There are any number of stories out there featuring the macabre, the complex, and the sordid that are, let’s say, tempered and purified for younger audiences. Darker tales are lightened, endings are altered, and rough edges are smoothed, all in the name of telling children something that won’t traumatize them and turn them into cynical, petulant adults. At least, not so quickly.
Often, though, these more bubbly versions of what was originally dark and dreary become conventional wisdom, and we lose understanding of what came first. What’s more, such as in the case with Roald Dahl, for example, we may create positive ideals around those we want to view in that light, even when these figures aren’t so wholesome.
We need look no further than the works of Disney — which yes, admittedly, has released some fantastic, wonderful, unforgettable animated children’s classics. However, let’s not forget that the true story of Pocahontas is far more horrid, that the Beast still kidnapped Belle, and that a lot of so-called princesses were under age, betrothed, drugged, and manhandled. Ahem.
Now those are some pretty oft-cited grievances. Then there is the case of Pinocchio — a well-known story in general, but one whose original version is quite a different animal than what we’ve come to know. The Adventures of Pinocchio was penned by Italian author Carlo Collodi in 1891, and since its publication, the novel has been translated and reproduced countless times, adapted around the world for stage and screen.
Maybe it’s a loving story of family and maturity and bravery. Or instead, maybe it’s about the cruel, cutthroat world in which we live, and the horrors that await the weak, and the tragedy that befalls the stupid. But mostly it’s about a spoiled brat who never needs to grasp the importance of learning from mistakes, neither understanding responsibility nor consequence. Let’s go through the original Adventure, and as a side note, it should become fairly obvious why Guillermo del Toro is helming the stop-motion remake. This should get dark and weird real fast.
Now of course in all Disney films, the mistakes made by our heroines and heroes in the beginning are atoned for and learned from by the end. I’m not sure that Pinocchio, however, does either of these. That’s in part due to the fact that he is never called out for his misdeeds. His first act as a sentient puppet is kicking the man that brought him to life. Then, in short succession, he runs away and allows Geppetto to be jailed for child abuse. Yet Geppetto dismisses this, it seems, and crafts new feet for Pinocchio after he accidentally burns them off. He even sells his coat to allow Pinocchio to have a school book, which the boy promptly sells in order to buy a ticket to a puppet show instead of going to class.
Pinocchio doesn’t listen to his father; when a cricket warns him of deceit in the world, Pinocchio ignores him too. Both Geppetto and the cricket continue to help the boy despite Pinocchio being an irresponsible brat. Why bother?
Animals Are Evil
A variety of creatures in this tale are not cast in the friendliest of lights. Most notably, the fox and the cat are con artists, who not only trick Pinocchio and steal from him, but attempt to murder him as well. In their defense, Pinocchio is really dumb.
When an innkeeper is unsure whether the puppet is dead or alive, three famous doctors come and visit, but two of them—the owl and the crow—have no clue. They aren’t portrayed as the most qualified. Elsewhere, a parrot mocks Pinochio for being dumb (rightfully so), a giant sea creature is cast as the villain, and donkeys, as always in pop culture, are maligned as dumb and embarrassing beasts of burden. Stop the donkey hate!
The only real animal creature of much help to Pinochio is the cricket, who of course is killed instantly when the boy is startled and thus has to return as a ghost to help him out.
At home alone, Pinocchio cooks dinner and promptly falls asleep with the stove still on. He burns off his feet. As noted, he is pretty bad with money, buying things he doesn’t need and being conned into thinking he can plant coins to build a money tree.
His oblivious nature is only fuelled by those around him. Time and time again, Pinocchio is given free rides by various birds and saved by those around him. He seems to never realize what trouble he is in, exactly — any number of people want to enslave, sell, or kill him. After getting tricked by thieves and con men, even schoolboys take advantage of Pinocchio’s naiveté.
It’s hard to know exactly what lessons Pinocchio learns. In the 1940 Disney film, he must prove himself brave, truthful, and unselfish in order to become a real boy. While in the movie he offers some heroics and selfless behaviour, in the original story it’s less clear. Yes, he saves a couple of people along the way — but with those acts, he is immediately rewarded. There is nothing done for nothing. We learn that any deed Pinocchio does for another is inevitably paid back.
And while in the end Pinocchio indeed gives his money to his ailing fairy friend, he definitely spites the fox and the cat. They have had their bodies and egos bruised and beaten, and as beggars, they are rebuffed by Pinocchio; he seems pretty smug about their dreary fate.
Even in lending money, though, Pinocchio is rewarded with material gains — instead of, you know, just being content in doing the right thing. He is gifted forty gold coins for those forty pennies he gave out, as well as a spiffy new suit and pair of boots. He’s also now a human. So there’s that.
Sometimes you’re eaten by a fish, which is bad fortune. However, sometimes that fish is so huge that you can live inside it.
While Pinocchio is indeed literally fabulous, and lessons may be parsed from its passages, the title character is nothing if not exceptionally lucky. He is hung by thieves — except he can’t be hung because he is made of wood. He is drowned by another fortune seeker — except once again, he can’t be drowned because he is wooden. He goes to school but doesn’t need to; he works occasionally but doesn’t need to do that, either. What’s more, Pinocchio is jailed but doesn’t have to serve out his full term (of course). I mean, he supposedly escapes because the guards are dumb and not because of his privilege, but it can be a metaphor, too! Wooden lives matter.