Puppets never grow. They are born puppets, they live puppets and they die puppets.
(The blue-haired fairy)
When Walt Disney set about adapting Pinocchio for his second animated feature, he struck problems. Six months or so into the project, he discovered that what he had was an impossible sell: the story of a petulant, unlovable puppet that no audience could possibly warm to. Always the realist, he assembled his staff and informed them of the need for a sharp change of course. The puppet had to be transformed, in order to have a life on the screen at all; he had to be a sympathetic character before he could be a good boy. The result was – at least for lovers of Carlo Collodi’s original story – the utterly dismaying Pinocchio of 1940, a film that, much like Burton’s Alice of 2010, represents almost in every single detail a betrayal of its source. Beginning with the protagonist, who in Collodi’s serialised book was capricious, selfish, lazy and dishonest, traits that were more than a match for his occasional desire to do well by old, cantankerous Geppetto – himself hardly a paragon of lovability. Add to this that the original cricket gets squashed by Pinocchio with a wooden mallet in chapter four, two pages after making its first appearance, and that the blue-haired fairy, latterly Pinocchio’s sister and mother, debuts as a terrifying ghost wholly indifferent to the puppet’s fate, and you’ll get a sense of the breadth and depth of Walt’s troubles. How do you make an animated feature sure to be loved by millions out of such material?
There remains, granted, the small detail that Collodi’s Pinocchio had in fact succeeded in becoming a classic in its native Italy, and was a book that still spoke to children and adults half a century after its publication. That it had managed that, in spite of being resolutely impervious to crowd-pleasing, one could perhaps attribute to its wonderful invention, which is likely also the secret of the stubborn success of Carroll’s largely unsympathetic Alice. Neither book has ceased to this day to be relevant, nor to be read and loved. But, while we still wait for a film version of Alice that achieves worldwide iconic status, Disney likely rightly perceived that Pinocchio couldn’t be sold to a global audience like that.
Italian Gothic: Pinocchio swings from a tree in view of the house where the blue-haired fairy was murdered, from the Jonathan Cape edition of Pinocchio illustrated by Roberto Innocenti
And so now we have two Pinocchios: Disney’s saccharine-dripping, visually gorgeous film, which is all about the transformative power of deeply-felt desires and the will to succeed; and Collodi’s bleak and pessimistic fable, which is about the primacy of need: the need to be clothed and to eat – first and foremost – to which are subordinated the need to get an education and to work, that is to say, to comply with society’s demands. Not because it is the key to fulfilment and happiness, but simply because the individuals who don’t – as both the short-lived cricket and the sometime despotic fairy remark at different junctures in the book – generally end up ‘either in hospital or in jail’.
And naturally, inevitably, it is Disney’s utterly unfaithful Pinocchio that most people outside of Italy, and many inside of it, know and remember. In a piece for the London Review of Books, Bee Wilson has gone as far as to argue that Disney’s version ‘restored the story from an irony-laden parody to a true fairy tale,’ as if that made it somehow more authentic (and more valuable), although there is probably some truth in her claim that the film contributes to the continuing success of the book. Be that as it may, I want to talk about that warmth today, that lovability.
When John Lasseter and his colleagues at Pixar set about making their first animated feature, they struck the exact same trouble that had beleaguered old Walt: two years into production, whilst presenting an early draft to Disney’s producers, they came to the realisation that their central character, Woody the Sheriff, was a sarcastic and unlovable brat. ‘A thundering arsehole’ were co-screenwriter Joss Whedon’s actual words. And so again the work of animation was halted, the production team regrouped and a major rewrite ensued, to ensure that Woody would be warmed to and therefore that the film could succeed. And in this case too I have little doubt that it was the smart thing to do; besides, there was no fidelity to be compromised in the process, no book to betray, unless one were somehow inclined to regard Pinocchio as an implicit ur-text, the ghost of puppets past haunting Woody from beyond the grave.
Then again, why not? Perhaps the remarkably similar story of the two films suggests precisely that Woody had to smooth the same character flaws that made Collodi’s Pinocchio an impossible sell: an intractable pig-headedness, a fierce determination not to comply or listen to his master’s voice. We’ll never know, insofar as there is no script for the film that never was. But we do know that Woody’s eventual incarnation is quite the opposite of Collodi’s creature, chiefly in that he knows the purpose for which he was made and embraces it fully. He spends in fact the best part of the film teaching Buzz what it means to be a toy, and that it’s a higher calling than saving the universe, which is Buzz’s factory-set delusion.
In order to fulfil this calling, as we saw two weeks ago, a toy relinquishes its agency to the child and becomes completely passive and quite literally spineless – the transition when a person appears on the scene is marked in the anthropomorphic toys by their flopping over on the spot. But this is no automatic reflex, or absolute law of toy nature, as demonstrated at the end of the film when Woody commandeers a group of toys to rebel against Sid, Andy’s sadistic neighbour, and in the process breaks that cardinal rule simply by choosing to remain animated in full view of the child. By contrast, as Wilson writes, Collodi’s Pinocchio
is wilful before he has even been carved. As a log of wood, his voice shouts out that the hatchet hurts him and the plane tickles his tummy. When Geppetto makes him into a puppet, all his attempts to establish mastery over the wood are mocked: Pinocchio kicks Geppetto, steals his wig and laughs at him.
What a thundering arsehole. But then how much of the warm, loveable nature of Disney’s Pinocchio and of Woody is in fact a function of their meekness, of their absolute and freely-given compliance? And to what extent is this subjugation a function of the transition from the book to the screen?
When Jessica Rabbit quipped that she wasn’t a bad person, she was just drawn that way, she illuminated what makes cartoon characters so ontologically peculiar. A cartoon is not just written, it is also drawn. Every minute aspect of their being has to be crafted, and then manipulated so as to fit the design. A cartoon lead needs to be able to show a range of emotions that was never demanded of Gregory Peck, or Keanu Reeves. Nor is it as easy as describing those emotions in words; they need to be shown. And when cartoons go digital, the degree of command over those virtual bodies becomes a measurable variable with which to conceptualise the artist’s role even more tightly as a form of total and ultra-precise control. So for instance we are told that in the first Toy Story Woody ‘was operated by 723 motion controls, including 212 for his face and 58 for his mouth’.
Those are quite a number of strings on the old puppet, I think you’ll agree. And perhaps even by Pixar’s brilliant standards of putting the artistry at the service of storytelling, it is simply impossible in that environment, where every single gesture has to be carefully computed and modelled, to conceive of a rebellious lead pulling the story in dark, foreboding places, eschewing his directives or refusing to be loved.
And so we find ourselves again, as we did after Avatar and Alice, contemplating that familiar paradox at the heart of contemporary cinema, namely how to the staggering expansion of its capacity to represent form – in flawless CGI and the fulness of 3D – corresponds an even further narrowing of the available range of meanings. The puppets must be always obedient and lovable; the fictions must be always comforting and warm. Or else we'll have to stop everything and rewrite the entire bloody script.
Carlo Collodi. Pinocchio. Translated by E. Harden. London: Jonathan Cape, 1988.
Bee Wilson. 'No Strings'. London Review of Books Vol. 31 No. 1 · 1 January 2009.
'Toy Story: The Inside Buzz'. Entertainment Weekly No. 304, 8 December 1995.
With many thanks to Dougal for his help with the sources.