Walt Disney’s Pinocchio: Motion, Pictures

[Michael Sporn’s amazing animation blog has a post of design sketches from the production of Pinocchio, such as the one above. See many more here.]

Walt Disney's Pinocchio1940’s Pinocchio has long been my favourite Disney cartoon. Aside from the consistent beauty of its cartoon cast, Olde Europe sets (a lot of which seem to be warmly lit by log fires) and the immaculate handling of key set-pieces (that’s a hell of a whale!), it’s the most deeply self-reflexive of Disney films. It matches the Disney template of a loosely adapted classic tale (Pinocchio feels like a much older folk tale than its 1883 publication date) with a morally didactic structure, to a meditation on the magic of movement and characterisation. As well as being an animated feature film, Pinocchio is a story about animation. The course of Pinocchio’s journey from lump of inert wood to a “real boy” is a trip through various gradations of anthropomorphism. Pinocchio starts out as a lifeless marionette, animated only by Gepetto’s hands, and works his way up to the goal of becoming a real live boy.

Disney Pinocchio Background

Disney misses out the earliest bits of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio, where the tale begins with a simple bit of wood:

Centuries ago there lived–
“A king!” my little readers will say immediately.

No, children, you are mistaken. Once upon a time there was a piece of
wood. It was not an expensive piece of wood. Far from it. Just a common
block of firewood, one of those thick, solid logs that are put on the
fire in winter to make cold rooms cozy and warm.

I do not know how this really happened, yet the fact remains that
one fine day this piece of wood found itself in the shop of an old
carpenter. His real name was Mastro Antonio, but everyone called him
Mastro Cherry, for the tip of his nose was so round and red and shiny
that it looked like a ripe cherry.

As soon as he saw that piece of wood, Mastro Cherry was filled with joy.
Rubbing his hands together happily, he mumbled half to himself:

“This has come in the nick of time. I shall use it to make the leg of atable.”

That piece of wood, soon to be cut into boy-shape, was enchanted from the beginning. In the Disney film, his animation is the work of the Blue Fairy, who acts upon Gepetto’s heartfelt wish for a son. Come to think of it, the Disney version also misses out quite  a lot of Pinocchio’s antisocial behaviour, and the bit where he burns his own feet off, and the bit where he kills Jiminy Cricket (referred to as the “talking cricket” in the book) with a hammer… It’s also clear that when Collodi’s story talks about the aim of becoming a proper boy, it is referring directly to the process of becoming a functional, obedient, mature member of society. That interpretation is certainly available in the Disney rendition, but it seems more focused on the advantages that Pinocchio will enjoy by becoming a full, flesh-and-blood human, by inheriting a “correct” body that isn’t marked out as distinctly “other”: aside from his basic designation of otherness (he’s a puppet!), Pinocchio doesn’t seem to suffer many consequences associated with it – he is exploited for sure, but only like other little boys are seen to be exploited. He suffers none of the heartlessness of the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, for instance, and seems to function pretty well as a stringless marionette. Here, Pinocchio’s wish to become a real boy is the wish for animation, not socialisation. When the Blue Fairy brings him to life for the first time, Jiminy Cricket turns to the camera:

His exclamation is intended to invite the viewer to marvel in return at Pinocchio’s vitality, as if he’s some kind of modern marvel. Sure enough, the film wants you to notice all the different kinds of movement there are. It anthropomorphises plenty of things – look at how expressive Figaro the cat is, or how much like an eyelash-batting starlet the goldfish behaves, or how the whale has a gangster’s sneer and snarl – to give a kind of human essence to so many living things;

Gepetto’s workshop is filled with automata and clocks; Stromboli the puppet master puts Pinocchio in a show with actual marionettes, setting up for a comparison which shows how robotic and inert they really are;

the fairground at Pleasure Island is a deceptive paradise of motion-machines of entertainment (carousels, ferris wheels etc.). It’s all a part of the film’s underlying theme of movement as the external index, the visual guarantor of internal states of mind and personality. When Pinocchio behaves like a good boy, he’ll be allowed to move like one.

031009_NF_Feat_PinocchioModel_feat A full-sized marionette built by Bob Jones was used as a character model by the animators, to help them to add a bit of puppet-like movement to the character, capturing the swing of strung limbs, the clack of wooden joints. It is one of the oldest models in the Disney archives today. The Character Model Department had been created during the production of Snow White to make clay versions of the main characters to give the animators a three-dimensional point of reference, but the Pinocchio puppet is fully articulated. Jones worked in the camera department, but was asked to design and demonstrate how a marionette moves. They even made him dress up as Gepetto to do it. You can find out more about the Disney puppets here, and Cartoon Brew has scans of a Popular Mechanics article about the making of Pinocchio here. Mark Mayerson’s blog has a ton of stuff about the film, including mosaic frame grabs indicating which animators worked on which shots.

The house style of Disney character animation might be seen as the result of studious analysis of physical movement, whether it’s using a real marionette for reference, or taking live action film of actor Val Stanton going through Jiminy’s moves to use for rotoscoping material: several characters, most obviously the Blue Fairy, whose movements are the most reserved, were traced over, either copying motion exactly or using it as a rough guide. The rules of stretch and squash, which you can see formalised and played out in design sketches like the one below from John Kricfalusi, define consistencies in the ways in which bodies extend and reform their shape:

See also this definition. Adherence to rules such as stretch and squash can help to establish a “house style” – by making sure that all characters within a studio’s film(s) have similar characteristics of motion, you can ensure consistency, and prevent the distortions of bodies from becoming too surreal or elastic.  The crazy-limbed, eye-popping, tongue-lolling Tex Avery figures, for instance, exhibit a lot more bodily stretching and squashing than most Disney characters, for instance, but they still obey certain kinds of internally consistent logic.

Of course Pinocchio tells a more prominent story of a child’s adventure and development into a brave, selfless hero, but it is built from the elements of a system that turns even the most basic movements into points of spectacle, channelling attention towards the twirl and swish of cartoon bodies brought to life.

You can see more of my Pinocchio frame grabs in the slideshow below, or visit my Flickr set and download them for your own ends:

Vodpod videos no longer available.


P.S. Now, maybe this is nothing, but I couldn’t help noticing the prominence of buttocks in the opening scenes of the film. Yes, you read that right. Don’t believe me? See below:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

It’s just an observation – I have no theory on why there are so many bottom-based jokes, but I’d be happy to hear some if you can figure it out. It might just be an insinuation of the threat of discipline: badly behaved children get a spanking (as evidenced by the little automaton that’s stuck in an eternal vignette of punishment for a transgression long-forgotten). I don’t want to get psychoanalytic about this, but if you have any thoughts, feel free to add them in the comments section below.

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14 thoughts on “Walt Disney’s Pinocchio: Motion, Pictures

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  2. I saw all the “bottom-based jokes” as a kind of foreshadowing to the boys becoming donkeys. That fits interestingly with your interpretation of disciplinary fears.

  3. Thanks, Will – are you referring to “asses” in that case? There’s certainly a threat of humiliation implied in all of the compulsions for Pinocchio to behave himself. Speaking to a colleague about it this week, she said that she’d found Pinocchio a disturbing story because the punishment was always “written on the body” – it was there for all to see: his nose grows, his ears grow, he becomes a donkey etc. But I guess it’s consistent – only by behaving properly is he able to transform his body in the way that he’s always hoped for.

  4. The clock showing the boy getting spanked on his bare bottom seems to be a forshadowing of consequences for naughty boys. It’s a pretty comical bit, though. Pinocchio and Lampwick also receive consequences for the choices they make later in the film at Pleasure Island.

    • I’m not sure what to make of it, Brad. It just struck me that there was a disproportionate number of bum gags in the early scenes of Pinocchio – it doesn’t remain as a structuring device. The toy child getting spanked is just one of many toys in Gepetto’s workshop, but it seems to indicate the threat of discipline for bad behaviour, but at no point is Pinocchio himself threatened with such a beating. It’s an olde worlde vision of punishment as a physical threat (as opposed to other sanctions like grounding or cancellation of pocket-money etc.), but it’s not meant to seem abusive, I suspect. The point is that Pinocchio has to learn to discipline himself – nobody is physically preventing him from disobeying or running truant, so he has to act ethically, responsibly and maturely before he can pass the behavioural tests that will allow him to become a “real boy” (which should be interpreted as becoming a functioning member of society).

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  7. The squash and stretch example comes out of the great instructional book “Cartoon Animation” by Preston Blair. I think John K. posted images of it on his site at one time, which is where the confusion might have come from.

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