I’m pretty sure that Pinocchio was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater. In those pre-video and pre-DVD days, the classic animated Walt Disney films were reissued to the movie theaters on a multi-year rotation basis, there to be enjoyed by a new generation of little kids. The Webner kids saw Pinocchio on one of the reissuances, in a full-sized movie theater with a huge screen and top of the line sound system.
When people think of Pinocchio, they typically think of the charming and friendly Jiminy Cricket and the helpful Blue Fairy, of Pinocchio’s funny nose growing with each implausible lie, of Pinocchio dancing with Geppetto and his squeeze box, and of the great songs — Give A Little Whistle, Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me), and of course When You Wish Upon A Star. Not me. I thought Pinocchio was terrifying, and even now when I think of the movie the little boy inside still cringes.
Of course, Pinocchio is a morality tale; real boys are supposed to be honest, good and true and listen to their consciences. But the real eye-opener for this little kid was the notion that there are bad people lurking out there who act like your friends but are ready to lure you from school, clap you into a bird cage, make you sick with a cigar at Pleasure Island, and turn you into a donkey. Used as I was to walking to school every day with UJ in our tidy Akron neighborhood, that notion was astonishing. And even though I was pretty sure that little boys who misbehaved couldn’t be turned into donkeys, the scene where Pinocchio’s big-talking miscreant pals are transformed into frightened braying jackasses still had a huge impact. What if the seemingly nice people I encountered during the day were like the initially jolly Coachman who turned out to be evil incarnate?
I haven’t seen a Disney animated movie since Richard and Russell were little, so I don’t know if their films still have scary characters and scenes. Pinocchio packed a punch because the bad guys were truly frightening and the terrified realization of the boys changed forever into donkeys seemed indisputably real. I’m not saying Pinocchio cured me of bad behavior — Mom and my siblings would certainly dispute that notion — but the scary parts introduced new concepts about the potential costs of naivete and naughtiness and the presence of wickedness in the world that had a real impact.
I thought of Pinocchio and the awful Coachman the other day when I was reading about the latest bad person to take terrible advantage of trusting people. The lesson endures.