Thursday, May 17, 2007

Right & Wrong: Morality and the Story Structure of Pinocchio

(This article is based on a paper given at the first conference of the Society for Animation Studies, held in Los Angeles, California in 1989 and was later printed in Animato #20.)

Pinocchio (1940), the Disney studio’s second feature-length cartoon, presented story problems that were in stark contrast to those of the studio’s first feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). In that film, the source material was a short fairy tale documented by the Brothers Grimm. The primary story challenge lay in fleshing out the tale to sustain a feature film. With Pinocchio the situation was reversed: the novel by Collodi was lengthy and chock-full of incident. The challenge was to choose which incidents to preserve or adapt, and to find a way to structure them. The studio used Pinocchio’s ongoing moral education as its approach to each segment of the film.

The problems that Pinocchio’s characters must deal with are different from those in other Disney films. In Show White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, the main characters are victims of injustice who are eventually restored to their rightful places. In Dumbo, the main character is an outcast who triumphs over a birth defect. These characters are innocent of wrongdoing and have done nothing to warrant the problems they face. In Pinocchio, the characters Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket and Geppetto are faced with dilemmas, and their own actions result in them becoming victims of evil. Only by behaving in a moral fashion can they avoid or escape evil. While they eventually learn to act correctly, the triumph over evil is never final. Each decision exposes them again to the possibility of victimization, so each decision must be morally based.

The film is structured around three episodes of capture and escape, each more dangerous than the last: Stromboli’s birdcage, Pleasure Island and Monstro’s belly. In each case, the failure to know the difference between right and wrong results in a character being captured. The consequences of wrong decisions literally move the character away from their own humanity and towards a more primitive state. In each episode, the character that knows the difference between right and wrong is the one who is able to effect the escape of the others.

Geppetto is a lonely woodcarver who lives an isolated existence. Throughout the film, he interacts with only four characters, three of whom are animals: Cleo the fish, Figaro the cat, and Monstro the whale. His isolation is softened somewhat by his work, which recreates the diversity of the outside world. His clocks and music boxes display domestic animals and people in various roles and occupations. Ducks, sheep, birds and bees are all featured. Society is represented by a church bell-ringer, a mother spanking a child, musicians, dancers, hunters, butchers, and a drunk. However, none of these creations are capable of interaction, and Geppetto feels the lack of human companionship. For this reason, he creates the puppet Pinocchio. His wish upon a star is that Pinocchio “might be a real boy.”

His wish is granted by the Blue Fairy, who brings Pinocchio to life but does not make him human. That advanced state must be earned by learning the difference beween right and wrong. As Pinocchio has no idea what the difference is, Jiminy Cricket is pressed into service as his conscience.

Pinocchio’s first morning begins with a multiplane tracking shot, starting on church bells and featuring the town awakening. We see birds, tradesmen, mothers, and children. In short, we are looking at the clocks and music boxes of Geppetto’s workshop made flesh. The shot concludes by focusing on Geppetto’s residence as the door opens and Pinocchio prepares for this first day at school. One would think that Geppetto would accompany his new son, guiding him and protecting him in a world Pinocchio has never experienced. However Geppetto sends Pinocchio on his way alone and returns to his isolation. It is a mistake that all the characters in the film will live to regret. Eventually, Pinocchio will be responsible for drawing Geppetto out of his workshop but it will be under much more troubled circumstances.

Jiminy Cricket also fumbles his responsibilities on this morning. Having slept late, he reaches Pinocchio after Honest John and Gideon, two small-time crooks, have convinced the puppet to become an actor. Their motivation is to sell him to a puppeteer named Stromboli. While Jiminy informs Pinocchio that he should go to school, Pinocchio ignores him and marches off with the two villains.

To his credit, Jiminy pursues Pinocchio, but after seeing Pinocchio become a success on stage he doubts his own advice. “Maybe I was wrong,” he says. “What does an actor need with a conscience anyway?” Jiminy decides to give up his role as conscience and seeks out Pinocchio to wish him luck.

Pinocchio’s success is an illusion. While he is popular with the audience, Stromboli, the puppet master, sees him as a slave and locks him in a wooden birdcage to prevent him from returning home. Having made the wrong moral decision, Pinocchio has forfeited his ability to control his own fate. This will also be a consequence of the traps to come.

When Jiminy arrives, he unsuccessfully attempts to pick the birdcage’s lock. Pinocchio tries to take the blame for the situation, but Jiminy doesn’t let him. “It was my fault,” Jiminy says, “I shouldn’t have walked out on you.” His doubts about Pinocchio’s choice and his abandonment of Pinocchio have rendered him powerless to free Pinocchio. In this film, only those who are morally right have the power to take positive action.

As no one has the moral high ground, it falls to the Blue Fairy to intercede. When she does so, Pinocchio fails a moral test that reveals another aspect of punishment in the film. When the Fairy asks for an explanation, Pinocchio lies. As he does, his nose grows. It not only grows, it becomes more tree-like. With each successive lie, it sprouts leaves, buds, flowers, and a nest with two birds. With the final lie, the leaves fall and the birds fly away.

In Snow White, the characters’ inner states are expressed through the surrounding environment. As Snow White flees the Hunstman, her own fear and shock are mirrored in the threatening trees that surround her. When the Queen transforms herself into a hag, the room spins around her. When the dwarfs pursue the Queen, a thunderstorm is a measure of their rage and is the instrument of her death.

In Pinocchio, it’s not the environment but the characters’ own bodies that reflect their inner states. If Pinocchio is balanced between being a creature of wood and flesh, it is clear that with each lie, he becomes more a tree and less a person. Throughout the film, when a character makes a bad moral decision he reverts to a more primitive physical state. Moral transgression equals physical regression. As the Blue Fairy comments, “a boy who wont’ be good might must as well be made of wood.” With this reprimand, she frees Pinocchio from the cage and sends him on his way.

As Pinocchio and Jiminy run home to Geppetto, Pinocchio is once again stopped by Honest John and once again put on the wrong road. This time, he’s headed for Pleasure Island, where, as Honest John says, “every day’s a holiday and kids have nothing to do but play.” These events are so similar to Pinocchio’s first encounter with Honest John that Jiminy feels compelled to mutter “here we go again” to the audience. But this time, there is a crucial difference. Jiminy has learned from the first trap and will not falter again. He has no doubts this time that he is right. His moral certainty will enable him to free Pinocchio from the film’s second trap, Pleasure Island.

The Coachman who takes the boys to the island is kidnapping them, though all the boys go willingly. It is a place where kids can run wild, indulging themselves in all the vices that polite society frowns on. Smoking, drinking, vandalism, fighting, and pool playing are the activities of choice on the isle, and there is no shortage of what the Coachman refers to as “stupid little boys” who are anxious to take advantage of the opportunities.

The penalty the boys pay for making the wrong decision is to become donkeys, losing all vestiges of their humanity in the process. The Coachman then crates them and sells them. As Pinocchio was poised between tree and human in Stromboli’s birdcage, the boys are posed between animal and human on the island, and the balance is tipped irrevocably to the animal. Again, moral transgression equals physical regression, and like Pinocchio in the birdcage, their lack of morals has lost them the ability to control their own destinies.

Jiminy is committed to sticking by Pinocchio this time. The verbal and physical abuse he takes at the hands of Lampwick, Pinocchio’s new-found companion, causes him to walk away in anger, but he never doubts the rightness of his position. It’s this moral strength that is crucial in altering Jiminy’s role in the second escape. Where he was once powerless to open a lock, he now discovers the fate of the boys and is able to guide Pinocchio to an escape route before it is too late. Pinocchio avoids turning completely into a donkey, but has a donkey tail and ears as evidence of his wrong-doing.

The two escape by jumping off a cliff into the ocean. Pinocchio hesitates, but Jiminy urges him on, explaining that it’s the only way out. When they reach the shore, they head straight for Geppetto’s shop, and this time they are not sidetracked. Unfortunately, Geppetto is not there. A bird sent by the Blue Fairy drops a note explaining that Geppetto was out searching for Pinocchio and has been swallowed by Monstro the whale.

It is finally Pinocchio’s turn to exhibit some moral strength. He immediately takes off to rescue his father. Jiminy is frightened by Monstro’s reputation, but Pinocchio is undeterred. When they reach the water’s edge, Pinocchio shows none of his previous reluctance to jump in. Pinocchio’s correct decision has entitled and empowered him to be Geppetto’s rescuer. Significantly, Jiminy remains outside Monstro when Pinocchio finds Geppetto, and is a passive observer of the rescue. Pinocchio’s internal conscience has developed to the point where Jiminy’s guidance is no longer needed.

As the boys of Pleasure Island had their humanity submerged into their donkey bodies, Geppetto is submerged within Monstro, the film’s third and most dangerous trap. Like the boys, Geppetto fails to distinguish between right and wrong. On Pinocchio’s first morning of life, Geppetto sent him off to school alone. While Geppetto yearns for human interaction, he is only willing to imitate the superficial aspects of it in the same way his woodcarvings imitate only the superficial aspects of village life.

The film’s climax contains a series of reversals. Where the moral movement within the film has thus far been one of regression, it now turns to progression. As Pinocchio frees Geppetto, he literally and morally extracts the human from the animal. Geppetto is free of Monstro, and Pinocchio has asserted his humanity over his donkey characteristics.

Ironically, the tool used to accomplish this is fire. During Pinocchio’s first night of life, he naively set his finger on fire and looked at it with delight. Geppetto realizing the threat, grabbed Pinocchio and extinguished the flame in Cleo’s fishbowl. The elements of fire and water now reverse their functions. Pinocchio builds a large fire, causing Monstro to sneeze and expel them. Where fire was the threat and water the means of rescue, fire now rescues the characters and water threatens them.

The fire enrages Monstro, and he attempts to kill Pinocchio and Geppetto. He destroys their raft and leaves them swimming for their lives. In another reversal, Geppetto again seeks to separate from Pinocchio. This time he is motivated by fatherly love and not apathy. He urges Pinocchio to save himself and swim for shore, as he is too weak to do so. Pinocchio is not about to sacrifice his father for his own freedom and pulls him beyond some rocks to a cove that Monstro cannot reach. Geppetto is safe, but Pinocchio drowns in the rescue.

Having learned the difference between right and wrong and having acted in a moral fashion, Pinocchio has earned the right to become human. The Blue Fairy revives him, and all traces of his wooden and animal selves vanish. Humanity has triumphed over lower states of being.

Pinocchio and Geppetto celebrate, and Jiminy leaves, claiming that, “this is where I came in.” But it really isn’t. While the joy of Pinocchio’s first night has been recaptured, the characters have developed a stronger moral base. Pinocchio has been transfigured by his moral growth. Though the characters have seen their dreams come true, it has taken far more than just wishing on a star. It has taken the ability to tell right from wrong in a world where morality has very tangible implications.

What type of morality does this film champion? Pinocchio’s initial dilemma between going to school or going on the stage implies a sort of middle-class, Boy Scout morality. I think the film’s choice of school has to be seen in the context of the film’s later choices. Morality is not an abstract system that has to be adhered to for its own sake. Morality in this film clearly represents the opposites of selfishness and selflessness. Will a character indulge himself with no regard for the others in his life, or will he act in a way that strengthens his relationship with his loved ones? The film sees morality as a structure for strengthening the bonds between parents and children and between friends. It is this aspect of the film that gives it its emotional power and prevents it from degenerating into a lecture on proper behavior.

The villains in this film are immoral because they are so self-indulgent. Their search for gratification threatens everyone they come in contact with. Their moral choices do not support others; they exploit others. Unlike those of other Disney movies, Pinocchio’s villains are not neutralized or destroyed. Honest John, Stromboli, the Coachman, and Monstro all live on to continue being evil and to prey on the morally weak.

It is the task of each character in this film to constantly assert his morality through his decisions. Behaving in a moral fashion is the only way to avoid becoming a victim of exploitation, to maintain ties to loved ones, and the only way to become truly human.


Anonymous said...

Good stuff, Mark. The final observation about the villains being left un-vanquished is perhaps one of the strongest arguments for Pinnochio being Disney's most "realistic" film. Realistic in the sense that the world will always have evil and there isn't a time in this life where evil is done away with leaving only fairy tale bliss where everybody "lives happily ever after". By not constraining the full effects of the world to the boundaries of the eventual happiness and resolution of the core character's conflicts, Dosney leaves the edges of this universe very large- even while the core story has far fewer characters (both hero and villain) than most modern animated films. By resolving all influences of evil in the world one closes off the size of the universe and no amount of additional cast and set locations will expand that universe ("Bauty & the Beast is a fine example of the opposite effect- a large universe, lots of characters, lots of set pieces- but it's all tidily packaged up in the end- happily ever after).

Leaving evil unpunished, unrepentant and powerfully intact to threaten again is an interestingly positive way to allow reality to define the film's world without resorting to the cynical or anti-heroical approach that is all too easily employed in the current era. A film can be "edgy" with lots of "reality" and NOT be a snarky, cynical kill the good guys ending.

One can definitely see Disney's staunch humanist ideals poking out in all corners of the film. In every sense the world view behind the film's central theme is an American one. Disney's is not a christian outlook in the strictest definition as some folks commonly portray, but definitely a humanist one. That is not unless one defines a 'christian' outlook by the syncretized version of western pragmatic, self sufficient morality & self redemption and not by the source material of accepting a state of utter devastation wherein no amount of moral accuity empowers one to enact self-redemption. The source christian view stands on the premise that only by submission to divine influence and regeneration can any rescue be found. A life of well executed morality isn't the power to enact rescue, merely the symptom of already having been rescued. Modern humanism - such as drove Disney's story engine here- rather emphasizes the ability for self redemption- whether by education, morality, strength, beauty -pick the trait you wish to value. But if I'm not careful I can turn a conversation about morality in stories into a discussion about theology in stories. :)

Thanks for sharing- again. :o)

Michael J. Ruocco said...

Whoa! Great observation, Mark! I couldn't come up with an explanation like that even if my life depended on it. A very thourough & detailed observation, indeed.

As a child, I was scared of Pinocchio. It frightened me. But as I got older, I embraced it as the masterpiece that it really is. It's the perfect story. No other film can come remotely close to Pinocchio in the ways you described it here. Great work & thanks for the insight.

Anonymous said...

I had my own little epiphany today about the true story underlying Pinnochio (mind you, I'm a 47 year old mother thinking of her 14 year old son experiencing Pinocchio-like issues) and I found your explanation. It was the most enlightening and beautiful read. What's so stunning is how true-to-life this story still is, how ever present the dance between morality and pleasure seeking remains, and how it sometimes takes middle-age life to see it from the other side with eyes anew. Thank you.