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Why They Hated Pinocchio

[Touchstone, April 2003]

Why They Hated “Pinocchio”

I am the sole member of a very tiny club: as far as I can tell, I am the only reviewer in America who liked Roberto Benigno’s production of “Pinocchio.” I had sat all alone in a theater, thoroughly charmed by the production, the costumes, cinematography, and performances. And I wondered why I was alone. Later I checked a website that catalogues film reviews and did a double take. This site gives films a percentage score based on the number of positive reviews; the stylish film “The Hours,” for example, was enjoying an 88% rating. The site’s editors had not found a single review of “Pinocchio” they could classify as positive. “Pinocchio” scored a zero.

As I scanned these reviews I saw a theme emerging. Some showed vehement hatred and mockery, others were merely cool, but all of them seemed somewhat puzzled. Reviewers hadn’t gotten the Pinocchio they were expecting. Instead of Disney’s chubby-cheeked charmer, Benigno’s Pinocchio is impulsive and exhausting, selfish and reckless. Reviewers couldn’t warm up to him, particularly because he was played by Benigno himself. They balked at the idea of a grown man portraying the puppet boy, in some cases expressing revulsion and disgust.

But the character himself wasn’t appealing, no matter who played him. They didn’t see Pinocchio longing to become a “real boy.” Instead, he keeps getting into one scrape after another, and having to repent. It struck reviewers as a series of tedious morality lessons.

The Disney child
It shouldn’t be too surprising that moral lessons are unpopular at the movies (unless they are lessons about tolerance or the ecosystem, I guess). But I think something else is going on here, which has to do with the way our culture views childhood, and what we expect a child to be.

Take a look at that familiar Disney version. In it, a wooden puppet comes to life, though still made of wood. He longs to be a real boy of flesh and blood, and after a number of misadventures gets his wish, tapped by the wand of the beautiful Blue Fairy. He has a cute pet kitten named Figaro, and a cute pet goldfish named Cleopatra, and his cute would-be father, Gepetto, dances and plays the accordion. Everything is lush and round and adorable. The story moves forward seamlessly with no awkward excess details. It’s a Disney movie.

Benigno’s version, however, is based on the children’s novel by Carlo Collodi. Already we have a problem. Collodi’s novel was serialized in a children’s magazine between 1881 and 1883, and you couldn’t call it “tightly plotted.” The story rambles, peppered with touches from Scripture, moral classics, and Collodi’s own bubbling imagination. “His story verges on the merely episodic - a rogue’s tale - but so do our lives if we think about it,” writes Vigen Gurioan in Tending the Heart of Virtue.

This is the first of three significant problems reviewers had with the movie, that the form and tone of the book it’s based on are exceedingly strange to us today. Collodi had translated the fairy tales of Charles Perrault before he wrote Pinocchio, and his story resembles them in being somewhat bizarre and intense. As a child I read the Perrault “Cinderella” and was horrified at the scene of evil stepsisters cutting off their heels and toes to squeeze bloody stumps into the glass slipper. Today we’re used to much blander fare.

Benigno’s version has unified Collodi’s story somewhat, but it retains random elements that would be delightful to those who love the book (the film was a big success in Italy) but confusing to those expecting a standard children’s film. Though I hadn’t read the book when I saw the film, I came prepared to see a “foreign film” rather than a “children’s film,” which perhaps made me more tolerant.

A design element in the early scenes helped. The film opens in the streets of a narrow village, and it becomes obvious that we’re consistently being presented with a box-like view. The screen takes on the dimensions of a stage, with walls on each side and the action occurring in the center, with a rear wall behind. Actors appearing wearing papier masks and bellowing their lines would not have seemed out of place. In that theater-like context, the oddness of the story was charming, not unsettling.

A second problem reviewers had is with Benigno himself. He is a very thin and lithe man with comic genius, kind of like an Italian Jim Carrey. However, just as Italians might be perplexed at Carrey’s barely-submerged hostility, Americans find Benigno hovering on the border of saccharine. Some people like him despite this, and his gently optimistic 1999 film, “Life is Beautiful,” won many admirers. Others, however, find Benigno inherently annoying, and the prospect of him portraying a darling, winsome boy sent some reviewers into conniptions.

That is the third and most significant reason reviewers hated “Pinocchio.” This wooden puppet is not a darling, winsome boy. He is a terror - crashing into everyone and causing destruction through the town. He is thoughtless and greedy, and when the Talking Cricket - not named “Jiminy” - advises him to change his ways, he hits him with a hammer. (In the book, this smashes the cricket graphically and kills him; Benigno has him simply vanish, typical of his slight changes.)

Pinocchio has to go through a great many hard lessons before he becomes real. He has to learn to be responsible, to go to school, and not to squander his money. He also has to learn to care about others, particularly his “parents,” the Blue Fairy and Gepetto. There is a great deal of explicit moral instruction in this film, delivered by a number of characters, and all dedicated to a single proposition: children are born wild and self-willed, and they must learn self-control to survive and to be worthwhile.

Real children
This, of course, is the opposite of our contemporary view of children. We believe that children are born perfect and only this rotten old world corrupts them. It’s the view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who imagined that primitives untouched by horrid civilization lived a nobler, purer life than we in shoe-leather can know. In this philosophy the child is wholly pure, and would remain so if only he wasn’t civilized.

How real human beings with real children can continue to hold such a view I don’t know. It seems to be one of the most immediately self-refuting notions in history. As any honest person with a baby will admit, babies arrive completely egocentric. They could hardly be otherwise; they do not know that other people, with their own needs and requirements, even exist. Growing up means getting used to the idea that there are other people around, to sharing with your sister, and wiping your nose, and chewing with your mouth closed. It’s not a lot of fun, but it is how you become a grownup - how you become “real.”

Collodi did not share our modern illusion that children are perfect little angels. His Italian culture understood that there is such a thing as Original Sin. So his “Pinocchio” learns through trial, error, and suffering that he must care about others’ welfare and behave with forethought and self-control. Benigno’s movie is a movie about the natural selfishness and carelessness of childhood being tamed into productive, responsible adulthood. No wonder BabyBoomer critics hate it.

A chill wind blew “Pinocchio” swiftly out of theaters, so it won’t be easy to view until it arrives on video. In the meantime, read the book, perhaps out loud to children. Don’t expect that it will be as tidy as a work by Judy Blume. When Benigno’s “Pinocchio” arrives at the video store, watch it with some folks who are currently engaged in the difficult task of growing up. I think they’ll understand it better than adults do.

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