Theme: Guarding the Heart . . . the Source of Life
Walt Disney Pictures 2022 live action remake of their 1940 animated film, Pinocchio, had all the right ingredients for a smash hit. Robert Zemeckis, the Academy Award winning director/writer, is known for his gifted innovation with special effects. Together again with Tom Hanks (Polar Express, Cast Away, and Forrest Gump) in the lead as Gepetto, the expectations were very high for audiences and critics alike. However, according to Rotten Tomatoes neither group, 32% -27% respectively, found it appealing. One critic summed it up as visually dazzling but soulless.
This musical version of Pinocchio is visually dazzling, well choreographed, and hardly soulless; it is a fable not a fairytale. Fairytales are directed to children and have magical events and extraordinary beings while fables are instructive tales that teach morals about human social behavior. Fables almost always end with an explicit moral message; in this case it is Proverbs 4:23: Guard your heart above all else for it is the source of life.1
Disney’s new Pinocchio is so worth seeing! It is beautifully written, filled with wonderful imagery, and profound truth. It does what “true myth” always does, help people to see the transcendent in ways the rational never can. The problem is not with the movie, it’s with eyes that were looking for the fairytale while not understanding the fable.
Once Upon a Time
The opening scenes for Zemeckis’s Pinocchio set the stage for the story which follows. A bedraggled Jiminy Cricket looking for warmth finds his way into Gepetto’s workshop, where the old wood carver is putting the finishing touches on a puppet. A beautiful poignant back-story is unveiled as Gepetto has created Pinocchio in the image of a boy whom he lost. Singing a lament entitled “When He Was Here with Me”, he reminisces about times of joy and laughter while grieving the loss of the happily ever after which was never meant to be. All that remains of the boy is the picture and the memories.
In the shop there is a wall of amazing cuckoo clocks (all Disney stories) which cannot be sold, for they were beloved by a she who has been lost as well. The “Once Upon a Time” which the narrator Jiminy Cricket opened the story with seems more appropriately an “In the Beginning” . . . where there was unimaginable love and beauty. But alas! Eden has fallen and all that remains is an aged Gepetto with only Cleo the goldfish and Figaro the cat to be his family.
Finishing the puppet Gepetto gives him a try, and as they dance together, he names the puppet made of pine Pinocchio. With a heart stirred by memory and joy, the old carver retires to bed and is surprised to see a wishing star. Looking from picture to puppet he makes a wish from the deepest desire of his heart and turns his song of lament into a prayer.
Behold, a bolt out of the blue followed by the appearance of a heavenly messenger turns Pinocchio into a living puppet with no strings attached, only a test to be tried (James 1:12)2. To become “real” Pinocchio must prove himself brave, truthful and unselfish, for the most important truth is. . . .it is not what you are made of but what is in your heart (Proverbs 4:23).
Gepetto sends Pinocchio off to school with an apple for the teacher and instructions on how to find his way home. He is intercepted by a fox named Honest John who takes a bite out of the apple as he offers to make Pinocchio famous. Using the ancient serpent’s tactics, he tells Pinocchio if he really wants to make his father proud fame is the way.
After being sold by the sly fox to a master showman Stromboli, a puller of stings who bullies the weak and vulnerable, Pinocchio is put in a birdcage and told he is his captor’s gold mine. The puppet experiences a full range of new emotions; humiliation, shame, and fear making him call out to his father for help. This money test ends as Jiminy Cricket appears and after a deep repentance for lying Pinocchio is set free from Stromboli’s prison. The Cricket wants him to understand being real in the heart is what matters, not what you are on the outside.
No sooner have Jiminy and Pinocchio left Stromboli’s when they are separated again. Pinocchio is snapped up at the crossroads by a Coachman with a coach filled with children on their way to Pleasure Island; the place where real transformation takes place. Hesitant at first to join, the Coachman sings a catchy tune putting peer pressure on the puppet. Pinocchio succumbs to this power and soon they arrive at Pleasure Island designed of course like its Disney namesake with rides everyone recognizes. This test is all about feeding and feasting the appetites of the flesh. It is a place with “no cops, parents, rules” so they can gorge on food, candy and drink. The children can do as they please and give into whatever urges they learn in the island’s DeGrade school, or visit the Hall of Liars and stop in the Shop in Lift. Never do they realize as they smash clocks under signs of ShutUp and BeRate their time is running out. They are becoming what they worship for ruin, not restoration . . . they are being transformed into donkeys.3
Jiminy Cricket shows up just as Pinocchio gets donkey ears and a tail. Escaping they see the Coachman has demons filling the crates with children turned donkeys and selling them to the Salt Mines. Sadly, by the time Jiminy and Pinocchio make it home they find Gepetto, Cleo and Figaro are not there. Sofia the seagull arrives to inform them Gepetto sold all his beloved clocks and all he possessed to buy a boat to sail to Pleasure Island in order to save his son.
The final test Pinocchio faces as he sets out to find his father isn’t an enticement to idolatry as fame, fortune, and feasting were. This is a more subtle offer of a good life with another family, just not the one with the Father. By now the puppet has become wise enough to know that a life without his Father is no life at all, and in one moment the donkey ears and tail are gone.
When Pinocchio is finally restored to Gepetto after “running on water” to get to the little boat, he is over flowing with repentance and apologizes profusely for all the trouble he has caused. Like the Father of the Prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), Gepetto is overjoyed to have his son home to be a family again; but before they can truly celebrate one more trial remains.
Just as it was a heavenly messenger of love and kindness who animated Pinocchio’s wooden body, it is an ancient sea monster that comes up from the waters of Chaos to swallow the boy and his creator father in death. This is the final evil, the final test, the last battle of the love of power vs. the power of love story. Monstro is no match for Gepetto. He who sold all he possessed to go after his son and to save him now receives back sacrificial love from the boy. After washing up on a sandy shore the boy who has become brave, truthful and unselfish turns his song of lament into a prayer; the father’s dream and wish has become his own and a real tear from the wooden boy proves the love of the Father has transformed the heart of Pinocchio and made him real. In union together they can now share life as they follow the Light of Heaven.
- Proverbs 4:23 Christian Standard Bible.
- James 1:12 Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. NIV Bible
- “You become what you worship either for ruin of restoration”, quote from G.K. Beale’s We Become What We Worship