The last time I saw Pinocchio (1940), I believe I was about four-years-old. No, I was not four in 1940. I am not that old. Instead, the movie was playing at the old Wheaton Grand Theater, in grand old downtown Wheaton, Illinois. It is funny the things you remember, is it not? Even though I was so young, that day I saw Pinocchio there stands out so vividly to me. My dad took me, and I believe my sister was with us. We got snacks from The Little Popcorn Shop, which we always called “the in-between store” due to it be sandwiched betwixt two buildings a wingspan apart. I also guess theaters were much laxer about bringing in outside food at that time. I can also picture us sitting somewhat towards the middle-left of the theater, and eating the delicious popcorn. I also remember throwing up and not finishing the film. All these years later, I have finally done so.
Pinocchio is told through the perspective of the title puppet-made-real boy’s (voiced by Dickie Jones) conscience, a tiny grasshopper named Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards). Looking for shelter, he happens upon the cheerful and warm shop of Geppetto (voiced by Christian Rub). Making himself at home, Jiminy watches the aging woodworker put the finishing touches on his latest creation, Pinocchio. When complete, Geppetto joyfully dances around his work area while his various clocks and music boxes play along. Before finally going to bed for the night, he carefully sets Pinocchio down, wistfully thinking about how nice it would be if Pinocchio were his own son. He makes a solemn wish, looking out at a distant star. Not long after he is asleep, the Blue Fairy (voiced by Evelyn Venable) appears. Noting how much joy Geppetto has brought others through his creations, she grants his wish and Pinocchio awakens. However, he is still in the wooden body in which he is created. The Blue Fairy tells him that if he acts correctly, he can become a real boy. In order to help him achieve this, she appoints Jiminy to help guide him in doing right, and avoiding wrong. Not long after she departs, the sound of Pinocchio moving about the shop for the first time awakens Geppetto. When he finds his creation ambulatory and talking, he is overjoyed, calling Pinocchio his son. The next day, as all good fathers would do, he sends Pinocchio to school. Along the way, Pinocchio is waylaid by an anthropomorphic fax named “Honest” John Worthington Foulfellow (voiced by Walter Catlett) and his sidekick “Giddy” Gideon the Cat. Though Pinocchio is trying to do as Geppetto told him to do, and is reminded of by Jiminy, he is nonetheless lured away and sold to an entertainer named Stromboli (voiced by Charles Judels). He greedily wants to make as much money off of the wonder that is a puppet that needs no strings, and locks Pinocchio away in a bird cage after his first performance. When the Blue Fairy appears to save him, at first he attempts to lie about how he ended up in this predicament, not wanting to admit to wrongdoing. His lies cause his nose to grow, and upon restoring it to its proper size, the blue fairy releases him with the stern warning to no longer lie. Unfortunately, on the way home Honest John once more finds Pinocchio, this time convincing him to travel to Pleasure Island. It is a land of amusement where boys are taken to indulge in whatever wild behavior they desire, and in so doing are turned into donkeys that are sold for manual labor. Pinocchio witnesses this when one of the others he befriends, Lampwick (voiced by Frankie Darro), morphs into a donkey before his eyes. Pinocchio’s ears become those of the pack animal, and he sprouts a tail. Before the change progresses, Pinocchio is saved by Jiminy, and together they make it back to Geppetto’s workshop. Finding it empty, a note delivered by a dove informs them that the old woodcarver is currently trapped inside the belly of a whale called Monstro, currently resting at the bottom of the sea. Deciding to try and rescue his father, Pinocchio ties a rock to his donkey tail and makes his way to the bottom. When they are finally reunited, he comes up with a way of getting Monstro to release them involving building a fire and being sneezed out. This does not go quite as planned, and Pinocchio gives his life to save Geppetto. Seeing this, the Blue Fairy decides that Pinocchio has met all the requirements for becoming a real boy, and awakens him as such to Geppetto’s overwhelming delight. The end.
Pinocchio is quite the allegorical tale. The only annoying part for this Catholic reviewer is the Blue Fairy. If ever there was an angel, a messenger of God able to work wonders because He wills it, it is the Blue Fairy. I get that this is an Italian folktale. Still, you might expect a story set in the country that also hosts the Vatican, and has been the birthplace of so many popes and saints, would be a little more overtly Christian. Just a little. I mean, the movie has a dove coming down from Heaven and delivering a miraculous letter. It is miraculous in that it gives its readers knowledge not only what they had been looking for, but that which they could not have known without Divine assistance. Getting back to the Blue Fairy, they can call it whatever magical nonsense they want, but her role is clear. In the movie, she appears after Geppetto essentially prays to a distant star, adopting the posture we most commonly see of people praying with folded hands and on their knees. Stars are also Biblical. The Three Wisemen, along with an assortment of others, are all guided to Jesus’ Nativity by a heavenly body. All I am saying, to use the clichéd phrase, is let us call a spade a spade, an angel and angel, and Christian morality tale a Christian morality tale.
Why is Pinocchio a “Christian morality tale?” Because the Blue Fairy tells Pinocchio that in order to become a real boy, he must be “brave, truthful, and unselfish.” She does not leave it at that, though. She warns him as to how confusing the world can be, and in order to navigate it, he would have to learn the difference between right and wrong by using his conscience. This sounds a lot like what we tell children in religion classes in schools or youth groups. The struggles that Pinocchio faces drive home the importance of these instructions. Honest John makes the theater sound good. After all, there is nothing wrong with having fun. Where it becomes dishonest is when it interferes with what you should be doing instead, which for Pinocchio meant going to school. He goes along with these temptations because, as a newly created creature, he is as innocent as they come. He is learning the difference between right and wrong, and the biggest test comes at Pleasure Island. All children at some point want to act out in a lawless fashion. Pleasure Island is where they are allowed to do so. Luckily, in real life we do not have to face the prospect of being turned into donkeys. At the same time, there are far worse consequences, places of punishment deeper than the belly of the whale, that all young Jonahs must learn to avoid by following their conscience. This is where God speaks to all of us.
It is always interesting to watch Disney productions of yesteryear for what they were able to put into their cartoons, and Pinocchio is no exception. Unlike some others, there are no obvious racial depictions, though Stromboli comes darn close. I doubt that you would see children being given cigars and beer under any circumstance on film today. I mention these solely to report their existence. Otherwise, I appreciate the Christian tone of the film, even if it does not want to come out and directly say it.