Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Day 2: Pinocchio (1940)

One of the things that struck me most about Snow White yesterday was the motherly nagging nature of the film's songs - 'Whistle You Work' and 'Heigh-Ho!' promoted a strong work ethic, as well as the former encouraging you to do the dishes, dear. There's a whole musical number dedicated to washing up before you eat. There haven't been many Disney films of late to feature musical numbers, but if we take a trip back to, say, Hercules, the songs aren't nearly as well-behaved. In fact, most all of the Hercules numbers are glory-seeking, hero-baiting songs. This isn't to say Hercules is a bad film, but it's hardly going to get the kids to tidy their bedrooms, is it?

Pinocchio, Disney's second film, is perhaps the epitome of morality in children's cinema - a medium that, let's face it, is by definition a pretty moralistic genre to start with. It's as true now as it was in 1940 that family films must be ripe with morality if they stand any chance of success. It's true that recent kid's films tend to feature a few more fart jokes than, say, Sleeping Beauty or Dumbo, but they're hardly petry dishes of metaphorical filth nonetheless. Shrek would never have sold to children if it contained endless profanities; Happy Feet would have been much less popular with parents if Mumble, the little dancing penguin, instead dealt with his issues of abandonment by returning to his home armed with an Uzi and a wild sense of closure. Extreme closure.

The fact of the matter is this: besides immediate family and the ever-dwindling church attendances, the premier source of moralistic influence for children today (and, really, ever since its conception) is popular culture. It's the reason Fox News gets so pissy about violent video games falling into the hands of wide-eyed preteens, why puritanical fundamentalists would rather lock children in their bedrooms than let them own a rap album. And it's the reason that Mumble the little dancing penguin never went postal on his old penguin clan.

For the most part, family films are happy simply to not misbehave - or to show the characters that do finding their just desserts in death, prison or - in the really pessimistic ones - death in prison. Children (especially this current lot, with their Bratz and their Spongebob and their pre-teen pregnancy) don't appreciate in-your-face lessons in the way that the well-dressed vest-wearing young folk of the forties did. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Pinocchio - Disney's greatest morality tale. You know the story - old man wishes for his wooden puppet to be a real boy, and has his wish answered by improbably tall and hot fairy. Puppet is told he needs to behave, keep to the straight and narrow and generally be a good little Christian marionette if he ever wants to be a real human thing. Of course, Pinocchio is worryingly timeless in his childish ability to do the direct opposite of pretty much anything he's told to. Shamelessly skipping school, the little wooden puppet manages first to join a travelling show and then holiday to an island that specialises in transforming it's visitors into donkey slaves. Frankly, the lessons get a bit heavy-handed here; on Pleasure Island if you act like a jackass you literally become a jackass.

You've got to wonder how well Pinocchio goes down with anyone born after the invention of teenagers. Pinocchio is swamped with the sort of morality that lives today only in the southern states of America - nobody north of Missouri has kept to JC's 'straight and narrow' since the mid forties. JC, of course, being Jiminy Cricket.

Something of note regrading Jiminy Cricket, while we're here: he is an awful choice to be the wooden guy's conscience, and not just due to his in-film inability to wake up before nine. One of the first things JC does in the film? Breaking and entering into Gepetto's house. His excuse is that the unattended log fire inside is a waste as long as there is nobody to appreciate it. This is nice thinking. Tomorrow I am going to steal a 72 inch LCD television screen, because it's a waste as long as I'm not watching Bruce Willis jump off the Nakatomi Plaza on it.


All in all, Pinocchio may have aged badly as we've grown more and more desensitized to casual lying, more likely to skip school - even if our ambitions for the day are less grand than joining a travelling showman's troupe. A step up in quality from Snow White, both in plot and animation (if the water effects on my DVD are true to the original then they are verging on remarkable), it's a shame that the film does not garner the same respect that Snow White presumably gained simply through being the first of its kind.

Coming Soon: Fantasia (1940)

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