It was on this day in 1940 that Walt Disney's animated feature film Pinocchio was released. While Pinocchio was not a financial success on its first release, it would have a profound impact not only on Walt Disney Productions, but on animation history itself. Many regard the film as the Walt Disney's greatest achievement and some of us regard it as the greatest animated film ever made.
Pinocchio was based on the novel Pinocchio: Tale of a Puppet by Carlo Collodi. As originally written, the novel was not meant for children. It was only after Collodi's editor suggested that its original unhappy ending (in which Pinocchio is hanged for his sins) be replaced with a happy ending (in which he becomes a real boy) that it took shape as a children's book.
It was before Disney's first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, was released, that Walt Disney decided to adapt Collodi's novel as an animated feature film. Indeed, writing began on Pinocchio in November 1937, a month before Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released. That having been said, the production met with some difficulties. Walt Disney determined that while people loved the story, they hated the character of Pinocchio in the novel. Indeed, in the novel Pinocchio is often unfeeling and malicious, and the novel itself is overly violent for a children's book. Adapting the novel so that its lead character would be more appealing to audiences would cause problems in the production. At one point in 1937 it was actually thought that Bambi (the other animated feature on which the studio was working) would be released first, while Pinocchio was held up due to story difficulties. According to The New York Times in a June 12, 1938 article, 2300 feet of footage for the film was tossed out because Walt Disney "missed the feeling he had had in mind." The process of making Pinocchio a more sympathetic character was a long one. According to The New York Times at the time, Disney artists had initially used Attilio Massino's original illustrations to the novel as a model for the character. Over 18 months a newly created department for designing character models struggled to create the Disney version of Pinocchio. According to Bob Jones in charge of the department, in a reminiscence for the Disney Archives, at least 12 artists contributed ideas before the look of Pinocchio was finalised.
While artists struggled over Pinocchio's appearance, the story itself was undergoing drastic changes. Somewhat mean spirited in the novel, Pinocchio was made more sympathetic. He was not so much a rogue as an innocent puppet who is easily misled and too often giving in to his own pleasures. Perhaps the biggest change from Collodi's novel came when Disney took the minor character of an unnamed, talking cricket and transformed him into Jiminy Cricket. Not only would Jiminy act as Pinocchio's conscience, he would also narrate the film. To this end Disney asked his animators to create a humanoid cricket who wore clothing. As with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, human beings provided the models for some of the characters. The look of Pinocchio was further refined when Dickie Jones, who voiced the character, was shot on 8 mm film. At times he even dressed the part. Sequence director Thornton Hee would dress as Stromboli and act out the part for Disney and his fellow animators. Marge Champion (the known as Marjorie Bell), who had provided the model for Snow White, provided the model for The Blue Fairy. Interestingly enough, while Walter Catlett provided the voice for J. Worthington Foulfellow (AKA "Honest John"), according to a New York Times article as of February 25, 1940, the character "...was based upon a couple of famous actor brothers whose last name begins with B." There have been guesses that these actor brothers were none other than John and Lionel Barrymore.
Pinocchio would boast a voice cast that was actually fairly well known at the time. Indeed, legendary singer, ukulele player, and actor Cliff Edwards first tested for the part of Jiminy Cricket. Disney thought his tones were too adult to voice the boy puppet, but thought his fellow Missourian was perfect for the role of Jiminy Cricket. It was the beginning of a life long friendship between the two men, and Edwards would voice Jiminy until his death. The role of Pinocchio would ultimaltely go to child actor Dickie Jones. The young actor had appeared in both Westerns (he was well known for his trick roping) and Our Gang short subjects. As of 1950 he was the voice of Henry Aldrich on the radio show The Aldrich Family. Walter Catlett was a vaudevillian and a character who had appeared in Bringing Up Baby and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Evelyn Venable, star of Death Takes a Holiday and other films, voiced the Blue Fairy. Perhaps the most famous actor to work on Pinocchio actually had all of his lines cut, except for one, single hiccup. Mel Blanc voiced Gideon, Honest John's cat and henchman. Blanc would only voice one other Disney film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where he only voiced the Warner Brothers characters.
Pinocchio ultimately took nearly three years to complete. A study guide to the film from the time states that 2,000,0000 drawing were created for the film, of which 300,000 were used. Pinocchio utilised the multiplane camera, which also increased its costs. Only one sequence filmed by the multiplane camera could cost as much as $48,000. In the end Pinocchio would cost $2.5 million, a colossal amount for any film of that time.
Pinocchio debuted on February 7, 1940 at the Center Theatre in New York City. The premiere was accompanied by an enormous amount of publicity, including new stories in over sixty major magazines and hundreds of more newspapers, an extensive merchandising campaign (including a three record set of the movie's songs), art shows at three different New York galleries, and a display on the production at the the New York Museum of Science and Industry in Radio City. Over all Pinocchio received sterling reviews. Frank S. Nugent in his February 8, 1940 review in The New York Times said that the film, "..is a blithe, chuckle-some, witty, fresh and beautifully drawn fantasy which is superior to "Snow White" in every respect but one: its score" and called it "...the best cartoon ever made." Variety referred to Pinocchio as "...substantial piece of entertainment for both young and old." The Hollywood Reporter noted on February 8 that the film received "one of the greatest ovations ever accorded a motion picture." Pinocchio would even become the first animated feature to be honoured with an Oscar. In fact, it received two: the Academy Award for Best Song (for "When You Wish Upon a Star") and the Academy Award for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Sadly, while Snow White and the Seven Dwarves became the highest grossing feature film (until knocked off by Gone with the Wind), Pinocchio did not do nearly as well at the box office. Contrary to popular belief, however, it was not a total box office disaster. Sources disagree as to whether it made a profit in its initial release or not. One thing is clear. It did not drive Walt Disney Productions towards bankruptcy as popularly believed. Director Ben Sharpenstein thought the reason that Pinocchoio did not do as well as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves is that Snow White and the Seven Dwarves appealed more to adults while Pinocchio appealed more to children (who paid a cheaper ticket price then as now). This seems unlikely from reviews of the time (such as the one in Variety), not to mention the status of the film over the years. A more likely explanation is that World War II seriously hurt Pinocchio at the box office. Disney's profits in Europe dropped 80 percent with the outbreak of the war. The film was not released in Germany (it wouldn't be until 1951) and translated only into Spanish and Portuguese (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was translated into many more). It is significant that in its re-releases Pinocchio would more than recoup its costs.
Pinocchio would have a lasting impact on Walt Disney Productions. "When You Wish Upon a Star" became the studio's themes song. It was played as the theme for The Wonderful World of Disney (from its original name Disneyland onwards), in Disneys Pictures' various logo openings, and at the various theme parks during certain events. Jiminy Cricket would become one of the best known and most enduring characters, appearing in his own film shorts, several episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, The Mickey Mouse Club, and Disney shows to this day. He voiced by the great Cliff Edwards until his death. Pinocchio would become the first Disney film ever released on DVD.
Of course, the impact of Pinocchio would go far beyond Disney itself. The film is still regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time. In 1994 Pinocchio was added to the United States National Film Registry. Pinocchio ranked second only to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as the greatest animated film of all time in the American Film Institute's Ten top Ten (the best ten films in ten American film genres) released in June 2008. In 2005 Time chose it as one of the greatest films released in the past 80 years, only one of two animated films to make the list (Finding Nemo was the other). To this day there are many who consider it to be Disney's greatest achievement.
That Pinocchio is counted among the greatest films of all time should be little wonder. It could well be the greatest achievement Walt Disney Productions ever made with regards to animation. The film has a depth and realism that many animated films lack even today. Pinocchio cost a good deal of money to make, and it shows on the big screen. The lasting appeal of Pinocchio goes beyond its superb technical qualities, however, as it also had what could be the best story every told by Walt Disney Productions. Walt Disney was wise in taking Collodi's young sociopath and turning him into a more sympathetic character. Disney's Pinocchio is a well meaning, but naive fellow who is too often easily misled by those of low morality and as a result gives into his baser desires as a result. At the same time he truly wishes to become a real boy. In this way Pinocchio is a tale of growing up. The character of Pinocchio reflects most of us, who truly wish to be good people and truly wish to grow up into men and women. In learning ethics and morality from Jiminy Cricket and The Blue Fairy, then, Pinocchio is going through a process all of us have gone through. He is growing up. It is for this reason that the film, contrary to what Ben Sharpstein thought, continues to appeal to adults as much as, if not more so, it does children.
Pinocchio was recently re-released on DVD and released on Blu-Ray for the first time. There can be no doubt that it will not be the last time. Widely regarded as Disney's greatest achievement and by many as the greatest animated film of all time, it will continue to be enjoyed by young and old for years to come.