Like clockwork: Disney as toy-maker

Jiminy Cricket with mechanical clock figure in Pinocchio.

Leonard Maltin has called Pinocchio (1940) Disney’s “meatiest” animated feature, and I’d say that’s right—at 88 minutes it’s one of the longest films put out by the studio during its classical period (the 125-minute Fantasia being one exception), but it feels less padded than, say, Snow White or Cinderella, and marred by fewer digressive animal gags.  It also marks an extraordinary leap forward from Snow White in terms of its scale and ambition.  Lampwick’s transformation scene, the battle with Monstro the whale, and Pinocchio’s performance of “I’ve Got No Strings”—a musical pastiche that looks ahead to the Nutcracker suite sequence in Fantasia—are among the most impressive sequences that Disney would ever conceive.  The detail work in Pinocchio is also intricate and clever, especially in Geppetto’s toyshop, with its seemingly endless variety of carved clocks and music boxes.    

Geppetto's--and Disney's--craftsmanship.

Pinocchio’s representation of the world of toys, as represented by the workshop scenes, is loving, attentive, and humorous, driven as much by its animators’ desire to capture the movements of mechanical objects as by their affection for their gimmickry.  (The mechanism of one particularly elaborate clock triggers the procession of an entire family of peasants as well as their cow; others depict a hunter taking aim at a cuckoo, a mother spanking her child, baby birds hatching from eggs, and a bee emerging from a sunflower.)  The attention to detail here, coupled with an affection for whimsical objects, lives on in Pixar films like Inside Out and the Toy Story series, with their deep knowledge of how toys work and what they mean.  Disney himself must be seen a toymaker whose creative energies were not limited to film animation but extended to the three-dimensional arts.  Disneyland may be the ultimate magic toyshop, a feat of craftsmanship and design accomplished via the use of puppets, scale models, and trompe l’oeil, realized by Disney’s team of “imagineers.”  Anyone who has experienced Disneyland’s “It’s A Small World” attraction—a boat-ride through a series of dioramas populated by what would appear to be hundreds of mechanical dolls, something akin to wandering through a real-life version of Geppetto’s workshop—will recognize the same animating spirit that drives so much of Pinocchio.

Pinocchio with Russian doll: looking ahead to Fantasia...and "It's A Small World"

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