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“Gepetto has wished for a brand new boy,
so you have been chosen to bring him joy…I hope.”
– The spell bringing Pinocchio to life, albeit with some shaky confidence
Hi boys and girls and everyone else! Today’s secret word is strings! So anytime someone says that word, scream real loud!
To say Pinocchio is just another fairytale character would be a gross understatement. Whether you’re familiar with the mischievous marionette through Disney’s animated movie, his appearances in the Shrek films, or some other third thing, everyone knows the living lie-detector puppet who wants to be a real boy. So where did he come from? Gepetto may be Pinocchio’s father in-story, but it was Italian author Carlo Collodi who gave him life on the page in 1881. Collodi wasn’t a stranger to fairy tales, having previously translated several French ones to his native tongue. When he was invited to try writing his own stories, he wound up making history.
Released in a serial format in one of the earliest known children’s magazines, Le avventure di Pinocchio highlighted the titular puppet’s trials and tribulations as he navigated the world around him. Pinocchio was meant to serve as an example of behavior for kids, and was punished or rewarded for his actions accordingly – but mostly punished. Those of you who’ve grown up knowing only Disney’s version might be surprised at how much the film deviates from Collodi’s writings, and the numerous bleak tangents that were omitted (though considering the frightening scenes that remain, I wouldn’t say the feature we got was all that saccharine). The original story ended on a rather grim note with Pinocchio left hanging from a noose after the Fox and Cat swindle him out of his money (I should mention at this point that Collodi was somewhat inspired by The Brothers Grimm, which certainly accounts for some of the darker elements). Popular demand rescued Pinocchio from his cruel fate, however, and his story continued for many months afterward. His complete adventures were compiled into a single book in 1883, and the puppet’s popularity hasn’t waned since. He’s a cultural icon in Italy, nearly at the same level that Mickey Mouse is in America. Some analyses even place him on the same epic heroes pedestal as Odysseus, Dante, and Gilgamesh, claiming his journey is just as rich an exploration of the human condition as their ancient myths.
As for me personally, I’ve made my adoration for the Disney film clear in the past (or rather the original, seeing as we’re getting a live-action remake of it next month). Walt and his team knew how to weave the separate tales into one cohesive narrative and made our hero a much more likable but still flawed and interesting character. That, combined with music and iconography that is rarely matched these days, cements it as one of the best animated features in the history of the medium – and nearly every version of Pinocchio that came after has tried and failed to be just like it. That’s not my love for Disney talking either. Most every iteration I’ve seen borrows or outright steals the same exact characters, designs and beats (in the same order) as the Disney one when not awkwardly incorporating details from the Collodi stories. So how does Faerie Tale Theatre’s take on the puppet’s odyssey fare?
Our narrator introduces us to a cozy seaside Italian village that an elderly woodcarver named Gepetto (Carl Reiner) calls home. Gepetto specializes in marionettes, but since they’re not exactly an in-demand commodity, he’s very poor. The villagers also think his spending too much time alone with his puppets has left him a little cracked in the head. Gepetto returns from the woods with a log he intends to carve into something that’s not a puppet for a change. But when he touches his wood (not going there), it begins to laugh. Gepetto is not put off by the ticklish possessed log, however, and carves it into “something very special”.
That night before going to bed, Gepetto wishes on a star for the son he always dreamed of having…
And shortly thereafter, a blue fairy appears in his workshop to grant him his wish…
But she does not grant a nearby cricket the rank of Conscience.
Sofia The Blue Fairy is one aspect of the episode that successfully differentiates itself from Disney’s Pinocchio. Disney’s Blue Fairy is calm and virtuous yet enigmatic, and more than a little influenced by the Virgin Mary in looks and character if you take the film’s subtle Christian leanings into account. Sofia, on the other hand, is pure Italian passion and voluptuousness, with a healthy dose of snark on the side. She’s still kind and patient, but she has her limits, and is not afraid to tell you when you’ve forked up royally. There’s even some precedence to her granting life to a marionette in that she’s the designated fairy of all things wood (and Tinkerbell thought she got a raw deal in being made a tinker fairy). Sofia also carries a bit of a torch for Gepetto, so it’s not just magical altruism motivating her in this instance. With a wave of her wand, she gives life to Gepetto’s new puppet, Pinocchio.
Your eyes are not deceiving you, folks. The resemblance to Pee-wee Herman is not an aesthetic choice. That is indeed Paul Reubens playing Pinocchio as his Pee-wee persona, voice and all. Since this was two years before Pee-wee’s Playhouse hit the airwaves, this is essentially the world’s first major exposure to the childlike madness that is Pee-Wee Herman. Learning this was like finding out Harry Belafonte’s first televised performance of “Day-O” was on The Muppet Show; not a bad thing by any means, but weirdly unexpected.
Sofia explains to Pinocchio that since this is her first time bringing something made of wood to life, he has to prove that he’s worthy of becoming a real boy. Being good and honest will bring him closer to that goal, but his nose will grow if he tells any lies (spoilers, lady, geez!) She also explicitly states that Pinocchio is closer to a teenager than a young boy, which makes casting gangly, adult-ish Reuben feel more plausible. Maybe Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio would have gone better if he made it clear that he was a middle-aged puppet trying to become a real man.
Gepetto wakes up after Sofia departs and he meets his new son. The two quickly bond and celebrate into the night. But Pinocchio still has a lot to learn about the world, which is no end of frustration for Gepetto.
It’s only after Pinocchio gets it right that Gepetto remembers they don’t even have any food to cook. He takes Pinocchio into town to do some shopping, and everyone seems oddly blasé about a life-size puppet walking around. Only Gepetto’s friend, the grocer Antonio, notices that his son’s made of wood, and advises Gepetto to keep his story under his hat. Gepetto trades his only coat for some fruit, but Pinocchio’s already found a way to get food without pulling any strings –
– by stealing some. It’s not an outright act of malice, he just didn’t know any better. But when he lies to Gepetto about where he got it from, well, you know the deal.
Pinocchio’s nose turns back to normal when he finally tells the truth (after some prodding from Sofia) and promises to never do it again. This learning experience pushes Gepetto into sending Pinocchio to school, saying he’ll learn everything he needs to know to be a real boy there.
After gaining his son’s assurance that he can buy his schoolbooks himself and come straight home without any trouble, Gepetto gives Pinocchio all the money he has and sends him on his way.
Unfortunately, an unscrupulous character sets his sights on Pinocchio the moment he steps out the door. And this is where the disclaimer comes in…
Meet our villain. He’s only called a certain slur that…I won’t say, but it starts with “g” and ends in “ypsy”, and he has all the negative stereotypes that come attached with that connotation. He’s greedy, tricks people into getting what he wants, sleeps outside of town in a colorful but poor caravan, and even uses dark magic to achieve his ends. The fact that he’s played by a white guy isn’t helping his case either. I could refer to him as “The Roma”, ie. the true name for his ethnicity, but I’d rather call him by his actor’s name, James. Anyway, James thinks Pinocchio would be an excellent addition to his show because he’s the only puppet in the world who can move without strings.
James lures Pinocchio in to watch a performance. The puppets aren’t real marionettes but two of James’ cronies, Mario and Vince, dressed up as a fox and cat (smart way of incorporating the characters from the original). The cat is played by Jim Belushi and…
…I’m sorry, but can we please stop saying Jim Belushi sucks? Yes, I know he’s not “as funny” as his revered late brother John, and “Jim Belushi Drowning in a Sea of Diarrhea” is a bop, but he’s had a decent career on screen and in voice acting, particularly in a lot of good cartoons I grew up with, and during the pandemic he evolved into everyone’s favorite pot-growing stoner uncle – which, by the way, he revealed was his way of coping with losing John to the harder stuff. Sorry to disappoint you, but there will be no Jim Belushi slander here today. Moving on.
Pinocchio leaps onstage and joins the “puppets'” antics. But in the middle of their song, Pinocchio discovers his nose has grown again as a result of disobeying Gepetto. He runs out of the theater seconds before James can ensnare him with a net. Sofia shows up and tells Pinocchio the only way to fix this is to go back home, tell his father what happened, and swear not to make the same foolish mistake twice. Pinocchio agrees, and she resets his nose. But he gets waylaid by Mario and Vince on the road. When Pinocchio thoughtlessly reveals he still has some of Gepetto’s money, they take him to the Field of Wonder where they watch Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta play baseball…oh sorry, wrong field. They escort him to a clearing in the forest that they say grows money if you plant some in the ground overnight. Pinocchio falls for the scam, hoping to make back what he lost at the puppet show.
Meanwhile Gepetto begs everyone he meets to help him find his wooden son, but the villagers are all “Crazy old Gepetto, he’s always good for a laugh”. Then he runs into the two crooks after they’ve stolen Pinocchio’s buried cash. They tell him Pinocchio went out to sea looking for mermaids, just to mess with him. Gepetto hops in the nearest boat and rows out in search of Pinocchio.
Pinocchio returns to town and bumps into the village priest who’s this close to shouting “The power of Christ compels you!!” once he realizes he’s talking to a living puppet. After clearing up some confusion (“Call me Father, my son.” “Thank you, but I already have a father.”), the priest informs Pinocchio that he last saw Gepetto heading towards the ocean. The boatman refuses to rent a ride without a deposit and convinces Pinocchio to wait at home for Gepetto to return. But Vince and Mario pull him aside and get him to come along with them to The Land of Fun and have you noticed the problem with this episode yet? It’s the same scenario repeated with little variation until we get to the whale escape. Pinocchio promises to do something right, someone distracts him so they can take advantage of him, he gets in trouble, Sofia bails him out after he swears he won’t fail again, rinse and repeat. I understand the original book was like this because it was intentionally episodic, and even the Disney film was fairly similar, but Disney knew how to shake things up and make the story work in a cinematic format. Reuben’s Pinocchio is a considerably nicer take on the character because he stumbles into trouble with good intentions rather than actively courting it, but you’d think he’d realize by now that not following through on whatever goal he has and being pushed along by the same people is a bad idea. Then, when he eventually realizes his mistake, Sofia has to bail him our despite the fact that he never seems to learn or keep his promises. Even Sofia is aware of this; she frequently wonders aloud why she’s always being so good to someone who’s a blockhead in every sense of the word.
You might have also noticed that there’s no cricket or conscience-type character in this retelling, which makes this one of the very few adaptations to omit them). And though I give the other Pinocchio adaptations flak for trying to force their own Jiminy Cricket knockoffs (the character is 10% Collodi, 90% Disney, and 100% useless when mishandled), having that character there makes a huge difference for three good reasons:
- Pinocchio has a good friend by his side helping him through his harsh situations as opposed to facing them alone.
- It helps make a clearer distinction between which of Pinocchio’s bad choices are a result of him being easily duped or pressured by others, or deliberate selfishness on his part.
- Relating to the first one, having a decent sidekick around lightens the mood significantly and helps the story flow better.
I understand he most likely wasn’t included due to technical limitations of the time, but I’m curious to see how he could have been incorporated.
Anyway, The Land of Fun is another one of James’ schemes to make Pinocchio into an attraction. He ushers him into his wagon saying he’ll take him to a place where you never have to work and can play games all day long. Then he locks Pinocchio in and transforms him into a half-puppet half-donkey.
James pays Mario and Vince their share for capturing Pinocchio, then settles in for the night. Sofia appears in the wagon and tells Pinocchio that Gepetto’s been swallowed by a whale. Pinocchio begs her to let him out and change him back so he can rescue him. Sofia relents, but warns him this is the very last time she’s going to help. For real. No backsies. Nada. Not even a little.
James is furious to discover his captive is gone. He assumes his juvenile accomplices have double-crossed him and plots his revenge. When Vince and Mario return asking for more money in exchange for even more kids they have their eyes on, he tricks them into the wagon and changes them into donkeys. It’s one of the few times any of Pinocchio’s antagonists ever get some form of comeuppance, so treasure it. Savor it. Clap for it.
Pinocchio spends the next two weeks rowing around in circles looking for Gepetto. On the fifteenth day he finally gets swallowed by the monstrous whale.
Pinocchio and Geppetto happily reunite in the whale’s stomach. Gepetto tries to get Pinocchio acclimated to his new living situation, but Pinocchio’s already plotting ways to escape. On being made aware of the whale’s blowhole right above their heads, Pinocchio plugs it up, attaches a rope to the blockage, and holds on with Gepetto; the whale uses all its force to blow air out, thus expelling them as well. Pinocchio saves Gepetto from drowning and floats them to shore.
Now safe at home, Pinocchio dotes on Gepetto. But when he comes in contact with the stove’s warmth, the combination of the heat and the water he’s absorbed causes him to warp. Luckily, Sofia poofs in and turns Pinocchio into a real boy. His dedication in caring for his father above all else is what ultimately earned him his humanity. Pinocchio dances with joy, and Gepetto takes Sofia to see his wood carvings in the bedroom.
I go back and forth on whether or not I consider Pinocchio one of my favorite Faerie Tale Theatre episodes. There’s nearly as many things holding me back from completely loving it as there are aspects that I really like. The casting is near perfect, everyone’s having a blast in their roles, and it’s one of the funnier outings thanks in no small part to its quippy writing and comedic leads. If they had found a way to better transpose the episodic nature of Collodi’s stories into an hour-long format I’d be ranking this episode much higher, but as it stands, Pinocchio is still an episode I enjoy watching every now and then…with no strings attached.
- Some of the cinematography is rather impressive. The opening shot panning around the entirety of Gepetto’s village gives us a feel for the community. The slow pan from Gepetto’s room to a pre-alive Pinocchio, however, is rather creepy. The eerie violin music as we close in on the puppet makes it feel even more unsettling.
- There’s a wood carving of a cat next to the Pinocchio puppet on the windowsill. A nod to Figaro from the Disney movie, perhaps?
- There’s another moment in the episode that’s similar to the Disney film. When Pinocchio falls from his perch after being given life, Gepetto starts awake, thinks there are burglars in his home, and tries to scare them off with a gun – though here it’s an L-square he tries to pass off as a gun. Save the real firearms for the hardcore Disney flick.
- The “one-a foot, othah foot, dis-a foot, dat-a foot” chant Pinocchio and Gepetto use when teaching Pinocchio to walk is a better learning-to-walk song than “Put One Foot In Front Of The Other”. Come at me.
- Though I didn’t bring it up too much in the review, Reubens and Reiner have great father-son chemistry. Since one of Reubens’ first public appearances as Pee-wee was on one of Reiner’s tv specials, I wonder if they were cast with that somewhat pre-existing dynamic in mind. The moment when Pinocchio mimics Gepetto’s whipping up some pancakes and gives a quick little kiss is sweet because it feels like something a child would genuinely do.
- Pinocchio seems to quickly undergo puberty once he becomes a real live boy; his voice drops and sounds closer to Paul Reuben’s natural speaking voice.
Hey, Was That…: The episode is narrated by Father Guido Sarducci himself, Don Novello; he’s even credited under his pseudonym. Lainie Kazan, better known as the mom from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, plays spicy Sofia. Michael Richards returns to the show as Vince, one of the bad boys. The evil Romani (ugh) is James Coburn; though he has a reputation for playing tough guys and villains in classic Hollywood, my generation knows him best as Mr. Waternoose in Monsters Inc., the manager of The El Sleazo Cafe in The Muppet Movie, and Animal’s meditation partner (saaaaaaahhreeeeeeeeene). Comedian Avery Schreiber plays the boatman. The priest is character actor Vincent Schiavelli, who’s most noted for playing the frightening Subway Ghost in the film Ghost and voicing The Pigeon Man in a memorable episode of Hey Arnold. Italian character actor Antonio Scotti is Antonio the grocer; ironically, he once played Gepetto on an Italian kids’ show called “Gepetto’s Workshop”. Peter Medak, who directed this episode and plenty of upcoming ones in the Faerie Tale Theatre pantheon, also directed the George C. Scott horror movie The Changeling, and the 1997 film adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Mandy Patinkin.
Who’s The Artist?: There is no artist or specific piece of artwork providing inspiration for the look of this episode as far as I’m aware, making this the second outing to have such a dubious distinction. It doesn’t even borrow from the original book’s illustrations or try to copy Disney, both low-hanging fruit as far as I’m concerned. Kudos for originality, I guess?
Better Or Worse Than…?: Blah blah blah, Disney’s is best, blah blah blah, what about the rest? Well I already mentioned how Robert Benigni’s Pinocchio is a mess, but I’ve heard the second Pinocchio movie he did where he plays Gepetto is supposed to be good. One that’s not so good but I find utterly fascinating is the 1995 version with Johnathan Taylor-Thomas and Martin Landau; it’s another movie I’m dying to review because there’s so much craziness to talk about. Filmation attempted to cash in on Disney’s Pinocchio by making their own unofficial sequel, Pinocchio and the Emperor of Night, which is only worth watching for the nightmare fuel and James Earl Jones as a not-so-subtle Satan allegory. The story got a “futuristic” upgrade in the Spanish animated film Pinocchio 3000, which has everything you need to know about in the title. Happily Ever After’s Pinocchio is fine, but more notable because of its voice cast: Will Smith plays Pinocchio, and his conscience is a termite named Woody who swings between helping Pinocchio and wanting to eat him…and is voiced by Chris Rock, which adds a whole other layer of weirdness to the Oscars slap. And 2022 is the Year of Pinocchio apparently, as we not only got Pinocchio: A True
Meme Story –
– but we’re also getting the live-action remake of the original Disney classic…
…and a stop-motion animated one directed by GUILLERMO DEL TORO.
I admit with that lineup, I’m grading this episode on a curve. It’s one of the better attempts at a retelling, but mainly because the others we’ve got are rarely good to begin with.
Ranking: The real charm from this episode comes from the great acting and comic moments in spite of the repetitive plot. It gets the Number Four spot between Tale of the Frog Prince and The Nightingale.
Next time on Faerie Tale Theatre, we’re following a little woman named Thumbelina as she makes her way through the big, big world.
Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th each month. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, TylerFG, Sam Flemming, and Robert Barnette for their support. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!