Thoughts On: Pinocchio
A woodworker prays to a star, wishing for one of his puppets to come to life, to be real boy.
This is a really tricky film to pull apart. This is because it seems so simple. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you it’s about right and wrong. To those people: have you watched this film?? What does Pinocchio learn? He learns that if you behave like a jack-ass you’ll become one, but, really, he doesn’t learn this. He sees this and then only just avoids becoming a full blown donkey. He learns nothing. Every mistake he makes is fixed by the fairy, or by some weird writer’s device… and then… the whale? The line through this narrative with the idea that it’s about right and wrong is very weak. It doesn’t explain all the crazy jumps in logic, all the insane imagery, the mixture of fantasy, absurdism, surrealism and a weird sense of hope. Nothing makes sense about this film when you take it at face value with its apparent themes and plot. My initial response to this was just a huge: WHAT THE FUCK!?!?!? But, I’ve been going over and over and over the film, and I think I have a grip on it. Before we get to that, I’d like to say that this is a pretty open film – as all films are to be honest. I wanted to mention this in the Snow White essay, but it didn’t fit the tone. Either way, let’s get it out now. I appreciate that Disney films are kids’ films, that they have a target audience. This means that whilst they have more complex meanings to tease out, they also have a simpler child friendly concept readily available. In other words, (forgive the metaphors) you can see a Disney film with your heart, or you can watch it, pick it apart with an analytical eye. If you watch Pinocchio with feeling, letting the narrative message guide you emotionally, then you’ll probably see it as a film about right and wrong with a few fun moments that don’t need to make sense. This is how most people watch films, with feeling. This isn’t wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. Art is founded on emotion, it’s how it translates its ideas. We have to feel what the artist wants us to feel. But, moral lessons are weak when based on feeling. I want to say that’s just my opinion, but… no. I have confidence enough in the concept of pragmatism, of sense and rationality, to say that life isn’t meant to be lived the way you want, by what feels nice and comfortable. I mean, that’s a key idea in the film with the whole concept of pleasure island. But, right now I’m talking about something a little wider than childish indulgence. I’m talking about intelligence, about being able to look at the world, not just wander through it. If a film has more to offer than entertainment, it makes sense to chase that down. Even if we are manufacturing meaning, if we are taking away from a film more than it thought it offered, what’s the harm in that? Films are like dreams. They are fantasies, these weird things we create and project to let us slip away from reality. So, maybe Freud is nuts. Maybe dreamwork is unscientific nonsense. Maybe it’s sniffing a brain fart and…
… faking it in other words. But that’s all besides the point. The point is that we got from A to B. The road taken may have been weird, possibly wrong, maybe we were wearing the wrong boots, maybe there was a clearer path. But, we got to a better place nonetheless. All I want to say is that it doesn’t matter where the EUREKA!! moment happens. If it’s in the bath, don’t you dare hesitate, forget the towel, run down the streets and scream. Be careful though. Pneumonia and such. Anyway, let’s not get lost. Let’s get on with it.
If you don’t want to see Pinocchio as a simple story of right and wrong, you could take a more mature look at the film. In other words you fall into the trap of the phallic imagery. There is sense in this theory, and a succinct take away, but, well, let’s just pull it apart first. In short, seeing Pinocchio’s nose as a symbol of puberty reveals some dark , possibly homophobic, messages. There’s quite a few nudges and pokes toward the parents in the audiences with Jiminy, faces going red, cute women figurines and such. These could be seen as a reinforcement of Pinocchio’s sexuality. This is emphasised with the goldfish and Geppetto being alone. Without a mother, it’s possible Geppetto has a fear that his son doesn’t become a real boy, in that he may grow up gay. This means that show business and being an actor is both an insinuation of pretence and homosexuality. Pinocchio lying when he is saved by the fairy, his nose growing, is another double-entendre. It both implies an erection, that Pinocchio is maturing, but also that this expression of sexuality only makes it even more obvious that the kid is gay. This turns Pleasure Island into god-knows-what. It could be a trap, some kind of sex trade ring, or it could just be a place for boys to–I’ll leave it to your imagination. In the end you can either see the film from this position as either homophobic or tolerant. We see this through the whale which represents depression in Geppetto, but also an aggression. This comes with the realisation that his son is gay. For Pinocchio to help him out of this ditch, but then die, could be a metaphor for complete transformation. He becomes a real boy because his sexual preferences magically changed. Or, you could just see this as both Geppetto and Pinocchio facing this challenging moment and coming away all the better, Geppetto accepting his son as a real boy, as gay. Like I said, this is a valid interpretation of the film, but it does take quite a lot of assumption to start it rolling as well as a fair bit of attribution without sound evidence. You could also make the argument that this kind of a message is a bit before its time. Either way, from where you sit, you can see the film however you want – I’m just offering what I think is an interesting interpretation. We’ll move onto what I think is the most solid take on Pinocchio however after a quick Easter egg. Does it count if Easter egg isn’t even in this film? I don’t know – and no I’m not talking about Tangled with Pinocchio sitting up in the rafters of the Snuggly Ducking Inn. I’m talking about Shrek. So, of course in Shrek there are a plethora of references to fairy tales–especially those adopted by Disney. The huge outliers (non-references) in the movie are Shrek, Fiona and… not Donkey. He is a character derived from this film. On Pleasure Island some of the boys aren’t fully transformed into jack-assess, they can still talk. I won’t take it any further than that, but try watching Shrek again with the idea that Pinocchio is about coming out and the island is…. I don’t know… comment below, tell me what you think…
Ok, let’s get to it. To me, Pinocchio is best understood as a tale of inadequacy. Firstly we have Geppetto, a man that possible can’t reproduce, or simply never found a wife to raise a child with. This is symbolised with his work shop. He manufactures toys for children, keeping clocks for himself. He surrounds himself with an idea of time, time lost, time wasted, time to be wasted. This is a man living a pretty empty life. His only companions are the cat and the fish. The cat is a representative of himself, it’s playful, a little self-centred, but ultimately in search of affection. The goldfish is a projection of a woman. It’s a captive idea of a female presence in a lonely man’s house. It’s all really rather depressing to be honest. What Geppetto wants is a little boy, another version of himself possibly to live through. His vicarious experience of life through a child is what the film is centrally about – it’s about wanting to be a parent. But, we mustn’t forget Jiminy here. Jiminy is representative of the control parents wish they had over their children. Parents wish they could be there to watch their kid, to guide them through their personal moments of stress or strain. The core conflict of the film however comes with this, it is Geppetto. He doesn’t know what he’s doing as a parent. He’s just as naive as Pinocchio. This explains the disjointed logic of the film and the irrational plot lines. The biggest mind-boggler comes with the first seconds of Pinocchio’s birth (if you could call it that). Having one of your puppets come to life is not something you’d easily accept, you would not be dancing with a strange creature in the middle of the night minutes after you witnessed the horrifying miracle that was its animation. Chucky anyone? By seeing Pinocchio not as a puppet that’s come to life, but an idea of parenthood, this moment is much clearer in terms of character motivation. The second biggest what the fuuu….??? moment is the very next morning. Geppetto has just witness the impossible, he watched a toy, a few chucks of wood come to life and speak to him, and then he decides to send it to school. What!? I could easily write three films about the implications of the thing coming to life. Think of all the questions you’d have. Think of how the world would respond to this thing. Let’s not get into that. In fact, have you read my Bill & Ted post? If you liked the alternate history/fan fiction story line I constructed comment below or tell me on Twitter if you want to see the same thing done with Pinocchio. But, not seeing the film literally, the next morning is representative of Geppetto’s need for his child to be integrated into society, to grow and learn.
So, we’ve established that this film is about Geppetto’s fears as a father. All his fears are realised with the absurd diversions Pinocchio takes on his way to school – toward education and growing up correctly. Geppetto takes blame for this, which brings us to the end of the film. Before that we need to look at the key metaphor that is Pinocchio himself. He is a puppet. Seeing a child as a mechanism for your hands to work, to contort and control, is what Geppetto must learn not to do. Becoming a real boy is not just Pinocchio’s responsibility. It has a lot to do with how his father perceives and raises him. That understood we can come to the whale. The whale, just like with the previous theory is representative of Geppetto again. It’s here that you can say that you could adapt some of the interpretations of this analysis to strengthen the previous, but that’s all up to you. So, what the whale represents is depression again. It’s also the father Geppetto doesn’t want to be. This is linked to his cat and his goldfish. The cat has a few aggressive moments, but it is under Gepetto’s control. The whale is a whole other beast. Everything docile about it is torn away leaving behind pure hatred that consumes. The concept of everything being trapped in the whale’s stomach is thus linked to Gepetto’s home and life. His family become trapped in the pit of his failure. This is Geppetto as a bad parent, a parent that let his kid become a diligent, a parent that cannot run a home. The fish consumed by the whale are also representative of sexual frustration, of the proliferation and objectification of the goldfish metaphor. The end of the film is in turn Geppetto facing himself with the aid of his child. He learns that he may not know what he’s doing, that he too is a naive party in the parent/child relationship. This is what ultimately allows him to see Pinocchio as a real boy. The realisation of this is also what allows Pinocchio to figure out right and wrong. What’s right is that he sticks by his father and does what he is told. There are huge lapses in logic within the film for this very reason. There is also no solid ending. Jiminy gets the medal for doing nothing essentially because being a parent is 90% just being there. This is the crux of the film. It’s about endurance, of wanting imperfection, about wanting to try for a better life. Geppetto’s dream isn’t perfect, neither is the way he raises the kid, neither is the kid himself, but perfection doesn’t exist.
So, in the end, Pinocchio is a film about learning by not learning much, but by experiencing and altering the way you approach yourself and those around you. What all the characters learn is that we don’t always understand what we wish for, but better be grateful for the things we have and get. This is what makes wishing upon a star acceptable. It’s not about wanting the ludicrous, it’s not about wanting perfection, it’s not even about wanting something better. It’s about wanting another option, another path.
Borgman – Hide Your Kids From The Philosophical Boogeyman
Fantasia – Magic
More from me: