The technical smoothness of Walt Disney's animated films has seemed cold or over-finished to many critics. The best book on cartoons (published by MIT) is called Before Mickey and stars Felix the Cat, the whimsical creation of Otto Mesmer. Felix's antics take place in a land that seems to have been doodled out at random. Felix himself is little more than a few expressively-placed ink blobs. The great Warner Brothers cartoons are more elaborate, but there is the same atmosphere of offhand improvisation. Daffy Duck is vernacular cartooning: artifice as slang. He and other Warner Brothers characters do not so much inhabit the film frame as hang around in it.
Disney cartoons, by contrast, depict a world fully imagined rather than sketched in; character, plot, and above all movement are the product of a formidable corporate endeavor where many specialists have collaborated to produce a reality strangely near to ours—despite the obvious (and crucial) fantasy elements. This distinctive realism is emphasized in the best book on the studio: Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life by two of its veterans, Frank Thomas and Ollie Jonston. The subtitle gives the game away. After the novelty of animation wore off, no one else in the business thought that this process was intended to produce the illusion of life. A few exceptions (perhaps Max Fleischer's rotoscoped figures) confirm the rule. Generally animation provides an alternative world, not an imitation of this one. The Disney studio alone developed along realistic lines. By the time of the feature-length films, Disney animators had established a sophisticated set of rules about how the motion of living creatures could be rendered: as though Disney had picked up where Edward Muybridge's studies of running horses and running men had left off some fifty years before.
The illusion of life is nowhere better displayed than in Pinocchio. I will focus on this film because it was rereleased over the 1984 Christmas season—also because it is usually considered Disney's finest work in the genre. This judgment is confirmed by the opening sequence where Pinocchio comes to life. After an opening shot in which a camera seems to move over the roofs of a moonlit village, we enter Gepetto's cottage. The cottage is half workshop, half sleeping-quarters. It is stocked with wooden carvings and with automatons, especially mechanical clocks. The kitten Figaro has a bed with a sort of cat angel incised in the headboard; the bowl of the goldfish Cleo is supported by an ornate stand decorated with painted seahorses. Gepetto has been busy.
His ingenuity is underlined by the presence of the cricket who narrates the film. We may gag a little at Disney's cute name for him— Jiminy Cricket— but the decision to choose this viewpoint is brilliant. The cricket experiences the obsessively worked details of Gepetto's workshop as though each new twist were an event. When he dances with the figures on the clocks or encounters a gargoyle on the rafters, we feel that something important is going on. The cricket's-eye view is not the only one offered, but we return to it throughout the sequence. The animators thus establish an atmosphere not so much of life as of potential life: the inanimate on the verge of self-consciousness and self-propulsion.
All this prepares for the first transformation of the puppet.1 We and the cricket watch as Gepetto puts some finishing touches on him; then there is a comic game where the woodcarver becomes a puppeteer. He makes his new creation walk, dance, and stalk Figaro cat-style. Pinocchio is still a wooden block. His creator animates him wonderfully well but we are not allowed to forget that there are limits to what a wooden block can do, even with Gepetto's skilled assistance. Gepetto wishes—he cannot decree—that the puppet come to life. His wish is answered by the beautiful Blue Fairy. Note that while father may be responsible for endowing the child with its physical form, it is mother who grants him a certain autonomy.2
Pinocchio's birth is incomplete, however; for some reason the child is defective, not quite a "real boy" after all. The Blue Fairy neglects to state why she can't finish the job that Gepetto began. She just leaves Pinocchio in limbo. It seems that any further advance will have to be earned by our hero.
Collodi, the writer of the original story—published in the early 1880s—means to propose a good nineteenth-century lesson. (A dead-beat in his youth, Collodi had become by the time of Pinocchio a renowned educational specialist.) Humanity must be won. The puppet's dilemma thus encourages a sort of moral striving deemed appropriate to children as well as adults. The lesson is preserved in Disney's cartoon, but qualified and broadened by a concentrated fascination with the depiction of movement.
The animators have discovered a story perfect for presenting the nuances of animated action. Pinocchio functions one way as a puppet on strings and another as a self-propelled puppet. Both kinds of movement relate to the movement of human bodies but neither is altogether identified with it. Pinocchio's defective birth becomes an instrument for increasing our understanding of what it means to live in a body, to be endowed with organic life. The moral lesson is supplemented and partially subsumed by a biological one.
Disney Animation includes in passing a number of case studies from Pinocchio. The authors consider Bill Tytla's work on Stromboli. ("He animated the head, body, hands, and drapery all in different colors. It was not until he had each part working, communicating, and moving properly that he would make one complete drawing in black. . . . This character has been criticized for moving too much, making it hard to follow on the screen at times, yet no cartoon character has put over any better a rich, volatile, and complete personality.") They show what care was taken with an apparently simple movement, Figaro struggling under his sheets. They consider the special difficulties in animating the Blue Fairy from live action studies. ("We did conceive several walks [reminisced Hamilton Luske] and one scene of her bending confidentially into a closeup with the Cricket—and that will be our best scene of her.")
But the problem of Pinocchio himself remains the most striking. The animators started with sketches of an obvious wooden puppet, then threw them out and reconceived the character more ambiguously, as a puppet who looked a great deal like a little boy. The demands of cuteness had prevailed—but not disastrously. As Thomas and Johnston observe, one crucial point (aside from jointed legs and wooden nose) keeps Pinocchio properly puppet-like: his eyes are set so wide apart that even when they move they have that staring quality we expect from the puppet or the automaton. The kind of life with which Pinocchio is endowed is thus perennially in doubt. The question of whether and how he will complete his assumption of organic life remains central to Disney's images.
It also remains central to his story. Collodi's tale is picaresque and rambling; originally he conceived it as no more than "episodes." The theme of the puppet/automaton endowed with an ambiguous life—previously exploited by Kleist, Hoffman, Dickens, Poe and many others—is one among many in Collodi's cornucopia. Disney edits the written story drastically. Every stage of the film's action emphasizes a new development in Pinocchio's status as a living being.
On Stromboli's stage our hero half-reverts to his original condition. He sings that he has no strings while getting twisted up in the strings of other puppets. Several of Stromboli's puppets are disturbingly sexy, which creates a supplementary confusion. The educated viewer will recall those legends, often associated with Victorian travels to the Middle East, where automatons perform the less public functions of organic life. Pinocchio's growing nose (he's been a bad boy; he's lied and it shows) has a sexual reference also. Good little boys have short noses rather than long ones; too obvious a display of organic life will keep Pinocchio a puppet forever. At least the Blue Fairy tells him so ... and yet it's she who seems to make the nose burst forth in the first place.
Pinocchio is released from Stromboli and from his chastisement by the Blue Fairy only—on his visit to Pleasure Island—to verge on turning into a jackass. The hairy ears and tail that grow out of his puppet body remain with him almost to the film's end. On occasion the puppet starts to bray, his neck thrust forward with a sudden, prehensile, and ass-like movement— even while those wooden eyes stare.
Finally Pinocchio undertakes the death-defying adventure which culminates in his rescuing Gepetto from the whale's body. We could hardly imagine a more thorough engagement with organic life and with organic motions, especially sneezing and swallowing, magnified to a gigantic scale. It is as though we've had common and therefore taken-for-granted aspects of our own biological existence blown up to the point where we, like the animators, study them. Pinocchio's transformation into a little boy now depends on his ability to master the movements of a body not his own. Swallowed by Monstro, he must provoke the monster to sneeze him out. He succeeds in his efforts, is washed ashore dead (???), and at last is resurrected by the Blue Fairy. Pinocchio achieves his first total transformation. He is unambiguously a little boy.
I've meant to give some sense of why the technical obsessions of the Disney animators found their most meaningful application in Pinocchio: the interaction between Collodi's fable (as edited by Disney) and the problem of rendering the illusion of life produces a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. We end up with an encyclopedia of movement but an encyclopedia that has been given narrative form. Disney does not dispense with Pinocchio's moral progress but he superimposes on it a progress more basic yet. Our hero learns to live at ease in a body. Moreover he finds out what kind of body it is.
Could not we take the argument a step further yet? It seems implicit in much of what I have said that an artistic allegory also informs Pinocchio, that the stages by which the puppet comes to life parallel the work of the animators. There are hints of such an allegory throughout the film. Reflexive ponderings are buried—or at least heavily disguised—for reasons that can be guessed at.
It is hard to imitate life while simultaneously inquiring into the mechanisms by which the imitation is performed. A few great novelistic geniuses brought off this trick in the nineteenth century; Disney and his cohorts are not quite up there with Dickens, Eliot, etc. This does not mean that Disney is therefore inferior to the self-conscious cartoonists. It may be a little too easy at present for a sophisticated viewer to appreciate—let us say—the great Warner Brothers cartoons. Pirandello, Brecht, and Godard break the illusion of life, thus provoking thought about the conventions by which we imitate and often shape our lives; why can't Daffy Duck do the same? And if Daffy belongs with Pirandello, et al., then what room is there for naively realistic Disney? An argument of this kind may be workable.
All the same, Disney's realism has irreplaceable value. Most cartoons make us think about humanly-created realities (societies, cartoons as social products). Disney's cartoons can make us think about biological realities, those givens from which we begin. Artistic reflexivity is not so much banished as redirected, used to focus our awareness of organic life.
Pinocchio above all explores a particular childish experience of the body while becoming a manifesto for illusion and imitation. No other studio could have done so much with Collodi's little fable. It took not just Gepetto, not just the Blue Fairy, not just Pinocchio himself but Walt Disney to endow a puppet with the life he merited.
'"Marionette" might be a more accurate term than "puppet," but the latter word is almost always used with reference to Pinocchio—and who am I to buck a trend?
2I am reminded of medieval and Renaissance controversies about how human procreation worked. Pinocchio gives more credit to mom than did most early students of this subject. As well as parents, of course, Gepetto and the Blue Fairy are stand-ins for the animators: they are artists (magicians?) exploring the possibilities and limits of their art (or magic?).