Pinocchio (1940)

Disney had a tough act to follow after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. They found it in Pinocchio, the timeless tale of the puppet brought to life who, through his bravery and courage, is turned into a real live boy. Even after sixty years, the film is filled with rich animation and a wonderful score by Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith, complemented by the lyrics of Ned Washington.

The most famous melody from the score is naturally the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The song was so popular that Walt Disney incorporated it as the signature tune for his theme parks. The other songs, including the charming “Give a Little Whistle,” “I’ve Got No Strings” for Pinocchio’s performance at Stromboli’s circus, and “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life For Me)” (particularly effective when voiced by the caliope at our first sight of Pleasure Island) complement the film and never overwhelm the intimate story.

The background score is by turns heartwarming, exciting, menacing, humorous, and always enjoyable. Harline was involved with every cue of the score, including the melodies for all the songs. It was the largest single contribution ever made by one composer to any Disney feature. The only composer that probably comes close is Alan Menken, whose music contributed to the rebirth of the Disney animated film in the late 1980s. Smith, who would become best known for his scores for Disney’s “True Life Adventure” series, scored about one-third of the film, always in tandem with Harline. The score is a huge leap forward from Snow White three years earlier.

Especially memorable are the themes for Geppetto and the strutting music for Jiminy Cricket. The music turns very dark for the scenes with Monstro the Whale, including some uncredited contributions by another Disney regular, Edward Plumb, during the whale chase. My favorite cue begins with a Novachord (an otherworldy-sounding electronic organ) signaling the appearance of the Blue Fairy. The violins reach to the heavens, wind chimes (with a healthy dose of reverb) announce her arrival, and “When You Wish Upon a Star” accompanies the wave of her wand, turning Pinocchio into more than just a puppet.

It is unfortunate that Disney was unhappy with the score until it won Oscars for Best Song and Original Score. Harline was so incensed by Disney’s about-face that he never worked for Disney again.

The music for the animated films of today (Disney or not) owe a huge debt of thanks to the groundwork of pioneers such as Leigh Harline and Paul J. Smith. Pinocchio‘s music still glows.

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