Walt Disney once wrote:
“Both my study of Scripture and my career in entertaining children have taught me to cherish them. But I don’t believe in playing down to children, either in life or in motion pictures. I didn’t treat my own youngsters like fragile flowers, and I think no parent should.
Children are people, and they should have to reach to learn about things, to understand things, just as adults have to reach if they want to grow in mental stature. Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows. Most things are good, and they are the strongest things; but there are evil things too, and you are not doing a child a favor by trying to shield him from reality. The important thing is to teach a child that good can always triumph over evil, and that is what our pictures attempt to do.
The American child is a highly intelligent human being -- characteristically sensitive, humorous, open-minded, eager to learn, and has a strong sense of excitement, energy, and healthy curiosity about the world in which he lives. Lucky indeed is the grown-up who manages to carry these same characteristics into adult life. It usually makes for a happy and successful individual. In our full-length cartoon features, as well as in our live action productions, we have tried to convey in story and song those virtues that make both children and adults attractive. I have long felt that the way to keep children out of trouble is to keep them interested in things. Lecturing to children is no answer to delinquency. Preaching won’t keep youngsters out of trouble, but keeping their minds occupied will.”-Walt Disney, 1963
Note: Throughout this article, various Disney characters are compared to members of the Holy Trinity and people from the Bible. This is not to imply any kind of literal allegorical cast of players (such as ‘the role of Jesus is played by….whoever.’) There are simply parallels and similarities to characters, relationships and themes brought to light, and no implication of exact comparisons.
In 1938, Disney’s first animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, scored a record-setting financial success, but his second animated feature Pinocchio did not share this good fortune when it was released to theaters in 1940. World War II was turning the world into a different place, much darker and full of fear as terror gripped Europe and the Western world. This had an effect on the movie-going public. The tests of time have more than made up for it, for it is now looked on as Walt Disney’s masterpiece, an absolute treasure of animated filmmaking. I first saw Pinocchio in its entirety at a re-issued screening with my dad when I was 10-years-old. It was the first movie I had ever been to where the entire audience stood up and applauded at the end. To this day, I remember being blown away; I didn’t know you could do that in a movie theater! (So now, naturally, if so moved, I do it all the time!)
The story begins with Geppetto the kindly woodcarver putting the final touches on his puppet creation, Pinocchio. He wishes on a star that Pinocchio may become a real boy, someone he can have a relationship with and be a father to. His wish is granted as the Blue Fairy brings the puppet to life. There is some wonderful metaphorical stuff going on here.
This very idea is a metaphor for animation itself. The job of an animator or puppeteer is to “breathe life into” something inanimate, be it a sock or stop-motion puppet, computer model or a stack of sequential drawings. The materials used to create puppetry and animation all come from the Earth. Trees are cut down to make paper, pencils, and wooden puppets. Minerals are mined to make lead and pigments for paint. We give glory to God by using these materials He created to make their own creations. The most mind-boggling thing is even our human bodies are created out of the same raw materials and chemicals of the Earth…ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as they say.
And the LORD God formed a man's body from the dust of the ground…and breathed into it the breath of life. And the man became a living person.
The holy breath of God is what ‘animates’ our earthly bodies until we pass out of it into the next realm. To be ‘created in God’s image’ is to imply that we are an imitation of the emotions, actions and creativity of God, thus we are called to exist as ‘co-creators’ with our Maker. In the same way, animated characters and puppets are an imitation of the emotions, actions and creativity of Man. While all animated films represent this chain of creation unto itself, Pinocchio is unique in that one of the subjects of the film mimics this very concept. Geppetto creates Pinocchio out of wood as God created man out of the dust of the earth. He manipulates the lifeless wooden puppet by making him dance around the room, but not until the Blue Fairy gives him the “breath of life” does Pinocchio have a life and will of his own. As animators and human creators, we can only create the illusion of life, whereas only God can create real spirit-filled life.
“Little puppet made of pine, awake! The gift of life is thine.”
This granting of life is prompted by Geppetto’s fairy tale kind of prayer, wishing upon a star. (The ‘wishing star’ invokes similar imagery to that which we are familiar with at Christmas!)
There follows from Pinocchio a moment where I believe he personifies the history of cinematic animation itself, as if an animated character were reacting to it:
“I can move!”: the invention of animation
“I can talk!”: the advent of sound film
“I can walk!” followed by a stumble, reminding us of the limitations of cinema itself, the reminder that it’s all an illusion.
Much of the film is seen through the eyes of Jiminy Cricket, superbly animated by Ward Kimball. It is Jiminy who opens the film by singing its theme song “When you Wish upon a Star.” Many shots are seen from a low camera angle, as if from Jiminy’s eye view. (Steven Spielberg has often cited Disney’s early films as a major influence on his work. The idea of shooting from low angles to achieve a child-like perspective on the world was used a great deal in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and he paid further homage to Pinocchio in A.I. Artifical Intelligence. Furthermore, the melody to “When You Wish Upon a Star” can be heard in John Williams’ score to Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)
Jiminy begins to narrate his story of how he stumbled into his role as Pinocchio’s conscience, the one who tells him what is right and wrong. By explaining right and wrong to Pinocchio, Jiminy attempts to convict and guide Pinocchio away from temptation and sin. The drama and humor in his character is how his human (or cricket) flaws complicate his attempts to keep Pinocchio on the narrow path. He wakes up “late on his first day” as Pinocchio’s conscience, gives up on him when he becomes an actor (“What does an actor want with a conscience anyway?”), and totally abandons him on Pleasure Island, but always returns to his duty. Jiminy’s foibles keep him from being a perfect conscience, but his persistence, presence and warmth of character is part of what attracts us to him.
(When my wife and I got married, our friend Reverend Doug Schulz, who performed the ceremony, wrote our vows down on the back of a Jiminy Cricket postcard, where he is shown gazing wide-eyed through a candy shop window. This is what he said, “Jiminy Cricket…an animation figure. If you study his life and his delight, there are many ways in which he is similar to Someone whose initials are the same.”)
When our conscience, or ‘inner voice’ as some call it, speaks to us in moments of temptation, this is God speaking to us, trying to keep us on the right road with him.
Jiminy Cricket (as Pinocchio follows his tempters): ‘You’re going the wrong way!’
Jesus Christ: ‘The gateway to life is small, and the road is narrow, and only a few ever find it….I am the way, the truth, and the life.’ (Matthew 7:14, John 14:6)
At one point early on in making this film, Walt Disney ordered production stopped and the story revised. The initial version did not feature Jiminy Cricket at all, therefore Pinocchio had no conscience to remind him he was not behaving correctly. Jiminy Cricket’s advice is always geared to save Pinocchio from short-term indulgences by pointing out the long-term implications, especially the unintended consequences of his decisions. Being able to portray these long-term benefits is the job of one’s conscience, as it convinces our body and soul to postpone imminent pleasures, as a trade-off towards long-term paradise. This is what Walt Disney did with his staff during this period of his studio, as he embarked on the high quality feature-length film projects from Snow White to Bambi, then later with the theme parks. He was the conscience of his studio, guiding them between right and wrong, leading them to a better place.
Pinocchio learns many lessons from Jiminy and his various adventures, including that “life is full of temptations.” The main crux of the plot is very much based on that line. The world presented in the film is not a sugar-coated fantasy land, but a gritty European town with realities not too far from our own. It is clearly a world where evil runs amok. Pinocchio is one of the only Disney films where the villains are not punished or defeated in the end. The villains scheme and lie in order to make money, using Pinocchio as a pawn in their evil games. Stromboli, Honest John and Gideon would fit right into today’s entertainment industry or justice system.
How terrible it will be for anyone who causes others to sin. Temptation to do wrong is inevitable, but how terrible it will be for the person who does the tempting.
As Pinocchio and others give in to temptation, we see the consequences of their disobedience. The consequences of lying are displayed through Pinocchio’s nose growing into a tree branch. In an old issue of Animato magazine, writer Mark Mayerson makes an observation that ‘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 transgression.’ The ultimate example of this exists in the Pleasure Island scenes, some of the most horrific cinema ever created. (This is the real ‘Temptation Island’, folks!) All of the boys lured to the island, where they are free to be as naughty as they wish, transgress into donkeys, to the point where they can no longer speak, only bray. To view the images of Pinocchio’s so-called ‘best friend’ Lampwick turning into a donkey and the other boys screaming for their mothers is like something out of Dante’s Inferno.
Pinocchio and Jiminy escape the hell of Pleasure Island to discover that Geppetto has been swallowed by Monstro the whale, and they descend to the depths of the ocean to rescue him. Pinocchio still has donkey ears and a tail as evidence of his disobedience and sin, and he tries to keep them hidden from his father. When they are discovered, he tries to flaunt them and act like it’s funny, resulting in an embarrassing donkey sound from his mouth. Realizing his folly, he becomes ashamed as Geppetto scolds him, but when Geppetto sees his shame, he welcomes his son into his arms and says, “Geppetto has his little wooden head. Nothing else matters.” We come before God our Father marked and stained with sin, but if we repent and receive salvation through Christ, we are welcomed back into His arms, and “nothing else matters”…we are forgiven.
Peter replied, "Each of you must turn from your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In being swallowed by Monstro the whale, we can also see a similar idea to the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by a giant fish as a result of his reluctance to obey God.
Now the LORD had arranged for a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was inside the fish for three days and three nights.
This concept of the “belly of the beast” appears in myths from other cultures as well. The “hero” spends time in a cave or belly, usually at a time in their journey when they need rejuvenation of some sort, and emerges with a new kind of energy and bravery…a new birth! It’s also a similar concept to Christ’s emergence from the tomb at his resurrection. A slightly more explicit comparison is in medieval cathedral’s doors being designed to resemble female genitalia, to symbolize the new birth one could have after entering the world from inside the church. Once finding his father inside the whale, the formerly cowardly and naive Pinocchio has a new character of determination as he hatches his master plan to escape.
At the end of a high energy chase scene, Pinocchio’s effort in saving his friends leaves him face down in a puddle of water, one of the most gut-wrenching images ever on film. (At my first viewing at age 10, I remember the whole audience gasping at that shot in the film.) The whole sequence of Pinocchio plunging into the depths of the ocean and dying to himself to save Geppetto is kind of like a baptism; dying with Christ by immersion in the water.
For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.
In the final sequence, as his family grieves, Pinocchio is resurrected with a new body, now finally a “real boy.” Jesus’ mortal body was resurrected from the dead, but rose as a new kind of body, a spiritual one that could eat broiled fish and walk through walls. This is the kind of body all believers will have in the New Heaven and Earth. It will be the body given to our “real” resurrected selves. Metaphorically speaking, one could say that we are all like wooden puppets in this life, and afterwards we either become ‘real boys’ or turn into donkeys! The choice is ours to make, moment by moment.
It should probably be emphasized that rewards and salvation in Pinocchio seem to be given to those who deserved them for doing good deeds. The Blue Fairy tells Geppetto he has given so much joy to others, he deserves to have his wish come true. Jiminy receives a gold badge for successfully guiding Pinocchio down the straight and narrow path. Pinocchio becomes a real boy because he has proven himself “brave, truthful and unselfish.” The rewards come from actions taken and behavior exhibited, not from words or claims. All the villains talk about how nice they are and how noble their intentions are, but the words don’t amount to anything. It’s not what you say, it’s how you act, that you reveal your true self.
Yet in our world the ultimate salvation from sin and death comes from faith in what Christ has done for us on the cross, not by works alone. Ultimately it is divine grace that saves us. Yet this concept of grace is still exemplified in the film, in a way. When Pinocchio is captured by Stromboli, he realizes the consequences of his sin and disobedience. He has been trapped by the evil snares of temptation and there is no escape. The Blue Fairy appears and rebukes Pinocchio, who makes matters worse by lying to cover up his sin, until his lies are as “clear as the nose on his face.” Jiminy pleads to the Blue Fairy for another chance. She relents, and reminds them this is the last time she can help. Pinocchio is free, but it doesn’t take long before he gives into temptation again, as Honest John and Gideon lure him to Pleasure Island! His repentance and reliance on Jiminy was not sincere or strong enough to resist falling off the path again. After escaping the horror of Pleasure Island, he returns home to find his father gone and his home deserted. He has now realized that his sin has not only had an effect on him, but on others too. Now his repentance is sincere and his punishment that much more costly. Thus a white dove descends on high (similar imagery from the baptism of Jesus) with a ‘Scripture’ telling him what has happened to Geppetto. Pinocchio’s repentance allows divine grace to intervene and change his character, now determined to do what is right. His desire to obey the Blue Fairy in being ‘brave, truthful, and unselfish’ has less to do with his own salvation but more with his desire to be reunited with his father and creator. Upholding Christian morality is not a means to be rewarded or earn a ticket to Heaven. Such a futile attempt only leads to legalistic, works-based religion. Christians’ motivation for being moral is a by-product of a relationship with a loving Heavenly Father, and a desire to be reunited with Him.
The even more amazing thing is that God wants to be reunited with us too! One of the most haunting scenes in Pinocchio is the image of father Geppetto walking in the rain with his lantern lit on a cold night, calling out his son’s name in desperation to find him….and Stromboli’s wagon, where Pinocchio is inside trapped in a birdcage, passes right by him. God is also calling each of us by name, looking for us; the difference, of course, is that unlike Geppetto, He knows where we are…we only need to realize we’re trapped in a birdcage….that has a cross-shaped key!Pinocchio represents a glorious chain of creation from top to bottom, and points in the end to a miracle that ascends back to the top. God creates the animator, who creates Geppetto, who creates Pinocchio, and the whole thing climaxes with an affirmation of resurrection, new life and celebration as wood becomes ‘real’ and God is honored through a true work of art! The similarities of these glorious truths of creation, temptation and redemption found in God’s story to the images and story of Walt Disney’s masterpiece tell us much about why this film has the power to lift an audience in a small Michigan theater to its feet. Like the best myths and fairy tales, it speaks to us in a very powerful way and helps us to understand the greatest myth of all, which is also fact, and points to life as it truly is and should be.
--Copyright 2004 Ken Priebe
—It All Started With a Mouse
—Home on the Range
—Nightmare Before Christmas