Pinocchio (1940)

Why 'Pinocchio' Is The Darkest Disney Film And Why It had To Be

By: Domonique Cox-Salberg

For those of you that have read the original story, The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) by Italian writer Carlo Collodi and know Disney’s version, the macabre humor is no surprise. Several other well-known fairy tales turned Disney classics such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Sleeping Beauty have similar dark origins.

However, with most adaptations, a little or a lot is changed, and when we compare all of the darkest tales turned Disney classics, Walt’s 1940s Pinocchio remains the darkest of all the films made then and today. The princesses were given fairly tamed journeys and happy endings, but Pinocchio seemed to take on darkness of its own, and one we have not seen in Disney films since it premiered. The approach to his tale is eerie, unique to any other Disney animated film, and the reasons why are compelling.

Rare Journey For A Disney Protagonist

Pinocchio marked a horrific melancholy unheard of in commercial animation for its time. No other Disney feature had a world so dangerous or so completely beyond the hero’s control. All the villains escape scot-free, ready to pounce again as there is no epic battle where we see them fall. From beginning to end, the puppet hero remains unequipped to face or defeat his adversaries, only able to evade them. And since the film is a musical of sorts, Pinocchio’s tunes take on a critical and ominous tone, creating a multi-leveled commentary on his vulnerability.

Pinocchio’s Ominous Tone

Unlike the exuberant music of its predecessor Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the Disney films of today, Pinocchio’s are rooted in irony. Pinocchio sings his liberation songs, “Hi Diddle Dee Dee” and “I’ve Got No Strings,” unaware that he has been trapped. Even Geppetto’s seemingly loving song to Pinocchio, “Little Wooden Head,” stings in a way unexpected in a lullaby.

How Walt Changed The Original Tale And Why It Matters

Moreover, except for when Pinocchio leaves for school, all the action takes place at night, in gloomy fog, in drizzling rain, or spaces cut off from light—in the bottom of the ocean or inside a whale’s belly. Disney’s decision to approach the film this way makes sense when we think of how the original tale follows a malicious boy with unredeemable combinations of cruelty and malice, who stubbornly refuses to learn and throws tantrums when he cannot get his way. Then wrapped around the theme of disobedience, reprimand, and punishment, Walt seemed to want to keep semblances of the original, however, tell the story in his own way.

And although criticized by some for draining the story of its macabre humor, many believed he fixed the wrongs of the original. Instead of an innately malicious, unwanted child, Walt portrayed a lovable boy whose badness stemmed from a lack of experience. Disney went so far as to change the underlying theme, “becoming a real boy,” and what it signified, which was the perilous wish to grow up, not the impossible wish to be good. So, where in Colloid’s novel, we are meant to laugh at the sadistic things that happen to its arrogant puppet, Disney made us care whether or not Pinocchio would make it home safely from his frightening adventures.

Exploring Human Nature 

Therefore, the film becomes an introspection into the fear that manifests when stepping out into a daunting new world. It exaggerates the fear of rejection, fear of losing identity, the fear of losing parents and home, and fear of nature and death itself. It is a world conceived of mystery and disguises that are never fully comprehensible. Also, Pinocchio is juvenilized in Disney’s interpretation, as the world’s troubles appear grander from the frightful emphasis throughout. So even though the arrogance and cruelty of the original wooden boy were replaced by a familiar American type: sweet, goodhearted infant incapable of anger or malice, Disney never lost the darkness that lingered in the tale.

It appears he established it into Pinocchio’s surroundings and the environment because ultimately, it had to be. It was the film that moved the studio and animation into a new direction of fully developed stories about human nature—the good and the bad—yet, never strayed too far from the wholesome protagonists in the form of princesses, princes, underdogs, and heroes, synonymous with the Disney brand. And before our eyes, the story of a wooden boy founded a new and appreciated standard for animated storytelling.

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