst not nearly as dark as the Italian novel it is based on, marks Disney at their most audaciously frightening. It is a sign of the film’s superb storytelling and beautiful animation that it is also one of the studio’s most enduring films.
Pinocchio opens, like most early films from the House of Mouse, with an old book opening. In the background are books for two future Disney projects, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan (although neither were in development yet). The camera then skims over a European village at night, the cobbled streets and gently angled buildings, firmly rooting this in the land of the fairy tale. Our narrator is the irritating Jiminy Cricket (the least convincing cricket ever), who stumbles across the workshop of Gepetto, a woodcarver who makes seriously eerie clocks and music boxes. There’s a cat and a goldfish, both with their own personalities, and the blue fairy who brings Pinocchio to life is a poorly animated addition to what already felt like saccharine overkill. This is a home of warmth and familiarity, so it is fitting that the adventures only really begin when Pinocchio leaves the house.
Like most fairy tales, it’s a coming of age story, about overcoming temptation and learning courage in the face of danger, but Pinocchio’s danger is specifically found outside of this traditional, fairy tale homestead. Just as Snow White’s downfall was the classic biblical image of an apple, so Pinocchio is full of scriptural imagery, and the story revolves around the eponymous puppet being given the knowledge of good and evil, and making a choice between them. This is a moral fable, a warning to children round the world of what will happen when you make the wrong choice. Essentially, the story is a series of vignettes as Pinocchio faces the triple threat of fame, hedonism and fear, the first two of which he gives in to, and suffers for it, but he triumphs at his third challenge.
This three part, vignette structure enables the animators to explore the world with all its colour and noise. The first story is the least interesting, in which Pinocchio tries a career as an actor for a puppeteer, before being kept prisoner. Even here, however, the storytellers produce some startling images, such as a flash of lightning briefly illuminating the marionettes that hang all around him, corpse-like, or the moment when a forlorn Gepetto, searching desperately for his lost son, watches as the carriage that keeps Pinocchio prisoner passes him by in the rain. It’s unsettling, but even here the action never leaves the homely little town of Pinocchio’s creation; he’s able to return home that night, having learnt his lesson, and presumably Figaro the Cat got to eat his fish.
The further Pinocchio strays from home, the stranger and more wildly inventive are the places he visits. His next two adventures are truly unforgettable, from the debauched, nightmarish sights of Pleasure Island, to a dreamlike exploration of an underwater world. Each segment has a different look about it, from the blaring colours of Satan’s very own theme park to the watery, softer hues of the seabed. It means the sense of adventure and peril never slows up, the frame is always full of something new and interesting to look at. This exploration of the weird and wonderful world ends with one of the scariest sequences in a kid’s movie ever, as a giant whale gets mad and tries to eat Pinocchio and his friends (again). Monstro the whale is a truly fearsome creation, a writhing, bulging mass of blubber that uses the principles of squash and stretch to terrifying effect. It’s such an energetic conclusion that it feels like a shame when Pinocchio ends up back at home for the standard Disney happy ending, and that awful fairy turns up again.
Pinocchio is, in essence, a warning about what happens when you leave the home and family behind. But such is the dullness of the home scenes, and the wonder and excitement that the animators conjure of what lies beyond it, that the audience, too, feels unstoppably drawn to this world. It’s terrifying, and may give you nightmares about whales for the rest of your life, but Disney has rarely been so thrilling.