The Real Lives of Disney: Pinocchio

Posted on November 2, 2013


I’m a real boy, and you’re a talking cricket.

In 1940, Walt Disney Studios released their second feature length film following the great success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Originally this was going to be Bambi, but problems in production let to that being pushed back in favour of Pinocchio. It’s a film that terrified me as a small boy, mostly because of the donkey-transformation scene, but even so I gave it little credence as I grew older. As the years passed I began to appreciate films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast for their actual quality, as opposed to ‘wow I’m a child and cartoons yay.’ Pinocchio didn’t really come into this, even during the year I spent watching animated films with Archie and Helena.

In hindsight though, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. Not only is Pinocchio quite possibly the best Disney film, it is also quite probably the one best suited to me. Why is that, I hear you wail? Well, I quite enjoy bleak art. I’m one of those idiots who believe that the best art should involve at least some form of darkness, and by darkness I don’t mean an absence of light. The darkest darkness is the acknowledgement of light, but a built-in break button stops you from embracing it. That’s why In Utero is such a great album, why Dostoevsky wrote the best books and why Pinocchio is the best Disney film.

To a degree, I’m lying. There is plenty of light embracing in Pinocchio. The film revolves around the adventures of Pinocchio, a wooden puppet created by the wood-carver Geppetto. A blue fairy brings him to life, but he must prove himself to be a real boy by being ‘brave, truthful and unselfish’, and to follow his conscience in telling wrong from right. In this instance, his conscience is in the form of a talking cricket. Thus begin his adventures, during which he meets a huge variety of unsavoury characters. His first error comes in joining a puppet show. When questioned as to why he did this by the blue fairy, he comes up with a massive lie to hide his shame, at which point his nose grows.

 ‘a lie will keep growing and growing, until it’s as plain as the nose on your face’

The idea of the nose of an individual growing with each growing lie is probably the most famous thing to be taken from the film. Indeed, it has a philosophical idea named after it, that being the ‘Pinocchio Paradox.’ This is the unanswerable question where if Pinocchio says ‘my nose is growing’ and it does, it is both true and false. Despite its fame, the nose growing plays a surprising small role in the film. It surprises me that more wasn’t made of the terrifying scenes on Pleasure Island. Convinced to go there, Pinocchio discovers alcohol, smoking, gambling and god knows what else. It turns out that the island is cursed, and it makes boys make jackasses out of themselves before transforming them into real donkeys, where they are sent off the mines to work. Lampwick, one of the many bad influences on Pinocchio, is transformed into a donkey in an absolutely blood-curdling scene that still haunts me to this day. Pinocchio is almost transformed, but he manages to escape with just a donkey’s tail and ears.

During all of this, poor old Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale. Pinocchio suffers the same fate in an attempt to save the old man, and they do indeed manage to escape. The whale gives chase, and in the melee that follows Pinocchio is killed, It is decided that he has proven himself as a real boy, and a real boy he becomes.

That ain’t so bad I suppose. Maybe I’m giving it too much of a build up as being bleak. Oh shit, hold on a minute, it wasn’t the film I was talking about. No, I was talking about the 1883 book that the film is based on, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. That, my dear handsome friends, is bleak.

As soon as the poor wood-carver Geppetto makes Pinocchio, he runs away. When found, it is assumed Geppetto has been abusing the poor boy and the old man is imprisoned. Pinocchio goes back home, where he kills the talking cricket. Because I don’t know, we all do it to flies all the time. He falls asleep by the stove, where his feet burn off, due to being made out of wood. Geppetto is released, and because he is a massive sap he makes Pinocchio new feet. He also sells his only coat to buy the marionette a school book so he can go to school. Pinocchio sells the book to buy a ticket to a puppet show, where he is almost killed but somehow ends up with five gold coins to give to Geppetto instead.

On the way home, he is convinced by a fox and a cat to plant the coins, in order grow more. After eating a luxury meal at Pinocchio’s expense, the fox and the cat bugger off and dress up as bandits. They attack Pinocchio, who manages to escape . He meets a turquoise-haired fairy, who may or may not be dead at the time. As they’re having a chit chat, the fox and the cat (still dressed as bandits) catch Pinocchio, and hang him from a nearby tree. Without waiting for him to die, they bugger off. You read that right, in the original book, Pinocchio is hanged.

He is brought back to life though, because fiction. When asked about what happened, he lies through his shame resulting in his nose growing so big he can’t get out of the room. Woodpeckers are called into chisel the schnoz down. He re-meets the fox and the cat, who convince him to plant his coins once more. He plants them, and of course the fox and the cat steal them. Pinocchio tries to report this to a judge, but instead he finds himself thrown in jail for foolishness. He’s released early, because the city he is in is full of zero logic and criminals. He makes his way home, where he encounters a snake who laughs so hard at Pinocchio that the snake bursts an artery and explodes. He gets caught in a weasel trap trying to steal grapes.

Oh, during all of this Geppetto managed to get swallowed by The Terrible Shark as well.

Pinocchio is eventually sent to school, where he does remarkably well, topping his class most of the time. The other boys grow jealous though, and convince the puppet to skip school. He does this, but a fight breaks out and Pinocchio has to start again. Once more, he does very well, so well that the fairy tells him that tomorrow, he will become a real boy. Well done Pinocchio, go out and invite all your friends! No, not Lampwick.

Obviously Lampwick tempts him stray, and they go to a place where life is all play and no work. Backpacking, obviously. They wake up with donkey ears, because if you don’t work you turn into a jackass, before being transformed completely into donkeys. Pinocchio is sold to the circus, who in turn sells the boy to a chap who basically just chucks him in the sea to drown. He gets swallowed by The Terrible Shark funnily enough, and he manages to save Geppetto. In the new town they meet the fox, the cat, the talking cricket and Lampwick, who is now a donkey. Geppetto and the fairy are dying, so Pinocchio gives them all his money, which finally leads to him waking up a real boy.

So, in the book that the film is based on, Pinocchio is at different points hanged, swallowed by a shark, has his feet burnt off, thrown in jail, gets his Dad thrown in jail, gets caught in a trap, gets turned completely into a donkey, is drowned, has his donkey skin eaten off by a fish and is almost constantly mugged. If that’s what it takes to be a real boy, I’ll stick to being a man.

It amazes me that Disney were able to make such a child-friendly film out of something so violent, so dark. It also confirms to me that art with a hint of darkness will always be the best art, because despite all of the shit the little boy goes through and puts others through, all we care about is that his nose was big once and he eventually understood. There’s hope for us all yet.


Posted in: Cinema, Disney