Jiminy and Pinoke, on the way to school.


Original Medium: Prose fiction
Published in: Italy
First appeared: 1881
Creator: Carlo Collodi
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After the completion of Snow White, his first feature-length animated cartoon, Walt Disney remarked to a reporter that he and his employees had learned so much in the production, he wished he could pull it …

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… back and do it over again. In his second, Pinocchio, which had its world premiere February 7, 1940 and went into general release on the 23rd, he put that education to good use. Pinocchio was perhaps the most lavishly-produced animated movie of all time — so lavish, it lost a million dollars on its original release, prompting Disney's accounting department, despite the fact that subsequent releases more than made up the deficit (and despite the fact that most of its financial woes resulted from the loss of the European market due to the start of World War II), to insist on more restraint in later films.

Despite its initial money problems,the story of the puppet brought to life, who wished to be a real boy, was a big hit with audiences and critics alike. It's not uncommon for exploitable characters to be spun off of Disney features — Scamp from Lady & the Tramp, Brer Rabbit from Song of the South, José Carioca from Saludos Amigos, etc. — but Pinocchio spun off two. Jiminy Cricket, who was the announcer in Fun & Fancy Free, starred in Disney's first series of made-for-TV animated shorts in the '50s, and eventually became an auxiliary host on Disney's long-running television variety show, was by far the better known.

But Figaro the Cat, the pet of the kindly old toymaker Gepetto, also appeared in other cartoons — first in All Together, a 1942 war bonds promotion he shared with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Three Little Pigs and others, then in a half-dozen of his own, released between 1943 and '49. There, he either starred alone or got top billing over such stars as Pluto and Minnie Mouse. He was one of only seven Disney stars to have his own series of shorts during the heyday of theatrical animation, but even so, wasn't the most obscure of the lot. (That would be Humphrey Bear.)

Pinocchio was adapted from a book by journalist, editor and children's author Carlo Collodi, who began serializing it in Italy's Giornale dei Bambini in 1881. Like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and any number of other Disney adaptations from other media, it was accused of severe departures from the original. In fact, this was probably the one that departed most from the long, rambling, not-entirely-coherent story it was taken from. (Example: in the original version, Pinocchio squashed the cricket that became Jiminy, and thereafter operated without a conscience.) Before being collected into book form, Collodi's version was serialized over a long span of time. As frequently happens with stories published that way, the memory of both readers and author grew a little hazy in the details while the story was still going on, leading to inconsistencies. The collected version was mostly one big nightmare, not the sort of thing children willingly read today, and certainly not what Disney fans expect. It had to be edited with a heavy hand before being turned into an 88-minute movie that people could be expected to pay to see.

But many of the nightmare aspects remained. Pinocchio abounded in memorable villains — J. Worthington "Honest John" Foulfellow, who first led him astray; Stromboli the puppeteer, who enslaved and abused him; the Coachman who carried him to Pleasure Island … to say nothing of lesser lights such as Gideon the Cat and Monstro the Whale. Honest John's voice was provided by Walter Catlett (who played a bit part in the same year's Li'l Abner movie), and both Stromboli's and the Coachman's by Charles Judels (a face actor with no other voice credits more prominent than a supporting character in a 1937 Porky Pig cartoon). Gideon and Monstro didn't speak, tho Mel Blanc (Tasmanian Devil, Marvin Martian) recorded lines for Gideon that were cut from the final version.

Of the good guys, Pinocchio was voiced by Dickie Jones, Gepetto by Christian Rub and Jiminy Cricket by Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards. The Blue Fairy, who originally gave him life and promised to turn him into a real boy if he proved himself worthy, was Evelyn Venable. All were face actors who lacked other toon connections, but Edwards later made a minor career of doing Jiminy's voice on TV. Besides Blanc (whose voice did make it into the movie, as sounds made by Figaro and Cleo, Gepetto's goldfish), the only player prominent in voice work was Mae Questel (Betty Boop, Little Audrey and more), who played the other puppets in Stromboli's show.

Pinocchio got his wish in the end, of course. And in the real world, the movie achieved Walt's wish, and became a success, even if it had a rocky start. Dell Comics adapted it into comic book form, and the comic was reprinted with each re-release for decades. Whitman did it as both a Big Little Book and a Little Golden Book. It's been merchandised as heavily as any other Disney property. And when it finally did get to Europe, it was a hit there as well.


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