First home viewing release: August, 1985
Where I found it: My library’s DVD collection (70th Anniversary Edition)
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Bechdel Test Score: Fail. There is only one female character (the Blue Fairy), unless you count the fish, Cleo. They do not talk to each other.
Pinocchio is one of those movies I never gave a fair shake at the height of my Disney obsession. As a child I remember renting it from the video store repeatedly, which implies I must have liked it once upon a time. Then when I was about 7 or 8, my older sister pronounced it “stupid,” which was, of course, the kiss of death. I still remember her going on about how the movie “didn’t make any sense — a puppet that’s alive and then he turns into a donkey and then he gets swallowed by a whale. What the heck?”
It’s true, the whole thing is kind of trippy. But before she passed her judgment upon it, that never bothered me. As an adult, the trippy elements didn’t really bother me, either — but to say I was unbothered by my rewatching of Pinocchio isn’t exactly true. Pinocchio is a very troubling movie.
Last week, I was sharing with my husband what I expected to get out of Pinocchio when I watched it again. I said that I was sure its message would be metaphorical, that it’s really a story about how you aren’t a “true human being” until you learn basic human values like compassion and honesty. (The Blue Fairy claims these baseline values are honesty, bravery, and selflessness.) My husband agreed with me and said that when he was young he thought Pinocchio was boring, but that he always assumed it was really a story about “turning from a boy to a man.”
What everyone seems to remember is that Pinocchio can only become human when he goes from being a “bad boy” to a “good boy.”
Watching the movie last night, I felt that was foisting an awful lot of moral responsibility upon a little boy who has literally just been born yesterday.
When I was a child myself, it never struck me how young Pinocchio appears. As an adult, his behavior doesn’t strike me as bad, but innocent. I found myself judging Gepetto as an unfit father for letting his four-year-old walk to school alone in the first place, not to mention Jiminy Cricket’s only semi-competent supervision. It is the adults who let Pinocchio down in this movie again and again, and somehow he is to blame for not knowing to expect that.
Like most pre-schoolers, Pinocchio is delighted with the world, he believes what others tell him, and he assumes adults have his best interests at heart. So when Honest John and Gideon lead him toward show business and the Great Stromboli, Pinocchio goes along with it because there is no other adult present to tell him differently. One can probably assume Gepetto never had the talk with him about “stranger danger,” either, as he seems pretty innocent himself. He’s a single old man who makes toys, is devoted to his cat and goldfish, and wishes on stars before bed. His heart seems to be in the right place, but the rest of him is absent in all the moments when his son needs him most. [As an aside, I also found it disconcerting that the Honest John’s companion Gideon, the anthropomorphic cat (as opposed to Gepetto’s catlike cat), is completely mute. Add that to the fact that the cat is female in the book — and the fact that the only other female we see is the Blue Fairy, arguably not a real person at all, and I can’t help but raise some feminist eyebrows at the de-sexing and then silencing of one of the story’s rare female characters.]
The first moment in which Pinocchio might be seen to make a moral choice is when he decides to lie to the Blue Fairy about how he ended up in Stromboli’s cage. But there are many reasons that children lie. Yes, they lie so that they won’t get in trouble or to make themselves look better (adults lie for these reasons, too). But they also lie out of shame — when a child has been molested, he will often lie because he takes on the shame of the perpetrator’s abhorrent behavior. In this case, it seems more that Pinocchio is taking on the shame of Honest John and Stromboli than making a conscious choice to do wrong.
The next time Pinocchio encounters Honest John, he tells Pinocchio he is sick and insists he must go to Pleasure Island to recover. When we see him again, he is seated in a coach filled with excited little boys, being driven by arguably the scariest Disney villain to ever taint the screen.
Honestly, my skin is crawling just remembering all that comes next. Pinocchio and the other boys are taken to an island where they can indulge all the worst of their childlike vices (breaking windows, defacing walls, stuffing themselves on sweets) and pick up adult vices as well. In what is one of the most disturbing scenes in the movie, we get an incredibly terrifying and racist glimpse of towering, animatronic Indians* pelting the boys with cigars.
Here, Pinocchio quickly attaches himself to Lampwick, a boy who clearly knows a bit more about the world than our protagonist does. He teaches Pinocchio how to smoke properly and refills his mug of beer. Then the transformation begins.
One of the story elements my older sister once pointed out as “dumb” is chilling to an adult. Whether you accept the literal interpretation (the boys have made “asses” of themselves) or the darker metaphor of sexual abuse other reviewers have convincingly argued, one thing is certain: the Coachman lured hundreds of little boys to this place of “pleasure” so he could strip them of their humanity and traffic them.
Jiminy Cricket gets Pinocchio out in the nick of time — but I couldn’t stop thinking about the rest of those little boys who were never saved.
As a child, I somehow accepted that this happened to all those other boys because they were “bad.” As an adult, I know that no child can ever be bad enough to deserve this.
And therein lies the true dark underbelly of Pinocchio: It rests the weighty burden of moral responsibility upon the shoulders of children. Pinocchio is “punished” for his wrong-doing — he is thrown in a cage for believing Honest John’s lies about show business; his nose grows and humiliates him when he tells his first lies; he begins to turn into a donkey for indulging in base, adult vices at Pleasure Island; and through it all, none of the adults are punished for their crimes.
Is this, as The Darker Corners of Pinocchio brilliantly argues, a movie apprising kids of the harsh realities of the world? Or is it instead a morally misguided piece that shames victims — none of them more than 10 years old — for the sins of others?
Is this an okay film for kids? I know that it disturbs me far more as an adult than it ever did as a child. Even so, as a child, I, too, internalized the message that horrible things happened to children because they were “bad.” Pinocchio is a cautionary tale to be sure, but adult guidance may be needed to help children discern exactly what it is cautioning against. This is not a movie about how horrible things can happen to you if you misbehave — but about how horrible things can happen to you if you trust.
[* I used the term “Indians” here rather than the more correct “Native Americans” or “American Indians” because this is NOT a depiction of these peoples; it is instead a depiction of a stereotype from a much less enlightened time, when peopled used the wrong words and the wrong images to depict things for which they had no understanding.]