By Allen Michie
Now that the real live boy is an old man, how’s he holding up in 2020?
Like many other patriotic Americans in early July, I signed up for the Disney+ trial membership so I could watch Hamilton. But I had a few days before it debuted and, in the meantime, I was intrigued by having the entire Walt Disney corpus at my fingertips. Thinking over the Disney catalog, I felt an unexpected pang of nostalgia (which is to say, a dependable ka-ching of profit for the Disney Corporation). I thought of the animated movies that I enjoyed and that my parents enjoyed before me — the ones that we all feel like we know through cultural immersion even if we may have seen them maybe once or twice decades ago. The one I was drawn to, for several reasons, was Pinocchio.
My mother and her sister saw it in the theater in their small Missouri town when it first came out in 1940. I grew up visiting my grandmother’s house, where I looked forward to seeing their now fragile and threadbare toy of Figaro the kitten. One of my prized possessions was a large picture book of the art behind Disney animation, and I would pore over the rich background details of the early films. Even now, with so much CGI overkill and 20/20 rendering of every little hair and feather, it’s a marvel to see the way the Disney artists would lavish their craft on backgrounds of worn carved wood, old leather, stone stairwells, melting candles, and off-kilter cottages. A simple wet bar of soap on a wooden shelf in Snow White was a kind of childhood Vermeer. No 1s and 0s were harmed in the making of these movies.
These details are a lasting source of pleasure in Pinocchio. Perhaps the contrast between the textured, intricate backgrounds and the two-dimensional, flat candy-colored animated cells is a bit too pronounced for our tastes now, but what we have in 2020 — that audiences in 1940 did not — is a pause button. There are moments in Geppetto’s shop that invite us to slow down and respect the craftsmanship of the team of pioneering animators, all somehow united in a coherent and instantly recognizable Disney house style. Jiminy Cricket peering out from behind a shelf of sagging leather books and yellowed papers; the water surging in and out of Monstromo the whale’s mouth; and the cobblestone streets littered with cigar stubs, broken fountain pens, confetti, torn books, and trash from the Land of Lost Boys — every frame of it is beautiful still life art, all the more so if you’ve been watching something like episode #9,457 of The Simpsons.
The early Disney films don’t overdo it with the music. The LP hadn’t been invented yet, so there was no concept of putting together a standard soundtrack album. The music is there as window-dressing to pace the narrative along, not so much to provide any kind of exposition. In Geppetto’s workshop, the music is there as an excuse to enjoy the inventiveness of all the cuckoo clocks and music boxes. It takes some concentration to put aside the over-familiarity of the opening and closing theme “When You Wish Upon a Star” and try to experience it like you’re hearing it for the first time. It’s a lovely melody, sung simply and unpretentiously by Cliff Edwards (an old vaudeville performer whose sad end belies the lyrics of his most famous song). The music and setting is the unspecified Americanized Old Europe of storybooks — not quite all Italian, not quite all German, not quite all English — and the melodies suit the atmosphere well.
But how does the story of Pinocchio hold up in 2020? The children who laughed at the broad slapstick antics of Figaro the cat (not until Tom of Tom & Jerry has a cat ever been bonked on the head so much and endured so many indignities) have grown up now, and many have become helicopter parents, some with PhDs in psychology. Pinocchio gives them a rich source of material.
Let’s just skip over the whole thing about the wooden nose getting longer with bad behavior.
Pinocchio was only the second feature-length animated movie ever, arriving three years after Snow White in 1937. It came well before the whole Disney Princess phenomenon — Cinderella wouldn’t waltz in for ten more years, in 1950. Between Pinocchio and Cinderella came two more parables of single parenthood and a child’s terror of becoming an orphan: Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). Much has already been written about the motherless children of fairy tales, and of Disney stories in particular. The ugly flip side of this coin is the wicked stepmother figure, another enduring phantom of the childhood subconscious.
Curiously, there are no women in Pinocchio. There are girls in Stromboli’s puppet show who look Pinoke up and down and lift up their skirts for him, but they’re all made of wood with unblinking painted eyes. Cleo is flirty, coy, and wears too much lipstick, but she’s a goldfish. The operative mother figure is the Blue Fairy, the blond and blue-eyed (hardly Italian) feminine ideal of chaste beauty, charity, kindness, and wish-granting. She’s a dream mother, but she lives in the stars and appears only on her own terms and in her own time (one day she will materialize in the flesh as Mary Poppins, but that must wait until 1964). Other than that, it’s all boys. The feminine principle of the conscience, that counterforce to the worst masculine impulses of disobedience and machismo, is an ineffectual insect in a top hat and spats who looks a bit like Mitch McConnell.
Even so, far from erasing women and their roles, perhaps no other Disney movie outside of Dumbo is more about traditional prewar motherhood. Geppetto is a sweet old guy, but now he seems spectacularly clueless. The Blue Fairy comes and bops the puppet with a wand late one night, and the very next morning Geppetto has him packed off to go to school. (No registration?) So much for getting acclimated and adjusted to, you know, the human race or experiencing self-consciousness. Pinocchio is given a book that he can’t read, because Geppetto remembers that a boy isn’t a student unless he has a book. Then he does what no mother would ever do: he pats Pinocchio on the head, gives him a shove, and tells him to walk, alone, straight to school — without ever telling him the location or even what a school is. Pinocchio asks Geppetto why he has to go. “To learn things and get smart,” Geppetto says. “Why?” “Ahh…because.” End of discussion.
Sure enough, Pinocchio is no sooner out of eyeshot than he is kidnapped by a mercenary fox and a drugged-out homeless alley cat and sold into the slave trade. Just as Mom would have said would happen, if there’d been a Mom. The Blue Fairy (one thinks of “Don’t make me come down there…”) comes down there and frees Pinocchio from Stromboli’s self-reflexive evil scheme to turn Pinocchio into, um, a profitable entertainment commodity. Meanwhile, Geppetto gets a boat and looks for Pinocchio on the ocean for some reason, where he quickly manages to get swallowed by a whale. That’s helpful.
Pinocchio hits the road for Geppetto’s house, but he runs back into the disreputable fox and cat, and this time he’s sold to a childhood sex trafficker. I’m sorry to put it so harshly, but at this point, an adult watching this movie in 2020 starts thinking about Michael Jackson. Jackson publicly fantasized about becoming Peter Pan (reportedly he was in talks to play the role in Steven Spielberg’s Hook), and he spent millions creating the “Neverland” ranch where chosen children could play in a private amusement park and never grow old. Of course Peter Pan was not yet a gleam in Walt Disney’s eye — that movie would come out in 1953 — but for those of us now, watching the films in reverse or random order, it’s hard not to see both Disney’s and Jackson’s Neverland as a whitewashed version of the truly creepy Land of Lost Boys in Pinocchio.
Little boys are invited into the fairground gates to do whatever they like — smoke cigars, play pool, gamble, break windows, stay up all night … ride roller coasters, watch movies, have unlimited popcorn and funny-tasting sodas, and have fun tickle parties during sleepovers with their pop star BFF who loves them and would never do anything to hurt them. After some time living like this, something repulsive happens to the boys’ bodies. Their lives are ruined (they are shipped off to the “salt mines”), and the changes are irreversible. They lose their voices and their ability to tell others what happened. They become cattle used for the pleasure of their masters. It’s difficult to watch in 2020.
A few words about what came before and after Pinocchio. The original version of the story, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, serialized starting in 1881, is a perfect example of the picaresque. It’s wild, free, and surreal, and you should read it after you brace yourself. For example, the puppet is made from a talking log (paging David Lynch), and as soon as Geppetto carves the feet, Pinocchio starts kicking him. There’s a cricket in the hearth piously warning of hedonism, and Pinocchio throws a hammer at him and smashes him. Dead. “He remained dried up and flattened against the wall.” (He comes back later as a ghost, but still.)
There is a long list of sequels, spinoffs, and parodies of Pinocchio. It’s catnip for academics, as detailed by Richard Wunderlich and Thomas J. Morrissey in Pinocchio Goes Postmodern: Perils of a Puppet in the United States. The setup is a hall of mirrors where clever postmodernists feel right at home: a puppet becomes a real live boy, inside a work of fiction where everything is manipulated by the author, who loses control of characters that have a life of their own, etc. I’m not a fair judge of such things, as I read one of these postmodern sequels and it made me never want to read another. Pinocchio in Venice (1991) by Robert Coover is a thoroughly nasty and mean-spirited piece of work about the adult Pinocchio, who becomes a prize-winning American academic facing late middle age (not unlike, say Robert Coover) and goes by the name Professor Pinenut. We all get a little stiff in the knee joints as we get older, but Pinenut is slowly flaking off and turning back into wood. The novel is aggressively obscene, blasphemous, crude, violent, and endlessly pessimistic, as if Coover thinks of childhood innocence as some kind of colonic disease that must be cured by a toxic enema of language and sharp probing devices from the metafictional toolkit.
A lot has happened in the 80 years between 1940 and 2020, and for children, not much of it has been good. What seems so much sadder about Pinocchio now that maybe wasn’t quite so sad to audiences in the Eagle Scout ’40s is that it’s a movie about how children themselves are to blame for their own misfortunes. If you just listen to your conscience, obey your father, go to school, don’t become an actor, and say no to temptation, you’ll be fine in life. Maybe if someone is screening Pinocchio this week at some freezing detention camp for children who were ripped away from their parents at the US border, it will hopefully occur to a boy watching that being sold into slavery, made a victim of human trafficking, or being swallowed alive inside the belly of a behemoth bureaucracy is NOT. HIS. FAULT. No amount of listening to a conscience, or any number of insects, could have spared him this. Some of the children may even question why the victims should appeal to the Blue Fairy above to rescue them occasionally from a systematically abusive system, when the Magic One isn’t doing anything with her wand to stop Foulfellow, Gideon, Stromboli, or the Coachman.
Fate is kind. She brings to those who love the sweet fulfillment of their secret longing. Check back in 2100, and we’ll see where we are on that.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas, and he has a PhD in English Literature. He has no strings to hold him down, to make him fret or make him frown.