On February 9, 1940, RKO Pictures premiered Disney’s Pinocchio in New York and expanded distribution two weeks later to theatres throughout the US. It was the second full-length animated feature from Walt Disney Productions, coming two years after the smashing success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Together, these two films established animated family movies in the pantheon of Hollywood’s most successful genres and put Disney on firm financial footing after a decade of scraping by as a producer of cartoon shorts.
The ballad “When You Wish Upon a Star” is the most famous song from the film, and won an Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song. It became so well-known and beloved that Disney came to use it as its theme song. The story for both Pinocchio and Snow White came from classic childrens’ fairy tales, delivering unambiguous, moral lessons on how children should conduct themselves in the face of life’s challenges, making it popular with parents as well as children. Animated films have become a reliable staple in the industry, delivering box office returns for the last eighty years. Disney leveraged its strength in animation to become Hollywood’s largest and most diverse studio and a global entertainment provider, showcasing Disney “characters” pioneered in animation across its theme parks, hotels and cruise lines.
In 1940, the only way that kids and families could enjoy Pinocchio was on the big screen, and the family tradition of going to the movies was a special event. Studios had no ancillary revenues, though Disney did benefit by re-releasing their most popular features every seven to ten years. The spirit of Disney now lives online with Disney+ streaming, where Snow White, Pinocchio and other Disney classic animated features are available on-demand.