Readers Write In #543: Children of Men

Posted on January 22, 2023

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By Karthik Amarnath

Disney, Del Toro and the making of a puppet

There’s two kinds of parenting stories. One kind is where your five year old looks at you with those puss-in-boots eyes, and tells you that she’s going to be a secret Santa this year. You’ve been such good parents, she says, that she’s going to gift you surprises for Christmas. Your jaw drops and for a moment you’re reminded of a fairytale. The one with a magic mirror and a princess who sings and dances as she runs the household of seven bearded men. 

And then there’s the real story. Your five year old who wants to surprise you for Christmas, insists that you wake her up before sunrise. You want to be a hero, and so you indulge her. You let her “prepare” her surprise, while you pretend to not know whats’s going on. Soon its dawn, and she’s still half awake. By morning she’s half tired and half hungry. By the afternoon, she’s fully cranky. So are you. Thats a kind of fairytale too, where you look into a magic mirror, hope to see a handsome hero, but find Hagar the horrible. 

Many years ago, as a kid, I had watched Disney’s animated version of Pinocchio, and I remember being horrified. Despite all the colorful cutesified characters which includes a blue fairy in a sparkling ball gown, Pinocchio was definitely not a fairytale. In fact, things go downhill the moment Pinocchio the puppet boy comes alive. The blue fairy, who perhaps had never taken a little kid to a dark room or a toy store, insists that the boy must be brave, truthful and unselfish. Its hard enough for an adult to resist temptation. Why wouldn’t a kid want to go to Pleasure Isle where everyday is holiday and kids have nothing to do but play. So much of the movie plays out in the dark, both literally and figuratively, that when it ended, I had a Monstro sized knot in my stomach, and nightmares about all those kids who had permanently turned into donkeys on Pleasure Island. 

I rewatched the film recently, and as a parent, I was even more horrified. At the root of Pinocchio’s descent into donkeydom is really just an indulgent parent. Gepetto, the master woodcarver, is so desperate for his puppet boy to be real that he dances at the very sight of the talking Pinocchio. He isn’t satisfied with gifting him just one toy, he drops an entire toy store on him. Nowhere in the film could I find a single angry cell or one frustrated nerve in this man. Even towards the end of the movie, after Pinocchio had trod down a dark path, not once but twice, Gepetto doesnt really care about the choices Pinocchio made. “All that matters is that you’re here,” he says. Now, fairytale fathers shouldn’t really be a sample set for parenting lessons. But even so, the film makes you wonder, at what point does indulgence turn excessive, when does empathy feed entitlement? 

Pinocchio was only the second animated feature produced by Disney. It was made more than eighty years ago, when each of the nearly 130,000 images had to be hand drawn. Nevertheless its remarkable how well the animation holds up even today. What’s equally remarkable is the huge risk of Walt Disney’s undertaking, following up on the immensely successful Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, considering that all of this effort, in the midst of WWII, was essentially in service of a dark fable—  Carlo Collodi’s original novella The Adventures of Pinocchio was no child’s play to start with (unless child’s play refers to a famous 1988 movie).

Interestingly, in the past few months, the Pinocchio story has had not one but two major reboots. First, in September, Disney released a live action remake, starring Tom Hanks as Gepetto. I did not watch this version, but even from the trailer you can tell what live action brings to this story. The puppet’s woodenness is far more obvious here, unlike in the 1940 cartoon, where save for the trademark nose, and a paler skin tone, Pinocchio looked just as real as a cartoon character can be. In the live action version even the talking fox looks real, but Pinocchio is literally a toy among boys. So when he says he wants to be a “real boy,” you can see the stakes. As for the movie, from what I’ve heard, it is a largely faithful remake of the original, and the few changes suggest that its less darker than the original cartoon (apparently all the smoking and getting high on Pleasure Island has been reduced to drinking root beer). 

The version of Pinocchio that I did watch was Guillermo Del Toro’s stop motion movie which came out on Netflix in December.  Just from a technical standpoint, the film is a marvel. Every moment looks handcrafted to perfection, not to mention the artisanal sculpting of each character and the visual detailing in each scene. Even considering that each of the 170,000 frames had to be individually crafted and captured for the stop motion animation, the outcome is beyond brilliant. But packed into its technical accomplishment is also a complete subversion of the Pinocchio story, both the original Collodi novel, and its Disney revisions. And this has everything to do with Del Toro’s choice of using stop motion animation, where his Pinocchio is literally situated in a world full of puppets. According to Del Toro, there was a poetic irony in telling Pinocchio’s tale this way. In his words, “The movie is about a puppet in a world of people that don’t know they’re puppets. But they are puppets. Everybody is a puppet in there. And the one that behaves less like a puppet is the one everybody thinks is a puppet!”

It takes only the first fifteen minutes for Del Toro’s film to make its intentions clear. We see Gepetto and his son, Carlo, smitten with each other. They work together, sing together, and everything’s perfect, as if Del Toro’s film just took off from the Disney film’s fairytale ending when the puppet turned into a real boy. And then a bomb drops— literally, the film is set around WWII—and it shatters the fairytale, turning Gepetto into a brooding drunk. Out of the undying memory of perfect Carlo and his perfect pine cone, Del Toro’s Pinocchio is born. And he is everything but perfect.

Just watch his introduction song, Everything’s new to me, and you can see that Pinocchio’s not so much a kid in a toy store as he is a raccoon running amok. But soon enough we start seeing Del Toro’s irony play out in scene after scene. The people Pinocchio meets are all puppets in their own way. Gepetto is bound to the memory of his lost son. His fellow parishioners are beholden to Jesus. Magnafuico, the theater showrunner, is beholden to money. Pinocchio’s friend Candlewick does everything his father says. His father does everything Mussolini says. Fascism has gripped the country. In this world of puppets, Pinocchio shocks everyone, not because he is a puppet who walks and talks, but because nobody controls him. He has no strings. 

That’s the point of the film. Unlike Collodi’s or Disney’s Pinocchio which were cautionary tales for children, Del Toro’s film champions disobedience, it celebrates the individual. It doesn’t expect Pinocchio to adapt to the world, but asks the world to accept him for who he is. Its a simple message and could very well belong in a children’s movie. But Del Toro takes this theme, chisels away all the childishness and gives it a treatment thats grimmer than the brothers Grimm. 

But you still keep watching because of the real emotional heft in the parent child relationship thats shown. Del Toro’s Gepetto is no fairytale father. When he first sees Pinocchio, his reaction isnt one of happiness, but of horror. Kids always do the most unexpected things, life rarely prepares you for that. There’s a pivotal moment in the film when Gepetto is exasperated with Pinocchio and calls him a “burden.” It’s a very real moment, heartbreaking because you feel for the child but also empathize with this man who’s life has been upturned. Parenting is exhausting, and when you carry too much baggage, even a child can feel too heavy.

Guillermo Del Toro has called this film ”his greatest passion project”, and it makes me wonder how much of himself he saw in Gepetto. They’re both master craftsmen and meticulous perfectionists as far as their art is concerned. The Pinocchio story, if anything, is about an artist’s creation having a life of its own. Like any work of art, Pinocchio in this film means different things to different people. For some, he’s an expression of or against religion. For some, he’s a means to make money. For some, he’s is a means to further political ends. Most importantly, once created, even the artist has no say on what the art is or should be. Seen through this lens, there’s a greater poignancy in the beautiful ending which not only shows what it means to be alive, but also what it means for art to live on. 

All things said, despite how much I liked this film, I will not recommend it for kids. Its certainly not for my five year old. Not after she stayed awake in the wee hours of Christmas morning shaping pieces of paper into presents. Her strange looking boxes had sides that were all uneven, folds at weird angles, inscrutable messages scribbled in with irresistible spellings. Fumbles and foibles that we’ll cheer and celebrate till the day school makes a student out of her. 

If I were to recommend a movie this season for kids (and adults too), then rather than the Pinocchio reboots, I’d go with the Dreamworks’ new Puss in Boots movie. This one’s a real doozy. It’s all kinds of funny, has top-notch animation, and is awash in fairytale characters, led by the delightfully spunky Goldilocks and the three bears. There’s key cameos from Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket too. Interestingly, the film shares its “Wishing Star” opening with Disney’s Pinocchio, and it brings up the same existential question as Del Toro’s Pinocchio. But the Dreamworks’ treatment is neither too Disney, nor too Del Toro. Its just right. And most importantly, the film is not going to cause any nightmares. If there’s one thing I cannot value enough as a parent, that’s a good night’s sleep.