Pinocchio was the second feature film from Disney, released in 1940. It’s more a morality play than a solid narrative. Pinocchio is a young innocent, thrust into a manipulative and unkind world. But despite some setbacks, he manages to overcome the challenges and save his father, thus earning the gift of becoming real.
The movie begins with Jiminy Cricket narrating. These early scenes are all about introducing the characters and setting. We see that Jiminy is a down on his luck vagabond, and Geppetto is a lonely woodcarver finishing his latest creation, a wooden puppet boy. Here we learn the basic personalities for these characters and set up Geppetto’s later wish that brings Pinocchio to life. Once everyone but Jiminy is asleep the Blue Fairy comes down and grants his wish, also appointing Jiminy to be Pinocchio’s conscience. This if followed by some more scenes establishing Pinocchio as curious and naïve.
The basic structure of the narrative from here follows the rule of three, a general concept of presenting an idea three times, usually with a twist at the end. The first time establishes that something happened. The second time establishes that this action is normal. The third time often switches things up, now that we know what the established norm is.
In this case the Blue Fairy informs Pinocchio that he needs to prove himself “Brave, truthful and unselfish,” thus setting up the trio of sub-stories. Each one tied into a different quality. Doing so will earn him the right to become a real boy, and thus becomes his overall desire throughout the entire movie.
The first challenge is being truthful, though that aspect doesn’t come out until the end. Pinocchio heads off to school, but is almost immediately intercepted by Honest John and Gideon, who quickly conspire to sell him to puppet guy. Jiminy tries to talk him out of it, but Pinocchio is swept up in the excitement of it all. After the show, Stromboli’s true colors come out to Pinocchio as he locks him in a cage to keep him from leaving. It’s at the end here that we get the lesson about lying courtesy of the Blue Fairy. She also provides them with a quick escape, though warns she won’t be able to help them again.
The narrative moves now into the second sub–story. The Coachman is introduced as someone who makes even our earlier villains nervous. Honest John and Gideon waste no time in snaring Pinocchio in this new scheme, his naiveté still intact despite his earlier run-in with them. He’s whisked off to Pleasure Island with Lampwick and a coach full of other naughty boys. Pleasure Island is a self-indulgent paradise for the unruly boys, and Pinocchio has no qualms with going along with anything his new friend Lampwick suggest. Jiminy does eventually find Pinocchio, and after trying to talk him into leaving, gives up and leaves only to discover the horrifying fate of the other boys who had come to the island. He rushes back, but only after Pinocchio has witness Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey, and begun the process himself. They flee the island as quickly as they can, before Pinocchio transforms any further.
From this ordeal Pinocchio is presented with a lesson in being unselfish. These boys brought to Pleasure Island thought only of themselves and their own desires, made clear by Lampwick’s dismal of Pinocchio’s concern when he wonders where all the other boys are. Though, Pinocchio escapes, he’s left with the donkey ears and tail as a reminder of the experience.
Pinocchio and Jiminy return home, only to find it empty. A bit of help is provided by our convenient Blue Fairy in the form of a dove providing a note explaining that Geppetto had gone looking for him, and gotten swallowed by a Monstro, the whale. This kicks off the third lesson about being brave. But there is now a twist in that instead of Pinocchio receiving the lesson, he’s now presenting it. As soon as he finds out what happened he heads for the ocean and heads in with no hesitation to find Geppetto. We see an interesting big of character development with Jiminy here as well. Before Jiminy had proven himself a poor conscience, twice deciding to just leave Pinocchio behind. But this time, despite Pinocchio’s plan sounding crazy, he stands by him and helps as best he can.
After a bit of exploring on the sea they locate Monstro and Pinocchio gets swallowed and finds Geppetto inside. Jiminy, once again, gets left out of the action and is stuck outside. Inside we continue to see Pinocchio taking the initiative, in contract to what he’s done previously in the movie. Once he has his idea to smoke their way out, he proceeds once again with no hesitation and fully committed to the plan, burning everything he can find. He has gone from passive character to active protagonist, solving the problems instead of falling into them.
The plan succeeds, despite Monstro’s best efforts to swallow them again. But somewhere along the escape Pinocchio is killed, sacrificing himself in the attempt to save Geppetto. Fortunately the Blue Fairy has been keeping an eye on all of this, and judges his rescue of Geppetto as a satisfactory example of being “brave, truthful, and unselfish.” Pinocchio wakes up, now transformed into a real boy, and the family happily rejoices his return. Jiminy even gets a medal at the end.
The movie of Pinocchio provides an example of storytelling not seen as often today. Though movies often follow a three act structure, they rarely tell such distinct sub-stories within it, while still maintaining an overall story arc. That is something more often seen today in television shows. But even today it can provide an enjoyable narrative.