You probably know Roberto Benigni from his famous “chair walk” at the 1999 Academy Awards. After it was announced that he had won a Best Actor statue for his role in La Vita è bella (Life Is Beautiful) the ecstatic Benigni spurned the traditional trek down the aisle in favor of a joyous romp over people’s shoulders. Amusingly, his theater seat dance made Mr. Benigni more famous in America than the movie that gave him the opportunity to do it. Such a boyishly enthusiastic victory celebration wasn’t something Hollywood-types expected, or understood. So is it any big surprise that Benigni’s follow-up film doesn’t color inside the lines any better than his high-stepping Oscar exuberance did?
Just as you know Benigni for his offscreen vivaciousness, you know Pinocchio for his onscreen appearance in the 1940 animated Disney film. The first thing you need to know about Benigni’s Pinocchio is that he is not like that. After deciding to cast himself—a 50-year-old, slightly balding middle-ager—as the puppet who longed to become a boy, Benigni set out to create a version of the classic 1883 book (written by Carlo Collodi) that no one this side of Moulin Rouge! would have imagined possible: A live-action Pinocchio starring grown men pretending to be little boys. Hordes of yoked rats pulling a glowing carriage. Giant lollipops that serve as metaphors for life’s supreme guilty pleasures. Magical milk that cures all manner of ailments. Owls and crows toting physician’s bags while discussing mortality and medicine. And naughty little boys turning into donkeys at an alarming rate. More akin to a extravagant stage production than what we Americans have become accustomed to seeing at the movies, Pinocchio is enveloped in a fantastical surrounding of uniquely Italian extravagance. Gentle mists cover gorgeous rolling hills. A collision of color, noise and lights radiates from Funforever Land. An almost physical sense of peace pervades Blue Fairy’s woodland home. And through each exquisite locale, Pinocchio bounces, prances, shrieks, whines, begs and plays.
positive elements: Obedience: Pinocchio doesn’t know the first thing about it. He messes up everything. He disobeys. He lies. He avoids school like it’s the black plague. He’s beguiled by fun, frivolity, laziness, easy money and sugar. This story goes to great lengths to illustrate how such behavior not only harms the one responsible for it, but also seriously hurts everyone he or she loves. Compassion, longsuffering and forgiveness: Geppetto is heartbroken that his son is such a delinquent, yet forgives him as often as he has opportunity. Likewise, Blue Fairy cries over Pinocchio’s lack of conviction and perseverance, and extends forgiveness and restitution. Wisdom: Cricket, while sometimes a bit abrasive, serves as an “angel on his shoulder,” consistently giving Pinocchio good advice, warning him away from danger, and instructing him in the ways of being a good child. “The world is what you make of it,” he says, urging the puppet to make it a good one. Another of his wise sayings is, “Your unruly deeds will only return to bite you on the bottom.” Blue Fairy, likewise, dispenses her share of sagacity. “To tell a lie is always bad,” she chides Pinocchio. “Don’t ever do it again.” Temptation: The snares waiting for one who gives in to temptation are explored and exposed for the evil things that they are. Unconditional love: Geppetto and Blue Fairy not only forgive the puppet for his misdeeds, but love him without condition. Near the end of the story, after suffering mightily for the waywardness of his son, Geppetto is asked what he would do if he ever saw Pinocchio again. “I am his papa,” he responds tearfully. “I would love him. I would put my arms around him and hug him.” (Read Luke 15.) Remorse: It’s a good thing to have, and it earned Pinocchio a few more chances with the Blue Fairy, but he finds that it’s ultimately meaningless if it isn’t followed by true repentance. Repentance and transformation: When Pinocchio is changed into a boy as a reward for righting his evil ways, everything around him changes. Amazed at the beauty he sees, Pinocchio asks Geppetto why so much has been transformed. “Naughty children, if they’re good, have the power to remake everything around them with joy and serenity,” his papa answers.
spiritual content: Blue Fairy has the power to turn a donkey into a puppet, a puppet into a boy, and even night into day. But the world she lives in is a magical one, and her power is natural, rather than supernatural. Carlo Collodi most likely never meant to create a spiritual allegory when he wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio, but the sheer humanness of his puppet’s plight arouses spiritual comparisons nonetheless. If your family decides to see this version of Pinocchio—or read the book—make a point of discussing how Pinocchio’s path to boyhood compares and contrasts with our journey to heaven. Start by talking about how faith and works intertwine in scripture. Pinocchio’s ultimate goal—becoming a boy—is hung over his head by Blue Fairy who tells him he will never reach it if he doesn’t earn it. He must be good, work hard and prove he is eligible for the elite club he desires to join. Conversely, God’s gift of eternal life is offered freely to all who will accept it. (Read Romans 4, 9 and Ephesians 2.)
sexual content: None.
violent content: A pine log (destined to be carved into Pinocchio) careens through town, knocking people down, damaging buildings and generally creating a mess. Irritated by Cricket’s wise counsel, Pinocchio picks up a mallet and tries to squash the small man-bug. After running across the tops of theater seats to get to the puppet stage (sound familiar?), Pinocchio joins a raucous cast of fellow puppets as they tumble and toss one another (Pinocchio is heaved high and then left to fall hard on the floor). “His Bigness” the puppet master threatens to boil and eat Pinocchio for disrupting his production. Led astray by unkempt thieves, Pinocchio is abducted and hung from a tree to die. He obviously doesn’t succumb, but the film offers disquieting images of him dangling from a noose around his neck. A scuffle with other boys in the street ends with one of them seriously injured after his head is hit by a flying book. As a result, Pinocchio is handcuffed and dragged off to prison. He escapes from the police, but soon steps into a large steel bear trap which clamps its sharp teeth onto his leg. The trap’s owner imprisons him and forces him to become his guard dog, leaving the trap on his leg, the handcuffs on his wrists and adding a spiked iron dog collar around his neck. After being transformed into a donkey, Pinocchio is forced to jump through a ring of fire at the circus. He stumbles and falls, hurting his leg, prompting the circus master to order him killed. He’s then carted off to a cliff overhanging the ocean and dumped into the brew below. As he bobs to the surface, he’s turned back into a puppet—only seconds before getting swallowed by a giant fish.
crude or profane language:“Gosh,” “nincompoop” and “dimwit.” Incomplete phrases that everyone knows end with profanities (such as, “What the …”) are uttered in a couple of scenes.
drug and alcohol content: The Fox, The Cat and others at an inn drink wine. In Funforever Land, kids open a bottle of champagne (they don’t drink any, rather, Cricket is propelled high in the air on the bottle’s speeding cork). A broken cask of wine releases torrents of the fermented juice into the street.
other negative elements: Geppetto’s small boat capsizes and sinks in the ocean, taking the old man down with it (a stricken Pinocchio dives in to save him, but to no avail). [Spoiler Warning] “Papa” isn’t dead, but children will believe he is until quite a bit later in the film. Similarly, Pinocchio wishes he were dead more than once, thinking that if he had not been born, everyone would be better off.
conclusion: The staging is lush. The costumes lavish. The mood magical. But I must admit I had a hard time getting past the image of a 50-year-old playing a precocious puppet-boy (Benigni says he never even considered anyone but himself for the role—maybe he should have). It’s a trick used much more onstage than in film, and I’m still not sure it actually worked here. It’s one thing for Mary Martin and Cathy Rigby to play Peter Pan on Broadway, it’s quite another for Roberto Benigni to give life to a small wooden toy. Still, incongruity can have its own appeal. And here it’s aided by Benigni’s natural zest, playfulness and complete lack of self-consciousness. Without those qualities, all you’d be left with is Arnold Schwarzenegger playing a kindergartner rather than a kindergarten cop!
After I dutifully convinced myself that it was reasonable to be watching a movie about children that didn’t have any children in it, I began noticing the rather dull English voice-overs. And that’s a kind way of putting it. New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell put it much less tactfully: “Breckin Meyer leaves you with the impression that [he] was actually in the projection booth reading the script,” he wrote. “The voice-overs are so sloppy you might feel as if you’re watching a 1978 Hong Kong action picture: the dubbed mouths of the Italian cast are probably still moving an hour after the film is over.”
Finally, I could begin thinking about the actual story of Pinocchio. But this is my job. I’m supposed to be overly analytical. Children won’t care a whit about voice-overs and casting calls. They’ll simply think it’s funny that “the old guy” is prancing around like a tot. And isn’t Pinocchio a story for children, after all?
Since it is a story for children, I’ll remind you of this: Many of the fables, stories and children’s poetry from those golden days of yore are quite dark. Darker than much of what is created for kiddies now. Think of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance. Of course, Disney has rewritten and recrafted most of those tales of terror, turning them into feel-good fantasies that lull children to sleep rather than keep them awake. Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio takes the story closer to its roots, with death and punishment playing every bit as much of a role as gaiety and grand adventure. Its ultimate message to children is that if you disobey, lie and skip school, you’ll turn into a donkey and die. Pinocchio is saved from such a fate by the hair of his not quite wooden chinny-chin-chin. You might not be so lucky! That’s a morality tale that may make 21st century parents a bit squeamish. And then again, it might send them flocking to theaters to give their kiddos a little dose of old-fashioned medicine.