The Darker Corners of Pinocchio
Walt Disney is known for making high-grossing animated movies before and after the death of its founder Walt Disney himself. Usually, there is something to be seen in many Disney movies ranging from the 1930’s to the 1990’s. Some of them were darker than others with Hunchback of Notre Dame usually taking the cake, some even putting Black Cauldron and Sleeping Beauty up on that special pedestal. However, one Disney movie sets itself apart from the rest. It took enough liberties with their storytelling to an extent that even the artists behind the Hunchback of Notre Dame did not dare to attempt. No Disney movie dared to attempt what Pinocchio did. Pinocchio is probably the darkest of all Disney films.
Pinocchio is known, far and wide as the puppet who strived to become a boy, who learned to live up to the qualities required of a real boy: to be ‘brave, truthful and unselfish.’ His quest is the primary plot with deviations and digressions, telling the story so realistically it puts modern kids to shame. What is the first thing that comes to mind about Pinocchio? ‘Don’t lie’ or something along those lines, perhaps his status as a puppet, and it is a shame because there is so much more to that movie. That movie, for its lesson, tells a whole pack of truths to an extent it hurts. The truth hurts, especially when it is implicit. In Pinocchio, the truth does hurt and partly because its messages are not implicit at all. In some cases, they are in the open.
To see this, every last truth, lie, lesson, virtue and villain Pinocchio has to offer must be examined. When the movie starts, it begins with the famous When you Wish Upon a Star sequence and skip to Gepetto finishing his latest wooden creation. This creation is a puppet he names Pinocchio. But the man who lives alone with his cat and goldfish has the craziest wish ever. He wishes that his puppet would come to life. The wish is granted by none other than our basic deus ex machina, the Blue Fairy. She decides that Gepetto deserves to have his wish granted, and gives Pinocchio the gift of life. However, this is as far as she goes before laying the burden on Pinocchio to prove himself before being made of flesh and blood. This is what leads us to the first lie of the movie and ironically it is not told by Pinocchio.
“Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish, and someday you will be a real boy.”
“And always let your conscience be your guide.”
And our favorite little cricket, Jiminy explains in eloquent words…
“that still small voice that people won’t listen. That’s just the trouble with the world today.”
These lines hold, from the beginning till the end as the most important and oft-spoken lines in the movie. And these lines are lies. Not in the conventional sense but lies nonetheless, lies in the sense that the Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio to prove himself in ways no other person in the movie could. What was it Jiminy said about a conscience? People do not listen to their conscience, the vast majority of humans in the movie are terrible, even kids Pinocchio’s own age go astray, and Pinocchio is nonetheless asked to become the lone light in a sea of darkness. The Blue Fairy gives Pinocchio what is basically to be seen as the model for a live human being, which is a lie. No human in the movie acts like this so it must be assumed that the Blue Fairy wants Pinocchio to be that model. In other words, Pinocchio must complete a task which is perhaps more impossible than any protagonist has ever had to complete in a Disney movie.
Is it impossible that a Prince armed with a sword and shield and backed by three fairies can defeat a dragon? Is it impossible that seven angry dwarves can defeat an old witch who unfortunately lacks her usual Potions? Is it impossible that a street rat can trick a mad sorcerer into becoming a genie by taking advantage of his pride? Last but not least, is it impossible that Paris successfully revolts against a crazed judge who decided to bring the fight to their most precious cathedral in the square? In Pinocchio, it only gets harder.
The rest of the lies are told by Pinocchio. Or are they? Pinocchio has every intention of going to school. In fact, he is well on his way until the first two villains we meet take him away and convince him to become an actor in the theater. He is lured away by Mr. Honest John Foulfellow whose very name screams of irony. Pinocchio is an instant success in the theater to such an extent, Jiminy Cricket starts to doubt himself. Perhaps Jiminy was wrong. The temptations the fairy warned against seem to be affecting even our guide. But when the Puppet master Stromboli locks Pinocchio in, Jiminy pops in to help and the wooden puppet realizes where he went wrong. This, in that sense represents the very first lesson we are taught with another coming shortly. Acting is not a distinguished career no matter how much press they get. They get used, abused and thrown away and Pinocchio was no different. He is locked, the cage is rusted, and Jiminy is incapable of helping.
Enter: The Blue Fairy for the second time. Her first action was giving Pinocchio life, now she meets him again for another talk, another lesson, and some last bit of magic. She asks him why he did not go to school and Pinocchio starts with the truth.
“I was going to school till I met somebody.”
Unfortunately, his nose starts growing as he continues to emphasize that he met two monsters. This was perceived as a lie, of course but the audience knows better. Was it really a lie? Was Honest John not a monster? Was Stromboli just being innocent? Was John’s sidekick just there? Many could very well perceive those two characters (three counting the sidekick fox) as monsters, making Pinocchio’s first words a truth. As the movie portrays it as a lie, here again is the second lie told by either the movie or Pinocchio himself, depending on how it is spun.
It does not end there either. The Blue Fairy plays along and questions Pinocchio as to whether he was afraid. Pinocchio insists he was not afraid but he was tied in a sack. Yet again, his nose grows but depending on how it is perceived, the lie is told by the movie or the character. Pinocchio was not exactly tied in a sack but when he is clearly in a cage at the time, it is not the worst lie to tell either. In fact, it is a sort of truth. Pinocchio was trapped, tripped, sent to the theater, used, abused, and locked up. Unfortunately, it is not big enough of a truth and he is humiliated once more. (Though in all honesty, the real lie was when he said Jiminy was tied too.) Pinocchio and Jiminy start noticing the large nose.
The Fairy questions him further and asks how he escaped. Pinocchio says he did not escape, which is the complete truth when related to the previous ‘lie’ but he was chopped into firewood. This is perhaps a real lie. But it is worthy to mention what Stromboli said after he locked Pinocchio in the cage/sack.
“When you are growing too old, you will make good firewood.”
The threat to be made into firewood was certainly there. In fact, in a way none of what Pinocchio said was a lie. He did meet two monsters, he was tied up, and he was threatened with being chopped into firewood. Maybe the truth was stretched a little bit but by no means a complete lie. Or of course, the Fairy counts stretched truths as lies and nonetheless grew his nose to warn him against such trickery. They were lies nonetheless told by either Pinocchio or the movie itself. The very idea that the movie may be the one telling the lie is astounding.
“A boy who won’t be good may just as well be made of wood.”
Thankfully, Pinocchio swears to never lie again and the Fairy forgives but warns that this would be the last time she could help. She thus far served as the solution to two problems: She gave Pinocchio life and freed him from the cage/sack he was so clearly trapped in. She proceeded to warn Pinocchio that the rest of the journey must be taken alone. Was this in fact the last time the fairy helped and served as the solution to all problems? It is also worthy of note that in this scene, everything is grey except Pinocchio, the fairy, and Jiminy. This ties in with the point that Pinocchio is the sole light in a world of evil.
Thus far, the movie has been fine. No dark messages or meanings. By this point in Hunchback, a death has already happened. This scene, with its grey background and colored characters also marks the transition from bright colors earlier and simple problems to serious problems and dark demeanors. The next scene starts with Mr. Honest John and a new villain. A plump man in a red suit spills piles of gold provided Honest John gets him ‘stupid little boys’ to take to a place called ‘Pleasure Island,’ a place John implies is illegal, fearing the law might come after them. But the Coachman insists there is no risk because…
“They never come back as boys.”
This scene alone is screaming of dark, implicit messages a child might never understand. Later, there are explicit messages dark enough for a child’s mind and darker for an adult’s mind. The Coachman lays out his plan to traffic stupid little boys. Taking children from one area to another completely cut off from civilization is child trafficking. He offers gold to his pawns who now seem completely terrified of him as he whispers his plan to traffic the kids off to a nice little place called Pleasure Island. Honest John was not nearly as terrified of Stromboli. The way that scene played out was a clear indication of the power of the wealthy and what they do.
Once again, Honest John lures Pinocchio into his clutches under even more false pretenses. He convinces him he is ill and tells him to take some time off at Pleasure Island. Labeled by the movie as one of the ‘stupid little boys’ the Coachman was after, Pinocchio takes him up on the offer. Unbeknownst to them, Jiminy follows him secretly. Things get absolutely crazy, even for a Disney movie here. The first glimpse of Pleasure Island is maddening. One wonders how adults let children watch this movie?
Pleasure Island is an amusement park where kids can do whatever they want. They can eat whatever they want, drink whatever they want, ice cream, dil pickles, beer, cigarettes, cigars, picking fights for the fun of it, destruction… all of them were mentioned explicitly.
“Smoke your heads off. There’s nobody here to stop you.”
And behind these already dark explicit overtones the movie makes, it cleverly hides something darker, even for adults. The best way to hide something dark is to coat it with something dark. Seeing a dark coat makes many think that there is no need to look behind something already so explicit. But there is something notorious about the evil Coachman. He is not just some big wealthy guy who puts kids to work in salt mines after turning them to donkeys which apparently symbolizes their stupidity. He is also a pedophile.
We already established that the Coachman is responsible for illegal child trafficking, transporting them to a Fun land called Pleasure Island, (a word that many adults associate directly with sex) and luring them there with fun, candy, anything a kid could want. In one scene, just before the Coachman talks with a small donkey named Alexander, he stripped clothes off of another donkey? It was not directly dealt with but implicit messages rarely are. Earlier, he insisted there was no risk in illegally trafficking children to an island cut off from civilization because…
“They never come back. As BOYS!”
There are two possible meanings to these words. Both are important to think about and no one said they are mutually exclusive. One is explicit and means that that they leave and when they come back, they are donkeys incapable of speech. He even gets rid of the ones who can talk, those who inexplicably still retain the power of speech such as Alexander, and only God knows what happens to them. But behind the explicit meaning is yet another meaning. Once a boy is abused by a pedophile, they are no longer boys in the sense that their innocence has been violated. Pleasure Island violates their innocence badly. They drink, they smoke, they fight, they destroy stuff… and then they become donkeys and therefore, scarred for life. Pedophilia does tend to scar the victim for life. Pinocchio is the best example. He survived the torture and escaped before it got too bad but his ears and tail and even random bray still remained, he was ashamed to speak of it to his father, was scared of even mentioning it because he was scarred from the experience.
As he sits on the beach, recovering from his painful ordeal, he gets a message from a dove sent by none other than the Blue Fairy. It is never explicitly stated it was in fact her but it can be no one else. It certainly was not the entrapped Gepetto and the dove was glowing white which reminds us of a heavenly figure. The Blue Fairy. The one who promised she would never help him again. The fairy, who told Pinocchio not to lie, lied. And she sets many things in motion, thankfully she is benevolent. She informs him that Gepetto was swallowed by a whale named Monstro. After a brief reunion and a smart attempt to orchestrate an escape, Pinocchio is ultimately killed saving his father from the whale.
Killed. The first Disney main character who is definitely and certainly dead on-screen. The cat cries over his corpse, the fish, the cricket, Gepetto, the audience, everyone. We’re all miserable because Disney only ever had a character fall into an eternal sleep to be awakened by true love’s first kiss. Now, the half-donkey character is explicitly dead. The boy who was scarred from an experience was given a release from it and the movie seems set to take a tragic turn for the worst. Until… the Blue Fairy decides to resurrect him as a real boy, flesh and blood. Very benevolent on her part but it contradicts her promise to never help again. She is the definition of a Deus ex Machina. She is the solution to all problems presented: lifeless puppet, overgrown nose, locked cage, man-eating whale, or death. She is the benevolent solution and in so doing, provided Pinocchio with the rebirth he needed (notice his donkey ears and tail are gone) and he is set to live happily ever after.
But just him.
Pinocchio can live. The other boys… not so much. And this is where Pinocchio does what no Disney film has ever done and will ever do in the future, they allowed the tragedy to continue. All other Disney villains were punished accordingly, facing justice in one way or another. Pinocchio features more than one villain and they all got away with it. Only Pinocchio got through the ordeal. More unsuspecting kids will be taken away, the rest of the donkeys are set to work as slaves in the salt mines and that is just the ones who can not speak. The ones who still speak like that poor little Alexander (the one donkey in all of fiction that probably wrenches hearts just thinking about him), are unaccounted for.
We do not know what happens to them. But if the Coachman intends to keep them silent, the only way out is death. Even by the end, the Coachman is not punished, the donkeys are never freed and Stromboli is still out there to abuse other actors and actresses that come his way, Honest John and Gideon will continue luring stupid little boys into their traps, and that’s just how the world is. The Coachman got away with slavery and possible pedophilia and murder. So realistic, isn’t it?
Disney tends to give a happily ever after, not just for the main character but for the entire Kingdom it is set in, if not the world. Even Hunchback had the decency to give a showy happy ending with singing and dancing for all of Paris after the fiery, infernal battle with Judge Claude Frollo. Pinocchio is the one and only exception. The slaver, child-trafficker, pedophile, murderer, or all four is still out there and till now remains the only Disney villain to get away with what he did. And what he did is pretty terrible and tragic. Tragic enough when looked at on the surface, more so when one looks under the dark coat. Who could be called by some as the most truly evil Disney villain who caused massive and unrepaired damage got away with it. These days, if Disney even tried that, they’ll have the kids they so explicitly and implicitly insulted camping out in protest.
In conclusion, this movie is a truly a fantastic, dark work of art. The movie tells the biggest truth of them all, and in so doing lives up to its name. While all other Disney movies flaunt the lie that is happily ever after, Pinocchio gives it to the audience straight. Happily ever after only for some people. Not for everyone. And for those who do manage, it takes lies to get there. It takes pain, blood, sweat, tears and abuse before you get there and once you do, you are scarred. The rest… they are put to work like slaves and those who have even the capability to protest the conditions they are put in are silenced. The movie does a good job of hiding it because the darkest story ever told by Disney is covered with darkness itself. In the end, the only happy people are Pinocchio and Gepetto. Everyone else is miserable.
What do you think? Leave a comment.