No Strings on Me – Pinocchio (1940) Blu-ray

I seem to be out of step with both critical and popular opinion on Guillermo del Toro’s new stop-motion animated remake of Pinocchio. I watched that one without so much as checking Rotten Tomatoes or Letterboxd and thought it was kind of awful, only to find nearly everyone else in the world proclaiming it a masterpiece. I’m confident the shine will wear off that eventually. About the only thing I got out of it was a desire to rewatch the Disney animated classic.

I needed a refresher, as it had been ages since I last saw Disney’s Pinocchio. Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d watched it in full since childhood. For such a short movie, I have no excuse for that, except other things taking up my time. With a fresh look, I’m relieved that the film holds up to both my memory and its reputation. If not necessarily the best or even my favorite of Disney’s animated masterpieces, Pinocchio has tons of both artistry and charm – the latter of which I found lacking in del Toro’s version, personally.

Pinocchio (1940) - Geppetto & Pinocchio
Year of Release: 1940
Directors: Ben Sharpsteen
Hamilton Luske
Bill Roberts
Norman Ferguson
Jack Kinney
Wilfred Jackson
T. Hee
Watched On: Blu-ray
Also Available On: Disney+
Various VOD rental and purchase platforms

I won’t belabor any more comparisons here. For its own part, Disney’s Pinocchio remains the most iconic telling of the story, at this point likely even more famous than the 1883 Carlo Collodi novel it was based on. Even with countless subsequent adaptations of the tale in film, TV, and other media, when you mention the name Pinocchio, most people immediately picture the Disney version. I doubt that will change anytime soon. I fully expect that, a hundred years from now, parents will still watch this movie with their children, and both will love it.

The basics of the story are no doubt familiar to everyone, from decades of pop culture exposure if nothing else. A woodworker named Geppetto carves a puppet named Pinocchio, a Blue Fairy brings it to life, and through a series of misadventures they both wind up swallowed by a whale whose stomach they must escape. Tagging along on all these journeys is a talking cricket named Jiminy, whom the fairy appointed as Pinocchio’s conscience, to help guide him in his growth and assist with his quest to become a real boy.

Pinocchio is often regarded as one of the darkest of Disney’s animated classics, which is saying something for the studio that killed Bambi’s mother. That’s largely to do with plot points about a scheming fox who tricks Pinocchio into running away from home to join a traveling carnival, and an evil Coachman who kidnaps wayward boys in order to sell them into slavery. The film’s centerpiece sequence, in which the Coachman brings the children to a twisted fairground called Pleasure Island, where he gets them hooked on booze and smoking, then turns them into donkeys, disturbed me as a child and continues to do so even more now as a parent.

Those troubling aspects, however, are well balanced by endearing characters and a lot of gentle humor. Like most of the Golden Age Disney classics, Pinocchio is told with a deft touch and knows exactly when to rein in the scary parts before they go too far. In most respects, this is actually a light, whimsical story. It moves a little slowly at times, but always offers something interesting to look at or think about. The songs, including “I’ve Got No Strings,” “Give a Little Whistle,” and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” are all terrific. And who could ever forget “When You Wish Upon a Star”? Once you hear that one, it sticks with you forever.

The artistry of the animation is of course incredible. Geppetto’s workshop is filled with all manner of wonderful wooden and mechanical inventions. The carnival and Pleasure Island are also visual highlights. Even minor characters like Geppetto’s cat Figaro and fish Cleo are drawn and move with tons of personality and a painstaking attention to the details of their mannerisms.

On this watch, as an adult, a couple plot holes niggled at me. The day after his puppet is magically brought to life, Geppetto sends Pinocchio off to school, unaccompanied, without so much as a heads-up to the school that a walking and talking, living wooden doll is on the way! I suppose in a world where crickets and foxes wear human clothes and talk, something like that may not seem so unusual as it would to us. Later on, one of the most important plot turns in the movie – Geppetto and his pets being swallowed by the whale Monstro – occurs off-camera and we only find out about it afterwards, when Pinocchio does. Not even the deleted scenes on the Blu-ray address how he got there. No explanation is offered for how Jiminy Cricket can breathe underwater, either.

Strangely, the most famous part of the Pinocchio story, that his nose grows when he lies, isn’t introduced until halfway through the movie and is never mentioned again. I could’ve sworn that was a much bigger part of the film.

Some of the ethnic stereotypes make me a little uncomfortable now, but judging by the anti-tobacco PSA Disney foisted before the Blu-ray menu, it seems the studio is more concerned about the depiction of smoking, even though it’s clearly shown to make the kids sick.

Issues like those are quite minor in the grand scheme of things, and will surely fly right over the heads of any children watching, as they did my own when I first saw it many years ago. Even eight decades since its creation, Disney’s Pinocchio retains every bit of its magic. This film has endured for good reason.

Pinocchio (1940) - The Blue Fairy

The Blu-ray

Disney first released Pinocchio onto Blu-ray in 2009 as a (slightly mistimed) 70th Anniversary Edition, which I purchased in a very attractive SteelBook from Best Buy. The same transfer was later reissued as a Signature Collection release in 2017. Other than a few new bonus features, the video and audio quality of the movie itself were unchanged.

When originally released, the work Disney put into remastering its animated classics for Blu-ray was highly praised. Unfortunately, the studio’s heavy hand with digital manipulation is more evident in retropect. Although Pinocchio is quite sharp and seems, at least initially, to have a lot of detail, it was also almost entirely scrubbed of film grain – and with it, some fine line detail in the art. This leaves surfaces, especially noticeable in faces, lacking texture. The picture is very clean and superficially pretty. It probably looks great if watched on a small to moderate sized television. However, the larger your screen, the more problematic it becomes. Sadly, this issue affects almost all the Disney classics on Blu-ray.

The 4:3 image (1.34:1 by my pixel counting) can be watched pillarboxed in the center of the frame or, if you prefer, using the gimmicky “Disney View” feature that fills in the black bars with static artwork. I find that very distracting, but perhaps kids might enjoy it better that way.

Pinocchio (1940) Blu-ray SteelBook

The default audio option is a DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track that largely sounds like a mono movie from 1940 with its musical score expanded to stereo. The bulk of the soundtrack remains rigidly centered. Dialogue sounds a little distant, and the dated sound effects (such as thunder) are weak. Meanwhile, the music is much warmer and broader. Alternately, Disney offers a “Restored Original Soundtrack” in lossy Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. I compared that for a few minutes, but found it a little too scratchy and went back to the 7.1 version.

The SteelBook copy I have is a 3-disc set, with the feature on both Blu-ray and DVD plus a disc of extras. Supplements include an audio commentary by critic Leonard Maltin, a pop-up trivia track, an hour-long documentary, deleted scenes, featurettes, trailers, music videos, and some games for kids.

Disappointingly, the interactive “Cine-Explore Mode” no longer works in my Blu-ray player, and I believe Disney disabled the BD-Live portal some time ago. The 2017 Signature Collection reissue stripped those out and replaced them with a handful of additional featurettes and a vintage cartoon short that I don’t have.


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