Behind These Castle Walls, Part II: Pinocchio (1940)

For the second movie in my Disney series we get to the second animated full-length feature which is Pinocchio, released in 1940. I’d say as a movie it’s not as well known as some of the other Disney movies, while still pretty popular. Just as Snow White it is a well-made movie with great animation and interesting, creative set pieces. The story, based on a novel, was changed significantly and is at least as problematic as Snow White’s, in my opinion. While many themes are similar, some new ones are also introduced. But let’s get to the analytical details of this one, it won't be short.

On the surface, the credits song suggests that the movie’s theme is that you just have to wish for anything because you never know if it might become true. This theme will prop up again and again and is very typical for our culture, in which people cling to wishes to escape their reality. Think about it, the only reason to emphasize “wishful thinking” (a term which paradoxically is considered bad) is that you think things have to get better. Nothing is ever good enough. On the other hand, wishes are always very far away and only if you’re really, really lucky, they come true. This keeps us in a constant state of longing for a better place that will probably never arrive.

Jiminy Cricket acts as a kind of narrator for the audience in the beginning and he is a peculiar character. He is homeless, travelling across the country, wearing rags, crashing at other people’s houses but being happy with his restless life. So, immediately after the song telling us to long for something better we get a character that seems to be content with a situation normally considered undesirable. Which would be interesting, if Jiminy wouldn’t turn out to be the most conservative and problematic character in the movie.

He sometimes acts as someone from an older generation, amazed by the wonders of this new ever changing world (which in this movie seems like a hundred years ago). His sexism also seems to come from the past, as he strangely makes two butt jokes in five minutes. When the Fairy appears (more on her in a second), he goes “Hm-hm” as if he finds her really sexy and later blushes when she addresses him (just like the Dwarves in Snow White). When the Fairy gives him shiny new clothes, the idea of him being happy with his bum lifestyle disappears too, as he couldn’t be happier with his “swell” clothes. Jiminy is a good example of a character that on the surface seems to have good intentions and is free of earthly desires, but in reality mostly represents old-fashioned values and reacts strongly to sexuality and wealth.

You might wonder why I spend so much time on a supporting character when the movie is actually called Pinocchio. As we’ll see, there’s a reason behind this since Pinocchio itself plays the role many children play in our society: an object upon which the adults impose their values, unable to develop an independent mind on their own. His father (or one of his fathers) is Gepetto, an old man who builds dolls and has a cat and a goldfish whom he treats with biased authority, always favoring the goldfish over the cat, but laughing it away as if it wasn’t really a problem. Despite his age, his relationship status of “single” and reigning over dolls and pets, he wishes to have a son. When the Fairy grants him that wish, it is because he has given so much happiness to others, which we never actually see.

Pinocchio then, a string-puppet of a young boy receives the “gift of life” from the Fairy, the mystical figure which appears at night and is the only female character in the whole movie, looking like a goddess of beauty and with an almost overbearing presence. She is the only motherly figure for Pinocchio who asks her “Am I a real boy?” This becomes really important because Pinocchio, having no real parents and starting life at an age where you are supposed to know how things work already, completely relies on what others tell him. So, everything she (and everyone else) tells him is more than just advice, it’s the blueprint for how his psyche is supposed to work. The Fairy tells him the following: “No, Pinocchio […] you have to be brave, truthful and unselfish and someday you will be a real boy. […] You must learn to choose between right and wrong. […] Your conscience will tell you.” (more on that in a second)

Because Pinocchio doesn’t know what a conscience is, Jiminy explains it to him: “A conscience is that still small voice that people won’t listen to. That’s just the trouble with the world today.” You see what a bitter old guy Jiminy actually is? Assuming the flawedness of humans and claiming that the world is going downhill and was much better in the past, when people still had good values and listened to their conscience. His thinking is backwards and ignorant, but he comes off as street-wise.

The Fairy then turns him into “Pinocchio’s conscience, lord high keeper of the knowledge of right and wrong, counselor in moments of temptation and guide along a straight and narrow path.” Now, let’s look at her words of advice to Pinocchio and the title she gives Jiminy. Here you have the basic patterns you are taught in civilization: clear binary moral values that only distinguish between right and wrong (and that don’t work in the grey shades of real life), suppression of emotions (temptation is bad, so don’t allow yourself to feel it) and there is only one right way to live. The Fairy represents Mother Culture at its purest, a seemingly clear and untouchable set of values that are supposed to guide you through life, when all it does is to hide your feelings so that you don’t question anything about this culture. Pinocchio becomes the poster ruined boy of an education that has traumatized children in our culture for centuries.

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Before she leaves, she again says: “Be a good boy and always let your conscience be your guide.” Now, I’m not saying conscience is a bad thing by itself, but it’s just one side of the complex human psyche. Also, by making Jiminy his conscience, isn’t it problematic that it is older than him and basically controls him now? Who is the conscience of normal kids? Parents? Because then the message would be, “Always listen to your parents.” Which is the oldest value in our culture and always translates to, “Don’t think for yourself.” Anyway, the whole idea of giving this half-breed of a boy an external conscience, especially considering that his conscience is a problematic character already, makes all of this awkward.

Jiminy now wants to take his new responsibility seriously and starts a “real heart-to-heart talk”, like a parent and luring Pinocchio into it with his wish to be a “real boy”. “Sit down, son,” he says next, emphasizing the parent idea even more. And then:

“The world is full of temptations. […] They are the wrong things that seem right at the time. But even though the right things may seem wrong sometimes, sometimes the wrong things are maybe right at the wrong time. Or vice versa.” It becomes clear that he has no idea but the movie turns a serious issue, moral ambiguity, into a joke. Then there is a song that says, if you’re in trouble, just whistle and call your conscience, so Jiminy easily dodges Pinocchio’s significant question, already neglecting his job as a parent.

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When Gepetto discovers Pinocchio, he immediately calls him father (so he has two now) and the first thing he has to do according to the old man, is to go to school. “Why?”, he asks. “To learn things and get smart.” “Why?” “Because.” There you have our educational system in a nutshell, again avoiding any real answers and relying on the one right way that you don’t question.

Pinocchio then goes out to school and meets two new characters, a fox and a cat. They are the villains (though the cat is not talking and acts and is treated like Dopey in Snow White), naturally and mock school as not being “the easy road to success.” We are supposed to be appalled by that because school is of course the only right way. Imagine that, they are villains because they sway Pinocchio away from school. That’s temptation! Pinocchio doesn’t listen to his conscience, follows them and is brought to a theater, run by Stromboli, a stereotypically talking Italian who says things like “That’s a me” but later strangely comes across as a caricature of a Jew.

Pinocchio does an act for him, The Doll with No Strings and shares duets with women dolls who want to be loved by him and squeeze him with their butts and breasts. They’d all “cut their strings” for him. When Jiminy sees the cleavaged ladies he gets all excited and takes out his glasses because that obviously are the sexiest dolls the horny cricket has ever seen. Additionally, they also all feature specific stereotypes of Dutch, French and Russians, as if their sexualization wasn’t bad enough. When people throw money at Pinocchio on stage, Jiminy reconsiders himself as maybe being wrong. He is so ambivalent about anything, which is another characteristic that should disqualify him as a conscience.

When alone with Pinocchio, Stromboli is shown as another father figure, but totally unreliable, moving between compassion and anger without a clear indication what comes next. He locks the boy in a cage because “to me you are belong.” It’s a shocking image that is intensified when he threatens to kill Pinocchio with an axe, which is followed by the image of a slaughtered doll. Just like in Snow White, in between the shiny surface and happy songs and cute characters are cruel and terrifying images for the intended audience of kids. They are pulled in two directions by feeling joy and horror at the same time. It is unsettling to see this, not just because the images are scary but because of their context that initially suggests comfort.

The Fairy comes to the rescue but Pinocchio lies to her, for which he is immediately punished. The idea here is that children are inherently “bad” and ready to lie. Pinocchio is still basically a newborn, so he simply can’t know that lying is bad. No one really explains to him why it’s a problem (“A lie just keeps getting bigger and bigger.” doesn’t help) and he only confesses because Jiminy tells him so. Instead of an explanation, there is only punishment and authority.

Jiminy convinces the Fairy to forgive Pinocchio (with his Sexy Eyes) and she says: “I’ll forgive you this once [an implicit threat, showing that children are not allowed to make mistakes], but remember: a boy who won’t be good, might just as well be made of wood.” The abstract idea of “goodness” is more important than emotions or at least using reason to explain how things work. All that matters is obedience. By shrinking his nose again, she is sculpting him into the form she wants him to be and he has to be thankful to her for that. It’s the classic parent-children-dynamic our culture has been preaching for decades. At no point here does anyone try to understand the child who instead has to fulfill expectations that no one makes clear to him.

The fox and the cat now want to get in business with another villainy guy, who collects “stupid little boys, you know, the disobedient ones” and he wants to send them to “pleasure island” where they never come back. This whole setup is incredibly creepy and still follows the underlying assumption that some kids are just bad and will be exploited. What matters is that it’s their fault.

Pinocchio befriends Lampwick, a “bad” boy with a slingshot. Pinocchio is naïve and stupid, but at least he is not a hopeless rascal like Lampwick. He is the real evil, a mischievous child who runs around and does as he pleases. As they land on Pleasure Island it looks like a circus hell where boys can do whatever they want without authority, punching each other, smoking (provided by stereotypical Native Americans), vandalizing “model homes” and art. Pinocchio says: “Being bad is a lot of fun!” They destroy beauty and civilization and don’t even know what they’re doing! We even see him suffer from smoking (drugs are bad, kiddo!). Again, this setup is so manipulative and moralizing, showing the consequences when there is no authority and emphasizing again and again that children need control and not freedom. We see these images and think “They really need an adult here” but we are supposed to forget that an adult brought them in this situation and created all the terrible temptations. The movie narrows its perspective and from that point makes general assumptions that are unjustified.

Eventually, Jiminy comes to rescue and Lampwick mocks him for it because he is just the worst kid on earth. Jiminy’s response is priceless: “Look here, you ignorant, young pub! It wouldn’t hurt you to take orders from your […] conscience!” Never does it become clearer, that “conscience” means “authority” because he uses the word “orders”. Lampwick of course ignores him because what can you expect from a boy who has never felt authority? “You young hoodlum” Jiminy calls him, establishing once again that he is an adult and kids these days are just horrible and dangerous.

All the other boys have been transformed into donkeys because they made “jackasses of themselves.” They are all punished for acted stupid once (again, under circumstances created by a villainous adult) and are now sold into slavery (don't think I'm exaggerating, the image below is the last time we see those poor kids). Pinocchio and Jiminy escape, leaving all the other boys to their desolate fate. They deserve it, according the movie’s narrative, for being “bad” and the actual perpetrator is never punished. It is more important that Pinocchio is saved and thinks of himself.

Meanwhile, Gepetto has been swallowed by the whale Monstro because he wanted to find Pinocchio (you know how these things go). He suffers for the boy’s bad behavior, for his son being a “monster” and is metaphorically swallowed by one. Because the worst consequence of a kid’s bad behavior is how parents suffer from it, thereby avoiding any responsibility or guilt for this behavior. In the dramatic fight against the whale (who is vilified because some animals just are), Pinocchio has to save Gepetto, his father, and dies for it. That form of self-sacrifice is to be expected for your parents, especially after what he has done to Gepetto (in the movie’s point of view; actually he was just curious and naïve because no one bothered to educate him on anything. Only now is he awarded being “a real boy” because he proved himself “brave, truthful and unselfish.”

Here then, is the final message of the movie: A boy is born without a mother, without education of any real values and is expected to be good (or to do what he is told), then is punished for being bad (doing what he wanted) and has to sacrifice himself (and his “bad” self) to be accepted as a real human. Pinocchio, from the start, is not expected to develop an identity and in the end has to sacrifice everything that he thinks is him. Those are the values of education from at least 200 years ago, nurtured by our culture that put less and less focus on letting children develop an identity and which we are struggling with today. Jiminy in the end gets a gold medal for doing that to Pinocchio (although he failed him in every way) and parents were repeatedly told that this makes them good parents.

Next: Fantasia