Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Disney Films: Pinocchio- Messages, Morals, and Mediocre Writing

Ah, the second Disney animated film. After the masterpiece that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, audiences began to wonder, could Disney do it again? Or was Snow White a one-off anomaly that would never be repeated? Disney had originally intended for Bambi to be his second film, but production difficulties led to it being released later. And so, the second film to try and capture that Disney magic premiered:

Pinocchio is, at its core, a morality tale. It emphasizes the importance of hard work, obedience, and a good education. It has heart! It has morals! It has everything a Christian parent (or any parent, really) would want to teach their kids. So... why don't I like it?

I don't entirely blame Disney for this. I blame his source material. The original novel by Carlo Collodi portrays Pinocchio as a selfish, spoiled, bratty, crude puppet. In the original novel, he only learns his lesson after being subjected to brutal forms of torture. Not your ideal "family" story. The book is also rife with what I consider to be lazy story writing. While Disney was able to tone down both the character's behavior and the story's brutality, the lazy story writing remained. But more on that in a moment.

For those that don't know the story (all one of you), Pinocchio is a wooden marionette created by lonely toy maker Gepetto, who has no children. When Gepetto wishes on an evening star for Pinocchio to become a real boy, the Blue Fairy, who overheard his wish, brings Pinocchio to life. Well, sort of. He's still made of wood. The fairy tells Pinocchio that he can only become a real boy when he learns to be honest and brave, and to do what is right and shun what is wrong. She assigns a cricket named Jiminy to serve as the lad's conscience, since he has none of his own (what with being made of wood and all).

Gepetto is thrilled to discover that his wish has come true, and the very next day, sends Pinocchio to school with the other boys. But our titular character ditches school, and ends up in one scrape after another. And of course, for every bit of trouble he gets into, he tells a lie to get out of it again, only to discover that lies cause his nose to grow.

Admit it. You wish this happened to politicians.

First he is tricked into the clutches of a ruthless puppeteer who wants to use this "stringless" puppet for his own financial gain. He escapes, not by any act of his own, but mostly because the Blue Fairy shows up to magically set things right. Then he is conned by an evil coachman to visit Pleasure Island, a place somewhat reminiscent of a kid's idea of Las Vegas, where boys can drink beer, smoke cigars, and shoot pool all night, with no adults to boss them around.

However, Pleasure Island is a cursed place where naughty boys are turned into jackasses. (Kinda reminiscent of Proverbs 23:7, come to think of it. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he.") The donkeys are then sold by the coachman to work on farms and in salt mines as pack animals. Pinocchio manages to grow donkey ears and a tail before escaping.

Pinocchio returns home, only to discover that Gepetto has gone looking for him. What he doesn't know is that Gepetto has been swallowed by the giant whale, Mostro. Will the two ever find each other again? Will Pinocchio ever be a real boy? At the risk of spoiling the ending (again, for the one person in the universe who hasn't seen this movie), I will say that lazy story writing emerges once again at the end to set things right.

Very well drawn lazy story writing. But lazy story writing nonetheless.

There is a lot to like here, especially if you're already a big Disney fan with a love of nostalgia. There's Jiminy Cricket, the eternally optimistic "conscience". The climax is easily one of the most perilous and frantic in the Disney canon. And who could forget "When You Wish Upon A Star"? It's practically the theme song for all things Disney.

But there's one thing I simply can't get over. That fairy. They might as well call her Deus Ex Machina Fairy, because that's essentially what she is. She's the one who sets the plot in motion by bringing Pinocchio to life. She's the one who shows up to get him out of trouble. And she's the one who magically makes things ok in the end. I'm convinced if Jiminy Cricket hadn't tagged along to constantly remind the audience of the virtues of being honest and doing right, the only lesson learned would have been that whenever you're in trouble, a magical blue fairy will come save you sooner or later.

As I've said, this isn't entirely Disney's fault. He didn't have much to work with in terms of source material. If you're looking for a basic morality tale that will frighten younger kids into submission, then this might do the trick. But if you're looking for a well-written story on why listening to your parents is what's best, you're better off with the VeggieTales version called Pistachio- The Little Boy That Woodn't. The fairy takes a back seat to a story more centered on the father-son dynamic, and Pistachio (the Pinocchio counterpart in this version) must learn to trust his father's judgment before either of them can be rescued from the belly of the whale. In the Disney version, meanwhile, Pinocchio's own cleverness and courage are what save the day, and he doesn't rely on his father for anything the entire duration of the film. It's hardly a good lesson for children: "Disobey your parents, get in trouble, and then trust your own thinking to save you."

Sure, my poor decision making brought us here. But trust me, Dad. I totally got this!

On the whole, it's one of my least favorite Disney films. Not to say there aren't worse ones. We'll get to those in due time. But if Disney was looking to capture the same magic and wonder of Snow White, then they missed the mark. Fortunately, their next film completely made up for it.