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Movie Tuesday: Pinocchio, a look back

Because there was no first-run movie appropriate for Movie Tuesday, we asked Jared Peterson to re-watch and write about the first movie he saw in the theater. Below is what resulted.


Puppet State
Pinocchio once had me rolling in the aisles—how does it hold up today?
By Jared Peterson

All I remember is the whale.

It was my first big-screen movie, Disney’s rerelease of Pinocchio. I was four years old, I think. It’s been a blur all these years, except for one short burst of startling detail—a giant whale, three stories high, right before my eyes. I remember its blue-black hide darkening the entire screen, save for a red-and-white slash of its fearsome teeth. It bellowed and thrashed and charged straight at me.

I dove for cover. Behind a seawall of seats, I crouched on hands and knees… and listened. The chaos roiled, then dulled, then faded away, and when finally I peeked again at the giant screen, the monster was gone. The brave little puppet, his kindly maker and a surprisingly tough cricket had all made it ashore. Humbled and sticky, I retook my seat.

I couldn’t have known it then, but that’s what you pay for, isn’t it? To surrender to something larger than life, to be transported—if only as far as the floor. So recently I watched Pinocchio again—with the lights up this time, on a flat-screen I knew I could wrestle to the ground if necessary. And it still manages to impress, sixty-eight years after it was first released and thirty-odd years after it made me hit the deck. I was pleased to find it as satisfying an animated experience as any you could computer-engineer today.

I was especially charmed by the opening scenes, guided by the dapper, diminutive Jiminy Cricket. We enter the story by his invitation and at his level, from which we can savor along with him the nooks and crannies of a mantle full of knickknacks and the warmth of a cozy matchbox bed. Once inside Geppetto’s lamp-lit workshop, crammed with toys and gizmos, the pace slows, allowing us to linger over sublime details: the rippling distortions glimpsed through a fishbowl, the slink of a sleepy cat at his master’s feet, the subtle mechanics of a chiming cuckoo clock. I can see now how this languorous introduction sets up the peril to come, making it all the more shocking and powerful to young eyes. The stakes are raised gradually as Pinocchio makes his hapless way from the wrong side of town to the far side of the world. The scope of the story soon becomes grand and imposing, and it reaches its climax in the belly of the proverbial beast. It was, and is, a great ride. (I know. I fell off.)

The film shows its age, certainly, in its themes as much as its visuals. Pinocchio was an event film for the children of the Greatest Generation, and it draws a firm line between good and evil. The moral of this fable—“Be good or else”—is simplistic by today’s standards, and Pinocchio’s road to ruin is quaint at best, paved as it is with ‘sinful’ indiscretions ranging from roughhousing to cigar smoking to a brief stint in community theater. I found it hard not to think about how much family fare has changed over seven tumultuous decades. Compared with Pinocchio, Disney’s 1995 Toy Story is a postmodern tangle—a Woody Allen movie for the playground set. On that go-round, the puppet hero confronts the dangers of the big bad world while simultaneously working through his abandonment issues. Oh, the places you’ll go after fifty years of psychoanalytic theory.

Rest assured, Pinocchio has plenty of angst-free fun for today’s families. Parents will get a chuckle from Jiminy Cricket’s wry musings, which bring a (then) modern sensibility to the fairy tale proceedings. (I especially enjoyed his weakness for the ladies—he stops for a wink and a nudge every time a hot little figurine catches his eye.) And millennial youngsters should recognize the familiar parade of talking puppets, adorable pets and goofy pratfalls, not to mention the musical numbers, which they always seem to instantly learn and then sing (and sing and sing).

Just keep an eye on them when the whale shows up.

Jared Peterson will overanalyze anything ya got, for a small fee. Sample some of his work below, or at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com.

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