There’s a little old man who works tirelessly in a little old shop. His name is Geppetto. And he’s a man of many gifts. He can build intricate cuckoo clocks and violins; craft ornate, three-drawer chests; and carve fancy, dancing marionettes.
He’s a relatively happy man. But even though Geppetto shares the company of a curious cat named Figuro and a gossamer-finned fish named Cleo, he still misses the company of the family he never had.
After putting the finishing touches on a stringed marionette boy whom he names Pinocchio, and after walking the puppet merrily about the shop, old Geppetto can’t help but muse to his animal friends. “Wouldn’t it be nice if he was a real boy?” Geppetto chuckles. It’s such a sweet and pleasant idea that Geppetto cheerily lifts it up as a wish—a wish upon the first star he sees in the sky.
And then he beds down for the night.
However, in Geppetto’s world, a wish upon a star doesn’t simply drift off uselessly into the air. For anything you wish, and anything your heart desires, has a chance of coming true there. And so it is this time.
The wished-upon star drifts down into Geppetto’s window, transforms into a beautiful fairy and grants the kind old gent’s wish: Pinocchio comes to life. But the newly enlivened puppet isn’t quite a real boy yet. He can click-clack about on his wooden, jointed limbs and smile with his painted wooden face. But to be a real boy, he’ll have to prove himself.
“To make Geppetto’s wish come true will be entirely up to you,” the fairy tells Pinocchio. “Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish.” And that’s exactly what the hopeful puppet decides to do. He’ll be a good son. He’ll go to school. He’ll be brave and truthful and be everything Geppetto needs him to be.
The problem is, the world isn’t always good, honest and kind. It’s filled with distractions and temptations. And like so, so many other wooden-headed boys before him, Pinocchio will find it hard to do what’s right.
He’ll find it difficult to tell truth from lies.
And he’ll learn that the “easy road” to success is never easy.
This is a story about a wooden boy who wants to experience a real and happy life. The movie tells us that earning such a life takes work and effort. And it’s not always as easy as it might seem. In fact, taking an easy path generally takes Pinocchio in a totally different and unpleasant direction. He needs to be confronted by that truth a couple times before he begins to understand.
Pinocchio even has the help of Jiminy, a plucky cricket who volunteers to be the naive boy’s conscience and to show him the right path. But he’s still drawn away by a sly foxy figure named Honest John, who’s actually the complete opposite of his name.
In the end, this character-driven tale makes its lessons very clear for young viewers. Pinocchio turns away from getting mixed up with unpleasant vices, entertaining crowds and manipulative people. Eventually exhibits self-sacrificial bravery and the love of his family.
Pinocchio’s tale also highlights the importance of an education, the value of knowing right from wrong, the depth of a parent’s love and the price of lying. (Pinocchio suffers from a growing nose when he lies, for instance. And the Blue Fairy tells him that a lie keeps “growing and growing until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”)
As noted, the blue fairy grants wishes, and magic infuses the animated world we see. It’s all couched in fantasy, but like many older Disney movies, this story promotes the idea that your hopes can be pinned upon a wishing star.
In the same vein, we see magic used in negative ways, too. Boys run away to a place called Pleasure Island to escape school and relish activities such as breaking things, smoking and drinking. But the magical outcome of their poor choices is that they’re turned into donkeys and sold to farms and mines (while crying out for their mothers).
A few of Geppetto’s cuckoo clocks feature angel characters with halos.
Jiminy is quite taken with the pretty fairy. And he makes a few winking “May I have this dance” comments to female clock characters who are just about his size.
Dancing French female marionettes kick up their skirts.
A huge whale swallows up anything it encounters. And it roaringly threatens Pinocchio and Geppetto. (Those scenes could be intense for very small viewers.) A raging, smoky fire is set deep in the beast’s belly. Pinocchio also sets his own hand on fire before it’s doused.
Boys get tossed about and caged on Pleasure Island. And Pinocchio is sold to a showman who roughly grabs him and locks him up in a bird cage. Some cuckoo clocks feature a boy being spanked, a hunter shooting a pop gun at a bird and an axe man attempting to chop the long neck of a gobbling turkey.
Pinocchio’s showman captor tells the puppet that he will remain his slave for life and then, when he gets old, be chopped up for firewood. It appears that someone may have drowned.
People are told to “shut up” and are called “stupid.” Boys turn into donkeys and are called “jackasses” several times. People use the words “gee” and “gosh.”
There are actually quite a few drinking and smoking references in this kid’s pic. Geppetto smokes a pipe as part of his normal routine before bed. And boys (including Pinocchio) smoke cigars at Pleasure Island. Boys also down what look to be mugs of beer. (That said, the movie makes it clear that these kinds of negative vices lead to suffering in one form or another.) Other adults drink beer and swig from a wine bottle, too. There’s also a staggering, drunken figure that leans out of one of Geppetto’s cuckoo clocks.
“A boy who won’t be good might as well be made of wood.”
There are likely some people these days who would find bits of this classic Pinocchio’s lessons a little heavy handed. And others who could well balk at all the smoking and drinking images in a kid’s pic.
But this film’s messages about staying true, getting a good education, doing what’s right, loving your family and avoiding the rotten-cored temptations of life are clear, timeless and unmistakable. (In fact, they’re remarkably prescient in this social media-driven world of bad influencers.)
So there’s a lot here to appreciate and enjoy. And plenty that parents can cheer and navigate while watching with their littles.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.