Escaping the Whale—Pinocchio Tales for Every Age by Natalie Rosinsky
Monstro the Whale was going to swallow Pinocchio—and maybe me, too! The whale’s huge head was aimed right at me, its mouth yawning ever wider as Monstro prepared to attack . . . . Suddenly, the giant creature was all I could see. Three years-old in 1954, seated in a darkened movie theater’s balcony, watching Walt Disney’s re-released feature length cartoon, I was terrified. I fled that balcony, seeking safety on the ground floor. But Monstro was there too, still gaping larger-than-life! I shrieked. Then I ran out of the theater, finding relief finally in the sunshine of a summer day, until my mother caught up with me.
Back then, I did not know that a half-century later I still would be unable to escape Disney’s version of Pinocchio. Even in Florence, Italy, where the original Adventures of Pinocchio was published in 1883, souvenirs featuring that film version of the puppet in red shorts, a feathered cap, and a yellow shirt with floppy, blue bow tie dominate street carts and shop windows. Ever since 1940, when Disney’s “When You Wish Upon a Star” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, Disney’s creation has taken hold in imaginations around the world. Pinocchio tales have been translated or written in more than 200 languages. Licensed books, games, toys, and decorations around the world use Disney’s trademarked images. Remarkably, this wooden boy from Italy has had adventures in Africa, on desert islands, and even on the Moon! There have also been more than a dozen TV shows and movies—some animated, some with live actors—made about Pinocchio.
What is it about this character that still fascinates artists and audiences? Today, the Disney Company has a new, live action version of its 1940 cartoon in the works. Actor Robert Downey is producing his own live action movie of Pinocchio’s adventures, while acclaimed Spanish director Guillermo del Toro remains at work on a stop-motion, animated version of Pinocchio that may scare adults almost as much as kids! Contemporary versions of Pinocchio even include such tween-and-up graphic novels as Pinocchio: Vampire Slayer (2012) and its two sequels. Perhaps the answer to Pinocchio’s perennial appeal rests in the problems first highlighted by the 1883 original. Its author Carlo Collodi (pen name of Carlo Lorenzi) never meant just to entertain his readers. Like most fairy and folk tales, his The Story of a Puppet informs as well as entertains, addressing fundamental questions about human nature and relationships.
Collodi was a journalist critical of Italian government and social systems. His serialized story depicted its wooden boy experiencing the harsh life of poor people throughout 19th century Tuscany. Children there sometimes labored in place of farm animals, which were often worked to death. That is what happens to the original Pinocchio’s friend Candle-wick (Disney’s “Lampwick”), transformed into a donkey after his excesses in “Funland.” His death is not the only one Collodi depicts.
Collodi’s Pinocchio has the quick, thoughtless temper of many young children. In anger, he hurls a hammer at his cricket guide and accidentally kills him! Disney spared loveable Jiminy Cricket from this fate. Collodi, critical of human nature as well as Tuscan society, even at one point seems to kill Pinocchio himself. Two thieves hang the puppet from a tree, where a noose around his neck chokes him and he “gives a great shudder” until he appears to be “frozen stiff.” Collodi meant that to be the last chapter in The Story of a Puppet. When young readers pleaded for more about the long-nosed liar, though, the author and his business-savvy publisher listened. Six months later, the serialized newspaper story began again, as The Adventures of Pinocchio. It opens with that noose being loosened and Pinocchio sighing and whispering, “Now I feel better . . . .”
Some early English translations of Collodi’s work retained its grit. Illustrated by Alice Carey and originally published in 1916 in Wisconsin, one such version is available online (for free) as part of Project Gutenberg : http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16865/16865-h/16865-h.htm. Yet many of the English versions of Pinocchio that preceded Disney toned down the violence of the original story. Collodi’s harsh folk tale was “Disneyfied” long before Uncle Walt got his hands on it! The 1919 edition, titled The Heart of Pinocchio and illustrated by J. R. Flanagan, is more typical of the “sanitized” versions (including scripts for elementary school plays and a radio series) circulating by the late 1930s. The Heart of Pinocchio is also available online at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/41446/41446-h/41446-h.htm. Yet even Disney’s “prettified” Pinocchio—when examined closely—still embodies some important, difficult questions. Once one looks beyond cute kitten Figaro, endearing goldfish Cleo, and steadfast father figure Gepetto, questions about human nature remain.
Rescuing Gepetto and his menagerie from Monstro’s belly, Pinocchio earns the reward promised by the Blue Fairy: “Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and someday you will be a real boy.” After seemingly sacrificing himself, Pinocchio is indeed transformed into flesh-and-blood. But this does not mean that Pinocchio will retain the selfless ethics that here define humanity. The Blue Fairy also gives Jiminy Cricket a reward: an 18 karat gold badge proclaiming him to be an “Official Conscience.” The implication is that Pinocchio will still need external motivation to do and be good. People are not really naturally all that unselfish.
At its heart, then, even Disney’s colorful, loveable Pinocchio has the drama and bite of numerous fairy and folk tales, of animal fables ranging from Aesop’s ancient Greece to the Jataka tales of ancient India and beyond. Those fables are as much about flawed human nature and interactions as they are about animal behavior, and they continue to snap at our self-images and beliefs much as . . . well . . . Monstro once seemed to be snapping at me! As Carlo Collodi implied in his bleaker, original Pinocchio, bettering ourselves and the world is an ongoing, often difficult process.
Natalie Rosinsky, award-winning author of nonfiction, blogs monthly about graphic novels, manga, comics, and picture books in “Gone Graphic,” at www.natalierosinsky.com. She posts essays about other literature, popular culture, travel, and family there in “Articles.”