More than any of its peers dealing in the familiar/disturbing binaries of the folk story, Pinocchio has a real sense of ordinary derangement, a darkness it’s aware of but also lives with to the point that it has come to accommodate love and warmth. It also moves in the opposite direction to avoid being lopsided, in an ongoing anti-epiphany of mistaken love and desire. Half a century on artists like Al Columbia would resurrect and then deform the past as though these naive older works did not already recognise themselves as upsetting, but Pinocchio revises itself as it goes, not smuggling loneliness, child abduction, and dread into the Disney film but treating these things as mutually constitutive. It is the body of the Disney film but wrong, but it also sincerely means it when it is kind. It gets under your skin but it also wants your heart and it is the rare film that achieves both of these things.
This binding sense of unease has as much to do with its recurring probing of the film medium as it does with the very being of Pinocchio as a sentimental work. At a glance it’s concerned with tensions between (in)animate bodies and the real, home and the unhomely, but its real merit is in how it uses nostalgia and mortality to push these things until we care. Early scenes stage the unheimlich as a recurring gag, as Jiminy Cricket flirts with Geppetto’s automatons and finds himself spurned, their routinised movements becoming obvious first to us and then to him. They often appear ‘real’ for a few moments, and this is because both Jiminy and the automatons are materially identical: instances of an entity fragmented across a sequence of images (or steps) and whose movements are all predetermined (by gears, pages, narrative). In this twisted moment of apperception Jiminy realises he is other to the automaton within the world of the film but then in the next step realises he is made of the same fabricated stuff. (Similarly Geppetto never sees himself as any more or less real than his puppet-son). The animations embedded within the animation disorient the viewer too, with an approach to detailing that destabilises which forms are real-fake and which are fake-real. Real children seen from a distance are all abstracted circles until up close they take on faces, whereas puppets have faces until up close they become shapes, and vice versa. The horror felt on seeing a puppet-child ‘chopped up for firewood’ is only the beginning of Pinocchio‘s ongoing distortion and destruction of bodies.
Despite being made from the same stuff, Jiminy knows he’s something else. And when Pinocchio is humiliated on stage as he (unheimlich because he has no strings) fails to dance with the marionettes (natural or, perversely, real because they do), this pursuit of the real is at once layered and turned on its head. The crowd would be more impressed by the unveiling of the Mechanical Turk he is not than the aberration that he is, and so his quest to become real leads him not to the contingencies of the real world but to the stage where he can act according to predefined strings, gears, and narrative mechanics. This puts the film in a predicament because for its sense of perpetual momentum it struggles committing to the idea of fate, which is due to its dubiety over the status of fiction as the whim of some omnipotent creator. Its divine power, the Blue Fairy, is capable of entering the film and bringing things to life, but even she is unable to become the deus ex machina and control the way things move. Among the layers of animation within the animation, she is also the most insubstantial — the other figures quote from the history of animation but she is clearly drawn from a life outside the film, and is also least convincingly grounded in its space. Geppetto’s automatons have a sense of solidity where his own body moves in gobules of thick skin and fabric, and Honest John’s and Gideon’s individuated skeletons spread across the screen with slapstick fluidity. You can tell who they are by how they move, but there’s no telling what shapes they’ll make under pressure. Details of the Blue Fairy on the other hand erase themselves as she moves, a disembodied image flickering into the film from another dimension — ours. With absolute love and conviction she smiles, cares, and disintegrates. If that aforementioned scene was Jiminy’s confrontation with his material reality, this is where we realise how the film sees us.
It is dense with bodies and selves, constructed and unrealised, and it all works to reveal the uneasy fabric of the film. Pinocchio mimics the character’s impulse, to become real, and after its first magic night has everything speed through his deliriously blurred odyssey. The thing is that films have trimmed more dramatic baggage than this one and felt more mythic as a consequence, so there is more to the way Pinocchio achieves both heart and horror through free fall then than just fussy event sequencing. As it formally adopts the character’s obsession it also fills its spaces with minor scenes that reiterate its thematics (like the ones with Jiminy mentioned above), but this only ever loops us back from narrative purpose into the world of the film. It’s more knotted than it makes out, identifying and pressing on the conflict between narrative tense and the non-linear order of aesthetic time. Pinocchio then is by design both maddeningly obsessed and bewilderingly clueless, clawing at meaning as it falls through time, rowing into the future and appearing in the past. The film remembers itself as it proceeds, pretending to never look back but returning always to the point of origin: that magic night where everything made sense.
Pinocchio descends into hell twice but the film still crackles with the warmth of the fireplace, its colours and sounds thick as syrup, its atmosphere imbued with magic and chance and lives lost forever. That’s the magic and the pain at its heart, and the way it not only constructs itself but sees us too: it suggests that we can always come home to it, to that magic night, but it also can’t promise things will go that way and acknowledges they won’t be the same if they do. It is a film that waits for us, that knows we will return. Somewhere between safety and death and home and loss is this impossible reconciliation the moment the objectives of the film collapse and all that’s left is real need. It’s a need that chills and warms in equal measure; a smile that’s always a blink away from horror, a presence that like us, smiles, cares, crackles like a fire, and finally, disintegrates.