Culture

Overthinking Disney’s ‘Pinocchio’: Questions You Never Asked as a Child

Still from ‘Pinocchio’/Image © Disney

“Pinocchio” isn’t just one of the most beloved and impactful Disney films of all time — it’s a significant film, period, having inspired the world to reconsider anew the potential of animation as a truly cinematic medium. However, for those of us who haven’t revisited the movie (based on the book by Carlo Collodi) since childhood, this month’s new Walt Disney Signature Collection edition of the movie raises … a lot of questions. For example:

Will “Pinocchio” make kids want to try smoking? 

This new edition is preceded by a PSA laden with imagery from the film itself, reminding kids that they are especially prone to the risks associated with smoking. I appreciated this effort by an entertainment empire to atone for what I recalled to be fairly incidental tobacco use before rewatching. Boy, was I mistaken! The instances steadily accumulate, leading up to an unforgettable moment on Pleasure Island when cigar store Indians (a subject worthy of a whole different PSA) literally toss cancer-sticks by the handful to a mob of eager children.

You’d think the scene shortly thereafter when our young hero becomes sickened by one of these dog rockets (which is real cigar slang, because the internet says so) would provide plenty of Just Say No material, but the scene goes on for several minutes, and buddy Lampwick’s debonair way with a stank crank (I made that one up) proves this to be merely an acquired taste — and yeah, he horrifyingly turns into a donkey mere moments later, but correlation doesn’t equal causation. Right, science experts?

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Just try to remember — and be sure to remind young viewers — that “Pinocchio” was made in 1940, over seventy-five years ago, long before the public realized the life-threatening dangers of carcinogens, the enduring psychological effects of addiction, or the vital importance of punching Nazis (you know, just for example).

What’s Jiminy Cricket’s backstory? 

The vermin-turned-moral-authority enters Pinocchio’s life as a freeloading wanderer, dressed in rags, who describes migrating from “hearth to hearth.” This may no longer be the only kids’ movie that begins with an insect infestation, but it was certainly the first. For all his strident opinions on what makes for an upstanding citizen, he doesn’t seem to have benefited from them himself.

Granted, this is still a step up from the cricket’s role in Collodi’s 1883 novel, in which our protagonist smashes the talking bug character with a mallet. In this version, he gets a fancy tailcoat and sings one of the most enduringly famous tunes in cinematic history. That’s quite a promotion! Even so, we never find out about anything that happened to Jiminy in the past, or even why he’s called “Jiminy” (the name was chosen by Walt Disney himself, for reasons I was unable to substantiate).

Despite his best efforts, there is a direct parallel between the cricket’s inexperience and his failure to keep Pinocchio on the path of righteousness. That medal the Blue Fairy awards him at the end should have been engraved with the words: “I TRIED.”

What is it that makes puppets so flipping creepy? 

The animators at Disney knew just how unsettling puppet-kind could be — just read up on their struggle to deliver concept art for Pinocchio that didn’t cause Walt to throw his hands up in despair. They went on to use this same idea to great effect throughout the rest of the film, with numerous instances of  little wooden bodies causing confusion, mayhem, and horror. Geppetto’s frenetic clockwork creations range from benign to downright menacing, as do those dancing in Stromboli’s theater, and it’s impossible to ignore the way the camera lingers maliciously on the pile of puppet corpses used by the evil vaudevillian as firewood.

During the film’s immortal “I’ve Got No Strings” musical number, we observe Pinocchio’s own confusion as he interacts with the other marionettes. He clearly has no idea who is “real” and who isn’t — it’s like a scene out of “Westworld.” (A cover of this song exploited these same feelings in the trailer for “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”) Pinocchio’s confusion is echoed in the way Jiminy treats all the movie’s various puppets and automata: as if their eyes might really see, as if their mouths might really speak. For a child, this pleasurably contributes to the story’s overall sense of the fantastical. Adults, who’ve spent more of their lives contemplating the meaning of existence, are more likely to find themselves in “uncanny valley” territory.

The prevalence of sentient animal characters in the film complicate this even further. Consider evil fox Honest John’s recollection of the time he passed reprobate kitty-cat Gideon — ostensibly a living, breathing mammal — off to Stromboli as a puppet for his show. How could this possibly have happened? Or perhaps more relevant: If Stromboli fell for this scam before, what kind of idiot must he be to buy a magical “no strings attached” puppet from the very same trickster?

This conceit only works in a setting of pure fantasy, which is perhaps the film’s greatest testament of faithfulness to Collodi’s novel. The filmmakers are not without an ironic sense of humor (as evidenced by lines like “I’d rather be smart than be an actor!”) but their commitment to gearing everything toward a childish imagination makes it very difficult to tell what’s meant to be clever, and what’s meant in earnest. For example: “A live puppet without strings. That sort of thing ought to be worth a fortune to someone,” says the talking, man-sized fox.

Which also inspires us to ask:

What is the taxonomical difference between Figaro the cat and Gideon the cat?

Even when viewed through the lens of pure fantasy, it’s oddly difficult to figure out what differentiates the film’s two feline characters. Will Figaro the kitten eventually grow up to be bipedal and wear clothes like Gideon? The difference between them could have been clarified somewhat if Gideon actually spoke, but legendary voice actor Mel Blanc’s lines for the character ended up on the cutting-room floor, leaving behind just a solitary hiccup which is played three times during the film.

So in this particular fictional universe, what exactly is a “cat”? Count this among the film’s many existential mysteries, such as what constitutes “real” boy.

What qualifies Geppetto to be a father?

Geppetto is an eccentric, middle-aged loner who carves children out of wood and sleeps with a handgun under his pillow. If you were in charge of processing foster parent applications, you’d definitely weed this one out. Endearing though he may be, Geppetto proves almost immediately that he lacks the skills be a parent, sending his clearly-only-half-human scion off to the local public school without so much as a note pinned to his shirt. When Pinocchio fails to return, the old puppet-maker groans: “What could have happened to him?” Well, what on earth did you think would happen?

To his credit, Geppetto does inform Figaro: “School is not for you.” So there’s a sign he’s at least somewhat aware of what a school is, and what people do there.

What’s up with this boy/donkey black market?

We learn very little about the mystical process that turns misbehaving boys into donkeys, and even less about the shadow economy that capitalizes on this phenomenon. It’s a subplot straight out of David Lynch’s “Inland Empire,” even down to the mute, shadowy henchmen that assist the evil Coachman (we know literally nothing else about him) in his scheme.

Is maintaining a debauched amusement park somehow less expensive than simply breeding actual donkeys? And what, we unfortunately have to ask, befalls those few hybrids the Coachman weeds from the pack because they can still talk?

At the very least, we can thank this storyline for providing one of Disney’s few “lean back from the screen in pure terror” moments:

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What the heck is up with that sexy goldfish?

When people complain about how cartoon characters today are overly sexualized, please invite them to pay a visit to Cleo the goldfish, she of the bewildering cosmetic enhancements whose only character trait is being overtly amorous, and exists mainly to be kissed (or not kissed, as the case may be) and carried around by Geppetto like an ichthyoidal concubine.

This is especially troubling since she also has more screen time (albeit fewer lines) than the film’s only other female character, The Blue Fairy. But you don’t see a PSA at the beginning of the disc about that one, do you?

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Nagging questions aside, Disney’s new Signature Collection edition constitutes a significant work of historic preservation as well as an object of endless delight and morbid fascination. You’ll want to share this with children while they’re still young and perfectly credulous — and before they’re old enough to ask the kind of questions you have no hope of answering.