The darkest of darkest films from the studio, Pinocchio isn’t the kind of movie that its reputation has garnered the seventy-five years since it was released. Everyone remembers the sequence where the title character tells lies and has his nose grow, and they remember his conscience in the guise of Jiminy Cricket. But what about everything around that? Even the iconic nose-growing sequence is only three minutes of the movie, and the story itself doesn’t entirely revolve around that moment, but revolves around a nihilistic depiction of the world as a place full of people who either accept darkness or are consumed by it. Outside of the film’s hero and his maker’s family, every character in Pinocchio comes off as deplorable, malicious, ornery, or downright evil. What’s worse? Not a single one of the six or so villains in the film are avenged; and much like the real world, this comes as one of Disney’s bravest and scariest of morals for children.
Pinocchio, as a character with the sole aspiration of being good-natured for the sake of becoming a “real boy”, is naive and full of innocence. Much like a child. He’s not expecting the world to be as vicious as it is, because he doesn’t realize it is. When two con artists (in their anthropomorphic state: a fox and a cat) manage to not dupe him once, but twice, you can see where it comes into play that Pinocchio, as the puppet, represents the child at its purest and most easily influenced. But what does it mean to be a good-natured person? When Pinocchio is taken prisoner by a crazy roadshow exploiter, he tells the story to the Blue Fairy, who teaches the puppet the lesson of not ignoring the importance in telling the truth. But she tells him she’ll never help him again after this moment - and yet, in a scene later in the film, she sends a dove to send him a message. In her own way, the Blue Fairy teaching this moral to a child who is developing into life’s hardships, lied to Pinocchio.
And that’s Pinocchio’s beauty as a cautionary tale. In that it has a lot more to say about being good-natured underneath the childlike and easy to simplify lessons that work the character toward his “coming-of-age”. Jiminy Cricket, even, takes it upon himself to avoid his own conscience - even when acting concretely as Pinocchio’s own for the audience. One of the film’s most memorable sequences (mainly because it scarred me and many other children for the rest of their lives) is the extended setpiece at an amusement park called Pleasure Island. Run by a man whose intentions aren’t clear to children, but whose actions are easily interpreted by adults - it’s disturbing. An allegorical exposition that develops the child as easily traumatized and silenced - easily abused and neglected. It’s a representation of literal trauma, and it’s absolutely impossible to leave the film knowing the villain behind all this - a pedophilic (and literally drawn by the animators to represent the devil) unnamed coachman - goes untouched by any of the picture’s heroes. Oh, and those poor boys who took into temptation, were abused, silenced, and some even killed? For fuck’s sake, Disney.
But while rough to take and horrifying, it doesn’t take away the complexity of Pinocchio’s moral. The gray areas into being benevolent - and the way monsters are created via the darkness of the world shifting them into fatalist notions. That Pinocchio manages to remain good through it all is something that should be taught - even if the implications underneath it all still seem vaguely depressing. Remember: all of the monsters got away with what they did.