The original Scared Straight!
Like that 1978 documentary, in which convicts shared the terrors of prison life with teen delinquents, Pinocchio is a horrifying, almost cruel exercise in moral instruction for little kids. Certainly, after seeing it, playing hooky will become a less appealing option.
Based on the story by Italian author Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio jumps to life, literally, when a wooden marionette is awakened by the ethereal Blue Fairy. She tells Pinocchio that he will fully become a real boy – and fulfill the wish of his “father,” Geppetto – when he proves to be “brave, truthful and unselfish.”
As any kid knows, these qualities aren’t always easy to maintain – especially when sly foxes, kidnapping puppeteers, a tempting place called Pleasure Island and monstrous whales so big they’re named Monstro cross your path.
From the very beginning – and as Disney’s second animated feature after Snow White, Pinocchio is awfully close to the beginning – the studio’s classics were packed with intricate details. Geppetto’s shop, where the first act takes place, is wonderland of cuckoo clocks, wind-up toys and other delights, each given their own elaborately animated cameo.
The Blue Fairy, voiced by Evelyn Venable, is an altogether different wonder, illuminating the entire screen and entrancing Pinocchio with her shimmering magic. Jiminy Cricket – who is anointed by the fairy to be Pinocchio’s conscience and proceeds to be the comic life force of the film – is especially taken with her. But then again he’s also taken by some of the comelier wind-up toys in Geppetto’s shop.
These are all fanciful, playful touches, yet the darker elements are what young viewers will remember.
It’s hard to decide which one of the film’s many villains is the scariest. Honest John, the smooth-talking fox who convinces Pinocchio to skip school, thereby sending him on his harrowing adventures?
Stromboli, the puppeteer who kidnaps him, promising fame but really envisioning a profitable career as the manager of a puppet without strings?
The Coachman, who lures Pinocchio and other boys to Pleasure Island, where they smoke, drink and play pool and gradually turn into donkeys?
Or Monstro, the whale who swallows Geppetto, prompting Pinocchio’s climactic rescue?
(My personal vote is for the stiff, dead-eyed marionettes that torment Pinocchio during Stromboli’s show.)
As you can see, Pinocchio ladles on lessons 10 times over. Yet it never becomes overbearing, thanks to its overall air of fairy-tale wonder and the endlessly inventive animation. Share, don’t lie, be brave, the movie encourages.
Oh, and go to school.