For his follow-up to Snow White, Walt Disney developed a plotline that would anchor many animated features (Kung Fu Panda, Tangled, Happy Feet, The Little Mermaid, just to name four on this list): the coming-of-age film. Based on an 1883 story by Carlo Collodi and under the superb supervision of Hamilton Luske and Ben Sharpsteen, Pinocchio taught the lesson that a child is not human until he can feel loss and act with spontaneous generosity.
Whereas Snow White stuck to recognizably human forms — the script could almost have been shot as a live-action film — Pinocchio liberated the Disney animators. The movie boasts all manner of creatures: human (the woodcarver Gepetto), ethereal (the Blue Fairy), vulpine (J. Worthington Foxfellow), feline (Gideon) and bizarre hybrids. With freedom came challenges: finding a visual coherence for a landscape that included creatures as small as Jiminy Cricket and as large as Monstro the Whale (who was about the size of a three-story building).
A significant advance in narrative power and multiplane-camera technique over Snow White, the movie also taught moral lessons in the most useful way: by scaring the poop out of the little ones. If you tell a lie, your nose will grow; Pinocchio’s proboscis swells to Cyrano dimensions. If you run away from home, you could die; as the seductive kidnapper Stromboli tells the wooden boy, “When you grow too old, you will make good firewood.” Lured to Pleasure Island on the promise of making mischief away from adults’ censorious eyes, Pinocchio and his pals indulge in shooting pool, chugging alcohol and puffing on cigars. (Greatest antismoking PSA ever.) In fact, Pleasure Island is a concentration camp where bad boys are transformed into donkeys. In one of the scariest scenes in film history, Pinocchio’s pal Lampwick laughs at his friend, and a donkey’s hee-haw comes out. (Bizarrely, in the 1980s, Disney named a nighttime theme park in Florida after this awful prison.) Far from coddling his youngest customers, Walt Disney here portrayed childhood as an unrelenting series of nightmares.
The boldest of Disney’s horror homilies is also the most powerful demonstration of the ability of a medium supposedly aimed at kids to evoke persuasive motion and deep human emotion. The story of a puppet who wants to be a real live boy also serves as an allegory for the work of the Disney geniuses — and all the great animators whose works are included here — who start with pencil and ink, or pixels, or silhouettes, or plasticine figurines, and create vivid characters that live forever inside the small, enthralled child that is every moviegoer.