* WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS *
This article is reproduced with permission from the author's personal blog
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards. It is the latest version of a tale that originated in the Italian novel The Adventures of Pinocchio written in 1883 by Carlo Collodi. The puppet made by a skilled woodcarver, Geppetto, and brought to life by a supernatural power to have adventures, some accompanied by a talking cricket (or the ghost thereof), has become a cultural icon. The 1940 animated version of the tale from Walt Disney is perhaps the most famous telling. Unsurprisingly for those familiar with the Mexican director’s work, his version is darker version, with more fantastical creatures and elements of horror. The skill of the animators is quite amazing and the film has many moments of warmth and humour.
The Adventures of Pinocchio was first written in 1883 in Italian by Carlo Collodi. The puppet made by a skilled woodcarver, Geppetto, and brought to life by a supernatural power to have adventures, some accompanied by a talking cricket (or the ghost thereof), has become a cultural icon. The 1940 animated version of the tale from Walt Disney is perhaps the most famous telling, certainly the one I knew best before watching del Toro’s reimagining. Unsurprisingly for those familiar with the Mexican director’s work, this was a darker version, with more fantastic creatures and trips to the underworld with rabbit who are not only undertakers (a feature I had not realised was in the original novel), but skeletal. The skill of the animators is quite amazing and the film has many moments of warmth and humour.
The most obvious change to the story is the film’s setting. We are still in Italy, but rather than being in the late 1800s, we are in the period of World War 2 and the fascist regime of Mussolini, who appears in the film in comedic form. Another significant change is that Geppetto is a father at the outset of the film. His son is killed during World War One and he carves Pinocchio in some sense as a replacement for him. This is a key plot device because of the greatest twist del Toro brings to the tale, which is revealed in the ending. Rather than becoming a real boy as he does in the novel and the Disney movie, del Toro’s Pinocchio remains wooden. He chooses to become mortal in a trade off to rescue Geppetto, but he does not transform into flesh and blood. He was, it turns out, a real boy all along, just as he was.
When asked for his reasons for this change, del Toro explained that he wanted to tell a story about others coming to accept the real Pinocchio rather than the puppet changing to earn their love. As del Toro says, “It’s Pinocchio that transforms the people around him, not transforms himself to please”.[i] To achieve this, he makes Pinocchio look less cute (quite spindly in fact) and imperfect (he has one ear, not two, a hole in his chest and a spindle of twig on his head and when his legs are burnt and need replaced, the new legs are just strapped to the old stumps). The puppet also acts manically – del Toro says he is hyperactive – and Geppetto is also less patient than previous versions and initially vehemently denies Pinocchio’s claims to be his son. Contrary to what del Toro’s comment might suggest, Pinocchio does change through the course of the film – he becomes more controlled in his behaviour – but not profoundly or in essence. The real changes are in Geppetto, who comes to accept the puppet as his son and to love him as he is rather than wishing he would become like the son he lost.
Geppetto’s problem, as the film presents it, is that he is seeking perfection. He needs to change to realise Pinocchio will not be perfect and to accept him with his difference. Del Toro describes the woodcarver’s story arc as follows: “Geppetto starts the film talking about perfection. ‘Look at this pine cone. It’s not perfect. We’ve got to find a perfect one.’ And he ends up embracing his son on the beach”. That embrace is not the end of the story, though. Pinocchio is mortal (he trades off an endless cycle of death and rebirth for permission to return prematurely from death in order to rescue his father) but he is young and seems to have an extraordinarily long life (perhaps he can only die through violence and not through disease?) so we see him watching each of his companions dying as he lives on, until he sets off to make his way in the world alone but not distraught. Ewan McGregor’s voice – playing the now dead Sebastian J. Cricket – speaks the final line of the film: “What happens, happens, and then we’re gone.”
This is the message of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. Life is brief and it is fundamentally meaningless. We simply experience things happening to us and death is the end – no afterlife or hope of eternity. Within this way of thinking – this “worldview,” as it may be called – the message of the boy who shouldn’t need to change to be loved makes sense. Why should we waste time and effort adapting to the expectations of others or the ‘norms’ of society when life is brief and meaningless? Surely the best we can do is to find whatever happiness life’s circumstances allows before it is all over? As del Toro says, “None of us is important. So while we are together, all of us are important. There’s an underlying theme that is very, very profound for me, which is to understand that the metronome of life is death. There’s actually no tragedy in going. There’s a tragedy in wasting our life while we are together”. Death is not a tragedy. It just is. And it sets life’s rhythm, so get on and live and let live.
Del Toro’s philosophy is not his alone. It is the dominant philosophy of the modern West. Perhaps not quite in del Toro’s certainty that death is the end. Many people still hold on to some hope that their loved ones live on and they will too. That certainly comes out when people speak of death or at funerals when they speak of the dead. But if people do have some sense of an afterlife, they have no clarity about what it entails. Death just is and whatever comes after it just is, so let’s get on and live and let live. Within that philosophy, it makes sense to say that people should be free to be themselves. Unrestricted by the hopes of parents, the weight of traditional values or religion, the judgement of authority figures. Find happiness while you can. Tolerate others while we are together. More than that, affirm them in their pursuit of themselves just as you hope they will do for you. No one can reveal your true self to you. You must discover it and then be it. More than that, you should live it out for all to see and don’t let the values or expectations of others restrict you, for to do so will impede your pursuit of self-fulfilment. The technical term for this value is expressive individualism.
Del Toro’s film preaches a philosophy. But does it do so convincingly? I suggest not. You may have noticed that this is not a film about changeless people. Some characters do change. In fact, most of the main characters do. Geppetto, obviously, changes to accept and love Pinocchio. The Sebastian J. Cricket changes too – he becomes less judgemental and directive to the puppet – and the monkey Zpazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett) is transformed from a sinister sidekick to the film’s main villain, Count Volpe (Christophe Waltz) into another buddy for Pinocchio (we realise he was not evil, but enslaved by his master). The only unchanging people among the main cast are Pinocchio – who does not need to change – and Volpe – who is the personification of evil judgementalism of others and cannot change. The message is clear here too. There is good and evil, but it is not a traditional conception of morality. The only evil is to restrict others. The ultimate good is to be free and allow others to be free.
There is a contradiction, however, at the heart of this story. What del Toro is presenting is not a world in which everyone can be who they want to be. It is a society in which each individual’s will to be who he or she or them wishes to be must be accommodated by everyone else around him or her or them. That sounds great until you try to work it out. The pursuit of individual fulfilment cannot happen unless others change, but why should they change if they too have a right to pursue their individual fulfilment? This is a recipe for anarchy or conflict. It cannot lay the foundations of a stable society. Strikingly, the person who should not change in this film is the youngest of the characters. The older characters – Geppetto supremely, but also the cricket and the monkey – must adapt to the young. This too is a feature of our expressively individualistic culture. There is no equality of give and take. It is a one-way street of sacrifice by the older for the sake of the young.
Sadly, this project will not work unless del Toro’s worldview is correct. His Pinocchio film does not seek to explain why we should believe his ideas. It simply presents the closing mantra – “What happens, happens, and then we’re gone” – as a fact. Jesus Christ presented a different claim as a fact. He said that things are not random and that our lives find meaning not in the act of being ourselves, or even in the fact that we exist, but in the purpose for which we were made, to know and love God, our Creator. Jesus introduced that Creator to us as his Father who could also become our Father.[ii] Through the story of a boy created for a purpose by a master craftsman, del Toro tries to sell us a philosophy based on the idea that we are not created and that we have no purpose. He encourages us to live by a philosophy of expressive individualism, shaping the world and the others who inhabit it around our autonomous will to be what we think we are. But if we are created as Pinocchio was, then we have a purpose and only our creator can reveal it to us. Jesus claimed to have come from His Father for that reason, to reveal truth to a confused world.
Del Toro gives no explanation in his film of why it is better for Pinocchio to stay as he is rather than to change. I, for one, am puzzled as to how it is best for him to live as a wooden boy in a world of children of flesh and blood. Of course, del Toro has tricked us in that his Pinocchio already possesses all the faculties of a real human child – feelings and sensations of body and heart, a will and emotions, capacities to learn and to love. If a wooden child could exist, it would not have all these faculties. It could not feel without nerve endings and nerves. It could not think without brain cells. According to Jesus Christ, as we exist in this world without Jesus, we are missing a vital dimension of life. Indeed, we are dead in our sins.[iii] In a sense, we could say that we are not real people. We live in the world like puppets, created by God but detached from him. We think we have cut the strings, but what if our strings are being pulled by other forces – the lure of popularity or fear of shame, or even deceiving spirirts? If we are aware that God exists, we think that he is a spoilsport who wants to ruin our fun. We strive for autonomy to be who we choose to be. We are a lot like del Toro’s Pinocchio.
But God is not like del Toro’s Geppetto. Pinocchio’s creator in this film did not know his creation, did not love him at first, and wanted to squeeze him into being something that would be better for Pinocchio – better, note, simply for being free to be who he wants to be. Some people may think that the God of Christianity is like that. That idea has been around for a very long time. According to the Bible it is the original and oldest human lie – God is a spoilsport who wants to restrict you and you can do a better job by rebelling and living independently as your own master. That was what the serpent (Satan) wanted Adam and Eve to believe and they fell for it.[iv] But, Jesus insists, it was a lie![v] Our strings are being pulled by Satan, the father of lies. Jesus revealed our Creator as One who created us out of love and loves us still, despite our prodigal wandering.[vi] A God who knows us better than we know ourselves and cares enough about us to rescue us when we went astray. A God who is only and always good. He explained that we, if we continue in rebellion against God are lost and heading for destruction. God will judge us. The option of outliving God, as Pinocchio did his creator, is not open to us. We cannot continue on our own path forever. But God has provided the way for us to be saved through his Son Jesus.
The salvation God offers through Christ is no less radical than the experience of Pinocchio in the original story. It is a radical transformation into a new kind of creature. It does not diminish us. It restores us to what the Creator intended us to be. It brings us to life in a real way. Not with wooden hearts and heads, but feeling and thinking in line with God. It calls us to be people who are not fixated on being what we want and expressing who we believe ourselves to be, but people who learn from the love of God to love others. That sets us on the way that Christ himself demonstrated – the path of self-sacrifice for others. Not demanding that everyone around me bends to accept me, but being changed by God into the likeness of Christ and bending my knee, as Christ did his when he washed the feet of his disciples, to serve others.
Del Toro has presented us with a created being whose creator must learn from him to accept him. Jesus Christ describes us as created beings who must learn from our Creator how to be truly human by accepting his Son as our Saviour and Lord. I suppose we need to decide who we trust more and which version of our Pinocchio story is true.
[i] All quotes of del Toro are from this Netflix article: https://www.netflix.com/tudum/articles/pinocchio-ending-explained [ii] He routinely called God Father and taught his disciples to pray to him as Father in the Lord’s Prayer (see Matthew 6). [iii] John 8:23-24 [iv] Genesis 3:4-5 [v] John 8:44 [vi] The reference here is to the Parable of the Lost Son and then the Parable of the Lost Sheep, both found in Luke 15.