The abject struggle of morality and the human condition: otherwise known as Disney's Pinocchio.
Updated: Feb 22
Disney’s Pinocchio argues that our conscience, and our ability to tell right from wrong, is what makes us human—not, as Pinocchio exclaims upon being animated by the fairy in the first minutes of the film, our ability to move or talk or walk. In sobering and dramatic fashion, Pinocchio clearly illustrates the supreme catastrophe of life. The film shows that it is a constant struggle to listen to your conscience—sometimes you must call for it, even, and strain against what seems like every temptation in all the world just to have a hope of knowing right from wrong, let alone actually doing right in favor of wrong.
After Geppetto wishes upon a star for Pinocchio to be a real boy, and the fairy comes to make it so, the most important minute of the film takes place. Upon being given life in a scene that makes clear illusions to Frankenstein, Pinocchio asks a seemingly innocent question: “Am I a real boy?” –and the answer is simple as it is complicated. “No, Pinocchio. To make Geppetto’s wish come true will be entirely up to you…” And that’s when he gets the horribly impossible instruction: “Prove yourself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and someday you will be a real boy.”
Jiminy Cricket chimes in with the simple observation that, “That won’t be easy," and for the next 60 minutes we see that he's correct.
“You must learn to choose between right and wrong," the fairy continues, undaunted by Jiminy and his worrisome remark.
“Right and wrong?” Pinocchio wonders. “But how will I know?”
And the fairy tells him, as if it’s so simple: “Your conscience will tell you.”
Pinocchio, who clearly doesn’t have the loosest concept of a conscience, asks “what are conscience?”
And Jiminy chimes in again: “Well I’ll tell you! A conscience is that still, small voice that people won’t listen to. That’s just the trouble with the world today.”
Before she leaves, of course, she reminds him to be a good boy and to always let his conscience be his guide. Which of course proves extremely difficult for Pinocchio, as it has proved difficult for nearly every boy or girl who has ever breathed. Mainly—and this is important—because Pinocchio doesn’t actually have a conscience. Jiminy Cricket has to step in and volunteer to be his conscience (and there is a burning point which flares throughout every inciting action. Pinocchio doesn’t know right from wrong himself, and Jiminy has a bad habit of running off, leaving him to make the easy, and wrong decisions, which feel right but never are).
After the fairy leaves, Jiminy Cricket warns Pinocchio that the world is full of temptations.
“Temptations?” Pinocchio asks.
Jiminy explains: “Temptations are the things that seem right at the wrong time, or the things which seem wrong at the wrong time, or…” --and his difficulty explaining the concept outlines for us just how complex it really is.
It seems to me that this first 20 minutes of the 90-minute film are by far the most fraught with meaning. Disney seems to argue that what makes us human, especially what makes us real and sets us apart from an animated puppet or a whale or a talking, walking fox—is our ability to innately understand right from wrong. The complexity then arises in the fact that we can (and regularly do) ignore that “still, small voice.” Here’s the tragedy of life, and the major conflict of the film. Pinocchio’s lack of conscience and total inability to tell right from wrong clearly demonstrates just how important and magical our ability to know these things relatively innately are.
Jiminy works as a great lens through which to watch Pinocchio make wrong choices, not through malice or arrogance, but through a complete incapacity to actually sense when he’s being lied to or tricked. The major trouble for Pinocchio comes in the external form of tempters and swindlers who mean to trick him, use him, and ultimately harm him—all to further their own agendas. Pinocchio’s first trouble comes when he makes the mistake to run off and perform in the theater rather than go to school, and later when he is swept away to “Pleasure Island,” a place where indolent and lazy boys can go to tear things up and lie about all day long. It’s there that Pinocchio so cleverly and sadly realizes, “It’s fun to be bad!”
It’s not until all the bad boys begin to get turned into donkey’s that Pinocchio and Jiminy realizes something is horribly wrong, and manage to escape—all Pinocchio has to show for it are a pair of donkey ears and a tail. This time, after a tried and failed attempt, they actually manage to get back home—only to learn Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale while looking for Pinocchio. This spurs the previously troubled and confused puppet to action, and for the very first time in all the film, Pinocchio realizes exactly what is right and makes his own decision to charge headlong into danger—even as Jiminy, who has henceforth been trying to guide him in the right direction, warns him of the danger.
This act of selflessness, bravery, and courage—and the first hint that Pinocchio has an ability to recognize what is right (saving his father) is ultimately his stroke of brilliance and the confirmation that he is, indeed, worthy of being a real boy. He saves Geppetto, sacrifices himself in the process, and then wakes as a real, live boy (with a conscience, presumably, of his own!).
And so Disney tells the deceivingly complex story of a puppet turned into a boy, and tells us all that it is not our ingenuity or our ability to speak or our muscles which make us human and set us apart from beasts, but our conscience, and our ability to know right from wrong. It’s a beautiful story, and far more complex than anyone, to my knowledge, seems to be willing to give it credit for.
Perhaps most importantly, for me at least, Pinocchio is a film that could inform us and save us a great deal of heartache and trouble. I find myself wishing I’d watched this a decade ago, and realizing that even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have been able to take away the true meaning in a respectful enough way that it would have mattered and impacted me