CHICAGO -- The most famous insect movie star of all time, Jiminy Cricket, is a fraud, an insect expert has charged, alleging the cartoon character is not a cricket at all.
'From the entomological point of view, he's not much of a cricket,' said May R. Berenbaum, a University of Illinois insect specialist.
'He's the wrong color. The mouth is wrong. The eyes are wrong. He has the wrong number of legs,' she said, ticking off the damning entomological evidence.
Jiminy may have been 'playing cricket,' but evidently his Hollywood handlers weren't: 'They wanted to make him cute, so they made him uncricket-like,' Berenbaum said.
'People tend to look favorably upon crickets. Actually, they're garbage-eating cannibals, given the opportunity,' Berenbaum revealed.
Berenbaum, who will be participating in the sixth annual Insect Fear Film Festival at the university later this month, said she is 'not really sure why they (crickets) have such a good press. They really aren't incredibly endearing in their personal habits,' she sniffed.
Clearing up misinformation about insects -- 'and there is a lot of that,' Berenbaum said -- is the goal of the free film festival.
Responding to the entomologist's allegations, Paula Sigman, an archivist for the Walt Disney Co. in Burbank, Calif., said crickets had long been a symbol of good luck and domestic tranquility, even before Jiminy was rocketed to stardom in the 1940 movie, Pinocchio, based on a book by Carlo Collodi.
Initially, Disney artists had created a more cricket-like Jiminy, Sigman said, 'But in animation we have to create a character that moves well, that speaks well, that plays well to the audience and to the heart, and so that is why the character's design changed until he became the Jiminy we see today.
'They were very aware there is no cricket that looks like Jiminy, but the important thing is who Jiminy is and what he represents,' said Sigman.
In Pinocchio, the erudite cricket acted as the conscience for a puppet prone to prevarication. In subsequent films, Sigman said, 'We continued to use the character as a teacher, as someone who can communicate to us, teaching us lessons about the heart and our wishes, or even how to spell 'encyclopedia,' as he did on the Mickey Mouse Club ... He's done quite a bit of good,' she said,adding that kids and adults alike still need a Jiminy Cricket to encourage them to 'Wish Upon a Star.'
Refusing to criticize Jiminy's detractors, Sigman said, 'We accept respectfuly there are other points of view.'
Berenbaum speculated that the favorable image of crickets may come from their chirping, which is acoustically more like music than the sounds made by most insects.
'People overlook their personal habits because of their sounds. They often hear crickets without seeing them,' Berenbaum said. Usually nocturnal, crickets may gobble stored food, clothing, fur, wool, hair, paper, vegetable material, and one another, but are particularly fond of the glue on envelopes.
The pests were the subject of a 1933 court case, Berenbaum said, in which tenants refused to pay rent because their quarters were infested by crickets.
But the judge, perhaps influenced by the 'Jiminy' image, told the renters to pay up and learn to appreciate the cricket, 'an intellectual little fellow,' the judge said.
Berenbaum said such praise is 'odd for an animal that hangs out in garbage dumps and trash piles.' She said the insects also have a predilection for parachute silk. 'If there's one place you don't want a hole ...' she hinted.
Cockroaches, a close relative of the cricket, have never shared their cousin's 'good press,' but Berenbaum said cockroach mothers 'provide more maternal care than any cricket ever did'.
The German cockroach, the common North American apartment species, carries around its eggs until they hatch. 'Crickets just sort of stick the eggs in the ground and leave them to their own devices,' said Berenbaum.
But she insisted, 'I'm not condemning all crickets. There are many kinds and the only time they are really unwelcome is when they are indoors ... Then they can kind of overstay their welcome.'