I’m four years old and staring at a screen.
A bizarre figure flails about on a stage, hands and feet jerked by strings. That long nose seems strangely familiar. It’s Pinocchio, but not the Pinocchio I know from my Little Golden Book paraphrase of the Disney movie; this is some kind of public-television dance production.
This memory is a fragment, as fleeting as a three-second GIF. And nothing more than that sticks with me. Several Pinocchio narratives exist, and I don’t recall which this production presented. Was Geppetto violent or peaceful? Was the wooden boy a terror or just a gullible idiot? Did the Blue Fairy set him free? Did Jiminy, Pinocchio’s talking conscience, sing about wishing on a star? I don’t recall.
All I remember is the anxiety. The tightness in my chest. How my fingers twisted and tugged at orange strands of shag carpet—it was the early 1970s, after all. Something in me was desperate to see this frantic puppet freed from his strings.
* * *
Screens were the first windows through which I witnessed a world beyond the safe, familiar sphere of home, family, and church. I watched Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, morning game shows, Saturday cartoons, and not much else. So why does this Pinocchio moment stay with me like a surreal dream?
This peculiar anxiety—I felt it again a few years later when I discovered a dragonfly struggling in a spider-web; I spent an hour picking at the web with a needle, trying to release her. This was not empathy: an imaginative engagement with unfamiliar suffering. This was sympathy: I knew, somehow, what the puppet and the dragonfly were feeling. I could relate.
I could not yet discern, at that age, the particularity of my childhood. My home was full of love, my parents generously encouraged my imaginative growth. But we lived within overlapping spheres of evangelical fundamentalism: church, school, and extended family. Obedience and discipline were priorities everywhere. (Paddles for spanking students hung on the wall like swords behind the Christian school principal’s desk.) I learned to fear failure within this system, and to fear even further the world outside my “traditional Christian community.”
And yet, in this memory as blurry as a Polaroid a half-century old, I already have a sense that I am living a life on strings: tethered, directed, bound. The figure in that flickering black-and-white screen is me wrestling with an intuitive sense that I am not sure how to be free, not sure how to become fully human.
* * *
Fast forward. I’m bombarded by ads for not one but two new Pinocchio adaptations: a Disney “live-action” remake from director Robert Zemeckis (with Tom Hanks as Geppetto), which is earning dismal reviews; and a darker, stranger (and probably far better) version from Guillermo Del Toro (with Ewan McGregor as Jiminy the narrator). Every time I see the puppet’s funny name fill the screen in stylized letters, I feel a pulse of anxiety.
Intrigued by my visceral response to the story’s resurgence, I sat down last week and pressed “play” on Disney’s 1940 classic. And as I watched, I was surprised and enchanted: I realized that I had never seen the movie all the way through before.
The figure in that flickering black-and-white screen is me wrestling with an intuitive sense that I am not sure how to be free, not sure how to become fully human. Jeffrey Overstreet
I’ve known the basics since childhood. Let’s review: In short, the angelic Blue Fairy grants the wish of a kind-hearted woodworker and turns his smiling marionette into a string-free wooden boy. But what will it take to finish the job—to make Pinocchio fully human? He’ll have to pass some ethical tests with a convenient cricket acting as his conscience. And, of course, he starts failing tests right away: He lies, which makes his nose grow.
What surprises me most is how quickly the story moves on from the nose incident. Lying isn’t Pinocchio’s biggest problem. Disney storytellers seem more interested in dramatizing the daunting challenges for which the little blockhead is unprepared. As soon as he obediently marches off to his first day of school (education represents what good boys prioritize here), Pinocchio is set upon by con men: a fox nicknamed Foulfellow (nicknamed “Honest John”) and a dopey cat named Gideon. These partners in crime dupe him into joining the circus of a showman, Stromboli, who promotes Pinocchio to the delight of audiences. He’s an overnight sensation! But backstage, the truth is quickly revealed: Pinocchio has been sold into slavery. He’s locked in a cage and abused.
The lesson is clear: To abandon school for fame and fortune is to bargain with the devil. If you disobey your father and follow ambition and vanity, you’re bound by subtler and more destructive strings.
Pinocchio gets a second chance, but goes wrong again, falling for more false promises. This time, peer pressure plunges him into the reckless revelries of Pleasure Island, where cigar-smoking and billiards represent heavy depravity. Before long, Pinocchio has been sold to a labor camp for trafficked children, where foolishness transforms them into literal jackasses. They’re left braying for mercy.
A second lesson: If, in your freedom, you prioritize pleasure and popularity, you may find yourself strung up by your own heart’s own worst impulses.
It can be jarring to track this narrative’s dark turns. Disney is famous for sanitizing fairy tales, but this remains frightening stuff. Still, the source material is far more troubling: Carlo Collodi’s original novel casts Pinocchio as a living terror from the moment he opens his eyes. And Geppetto is no saint either: He assaults another character twice in the opening chapters, and we learn he has a reputation for abusing children. A little research reveals that Pinocchio, in Collodi’s first draft, dies as a consequence of his misdeeds, hung from a tree by his enemies.
Obedience driven by fear and rebellion driven by disrespect—either action keeps us bound to cruel puppeteers. Jeffrey Overstreet
But there is so much more to Disney’s version of the story than episodic moralism. From its opening anthem “When You Wish Upon a Star,” the song by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington that became the Disney studio’s signature anthem, the movie celebrates enchantment. It’s preoccupied with the idea that there is some higher power out there eager to bless dreams with “the sweet fulfillment of their secret longing.” And it insists that our capacity to receive that blessing has something to do with the “still, small voice” of conscience that wants to keep us on “the narrow path.”
Pinocchio is set “free” at the beginning of the film; he’s granted a mind, a heart, and agency. But he will learn right away that freedom isn’t enough. Independence can be every bit as dangerous as it is rewarding. As Nelson Mandela wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” The path to being fully human requires the cultivation of conscience. Obedience driven by fear and rebellion driven by disrespect—either action keeps us bound to cruel puppeteers.
And there are other kinds of strings as well. Pinocchio’s journey to wisdom culminates when his struggle in captivity enables him to feel sympathy for Geppetto, who has been imprisoned in the belly of a whale. There, we find that freedom can also lead to isolation. This puppeteer himself is now bound, controlled by strings of despair.
* * *
It’s unsettling how relevant this movie seems today.
Yes, those lessons about lying are heavy-handed. But we apparently still need them. There’s something timely about watching two smooth-talking opportunists prey upon Pinocchio’s ignorance and try to steer him away from school. We are surrounded by increasingly outspoken enemies of education and intellectual discipline. And it makes sense to prevent rigorous teaching among the populace if your success depends on exploiting and controlling them. I had to laugh when I realized that Pinocchio becomes dizzy and disoriented under the influence of… what? Could we call it Honest John’s “fox news”?
But these “teachable moments” are not what make the movie so memorably meaningful to me.
The more that artists inspire our own speculation, and the more they draw us into the creative process, the more we will feel invested in what’s happening. Jeffrey Overstreet
What excites me most about Disney’s glorious rendition is how the animators, discovering just how much freedom they have to experiment with innovative tools, refrain from reveling in lurid violence, preferring curiosity and play. When Pinocchio dives in search of Geppetto, the filmmakers slow down, take time, and explore. They invite us to enter into childlike play, which leads to unexpected and (this is important) unnecessary discoveries. We might even call this sequence gratuitous: Pinocchio’s encounters on the ocean floor aren’t essential to the plot. They’re a grab-bag of the animators’ favorite inventions. And they make Pinocchio’s world more convincing. That’s because our own world is not overly concerned with the plot. Our world is full of playfulness, full of extravagance, full of incidental delights.
Roger Ebert wrote about another strategy that demonstrates the animators’ virtuosity when he deemed Pinocchio one of The Great Movies:
In Fantasia and especially Pinocchio, Disney broke out of the frame, for example in the exciting sequence where Pinocchio and his father are expelled by the whale’s sneeze, then drawn back again, then expelled again. There is the palpable sense of Monstro the Whale, offscreen to the right.
Consider the implications of this. Pinocchio asks us, the audience, to keep on animating beyond the borders. The movie’s seven directors anticipate that our imaginations will collaborate with theirs. This strikes me as an act of artistic humility, and more—generosity. They are inviting us to find more in Pinocchio’s world than they have created. The more that artists inspire our own speculation, and the more they draw us into the creative process, the more we will feel invested in what’s happening. The experience becomes more communal. And that can only strengthen how capable we are of believing that what’s happening in the movie is relevant to us.
Since my first encounters with this desperate marionette, Pinocchio and his world have been teaching me about art-making, truth-telling, and the promise and perils of freedom. They reinforce a deep Gospel: Our Maker seeks not to bind us, but to free us—not only from strings but for our help in setting others free.