Having grown up in the ’80s and ’90s, I’m accustomed to a certain degree of emotionally-scarring moments from “children’s movies” and media that would never pass nowadays. However, the one that I think left the biggest mental wounds would be a Disney flick, of all things. To this day, there’s one movie I cannot stand to watch.
No…not “Fantasia”. I can watch that one, I just fall asleep for parts of it.
I’m talking about “Pinocchio”.
I’m sure there’s plenty of lists out there about who are the top Disney Villains. They may say Frollo was pure evil, Scar was the “Hamlet villain” of the bunch, and Malecifent literally invokes Hell to use her own powers…but frankly they’re all full of crud because not one of them ever features the Coachman. Evil, cruel, sadistic, and probably the most immoral character Disney films ever put out…possibly infernal…not to mention the fact that, unlike most Disney villains, he’s still engaging in his twisted practice at the end of the film, more than likely.
While the villain was frightening enough, what really traumatized me as a child was the fate of the children who were foolish enough to enter Pleasure Island. It was the most horrible thing I had ever seen at the time. Being turned into a mute donkey and being impressed into toil and labor…if not being slaughtered for their hides…and never seeing their families again.
Now, naturally, to this day, when I encounter someone where this subject comes up, no one else seems to feel the way I do. People feel it’s “just a cartoon”, and, to be honest, it certainly is. While as a child it was pretty heavy, nowadays it’s just animation. That sort of thing could never happen in real life…although things far worse, such as the sex industry and kidnapping kids to sell into “sex slavery”, is most certainly real. Yet no one else seems to mind it half as much as I do. The answers I get are that they don’t really care. “Well…they kind of deserved it.” And I’m generally thought of as being wimpy for thinking such a brief anecdote in Disney history was so bad or that I should be so impacted by it, for thinking the scene was so bad.
Well…in response, I have a couple things wrong with people saying it’s “wimpy” to think that such a scene wasn’t that terrible and that I shouldn’t feel so bad for the fate of the children due to them “deserving” it.
One, if we accept that all of the children who went to Pleasure Island weren’t just boys misbehaving but were actually innately evil and therefore deserved the fate they received, or, at minimum, the very fact that they cast aside their parents and responsibilities to go there in the first place made them deserving of that punishment, then why should we be happy that Pinocchio managed to escape? Technically, he was the same as the rest of them. He got there the same way they did. And just like the rest of them, he never expressed any regret until he realized what was going to happen to him. If anything, he might be more deserving than them, as he already had a “second chance” after falling in with Stromboli. You know the old adege: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Two, considering the first one, if we assume Pinocchio was “different”, that, by some act of fate, he was a truly “good” boy there who just got misled to that place under false pretenses and never had his “heart” in the same revelry as the rest of them, then should we honestly assume that there weren’t more boys there like him? Who decided to play hooky one day or succumbed to the temptation of just endulging in hedonism? Hell, lots of teens and adults do that to one degree or another. Not to mention children are, to a degree, hedonistic.
Third, it was quite clear that Geppetto was devastated by the loss of Pinocchio when he went missing. And any parent would be. Assuming that we can conclude that the boys all deserved to be turned into dumb animals and labor for the rest of their natural lives as punishment for their revelry, do the parents deserve that sort of misery of losing their children? Now, some may argue: “Well, if their parents really loved them, why didn’t they bring them up better so they wouldn’t go there and misbehave?” Ok, if you argue that, explain Pinocchio being there. Equally ridiculous is to assume all the parents simply thought: “Boy, are we lucky to be rid of that juvenile delinquent son we had. Let’s get to work making a new one.” Even if the kids were completely destructive vandals, criminals, or were “hopeless cases” in the eyes of the rest of the world, don’t be silly enough to think that would make a parent stop loving them. Any parent who has had to deal with a child going through an addiction or even jail time will tell you it’s not so easy to just “disown” your own flesh and blood.
Fourth, in large part, this scene may have indeed meant to be just a “morality lesson”. “Kids, do not misbehave, smoke, drink, or break windows, or you will be turned into a donkey and taken away from everything you love to be abused and mistreated for the rest of your life.” Similar to if you get out of bed at night the Boogieman will come out of the closet and eat you or if you make a face it will get stuck that way. First of all, threats like that are cheap methods of control. They’re perfectly fine when a child only understands the basest emotions of fear as opposed to empathy or a desire not cause trouble for others, but there comes a time in a child’s life where they will eventually start to realize that there’s nothing to be afraid of. They’ll reject real fear under the pretense: “It’ll never happen to me.”, and fake fears will simply be discarded along with stuffed animals and make-believe. Second, it wasn’t terribly well done. It would have been one thing if the Coachman was a spectral, malevolent figure whose “duty” was to find all the naughty, idle, misbehaving boys of the world and “deal with them”. This one, however, was clearly a wicked person utilizing a supernatural situation for personal profit. So perhaps the scene teaches children a lesson we’d rather keep from them as long as possible…the permanence of evil.
Fifth, and most important…
Before any parent or anyone else tells their child: “Oh, those boys were naughty and they deserved what happened to them.”, make clear one thing. Is your child upset because they’re afraid they’ll turn into a donkey if they misbehave? Or are they upset at seeing what happened to the boys? Are they upset because they saw a boy who broke things that didn’t belong to them get transformed into a four-legged beast as punishment? Or are they upset because they saw a transformed child cry for his mother? Are they upset because they saw a beer and a cigar will turn you into a jackass? Or are they upset because the last thing that “naughty boy” did was beg for help to stop his transformation?
If the answers are the second of those options, then I think it’s a bit dangerous to reassure children that they “deserved it”. What the kids are scared of is not what might happen to them, but what happened to the other children. At an early age, the child is starting to show empathy. Perhaps they’re thinking: “Yes, those boys were bad. Yes, they may ever deserve what happened to them. But…I still don’t like it. I don’t like watching them cry and moan. I don’t like watching them be scared and tormented.”
That’s the essence of human characteristics that we should hope to raise in our children. Ideas of pity and mercy. The thing about movies is that they go to extreme lengths to show people that characters are “all bad”. They load them with outlandish amounts of evil and “Kick the Dog” moments and then encourage the audience to not only believe the only logical thing left is to inflict a horrible punishment, but to actually make them long for it. The ultimate solution is that “the bad guy must die”. Even kids programming normally does that. Cycling back to Disney, exactly how many Disney villains can be named who didn’t eventually get whacked? And Disney prides itself on being so “family-friendly” too. We want to raise our kids to ruthlessly pursue justice to an almost “revenge-level” degree. If someone does bad, the problem is never an underlying social injustice or the symptom of a deep evil or people who have been pushed to desperation. The problem is they’re bad and need to be punished.
It’s true, there are some people in the world who take advantage of those who are tender or kind-hearted. But let’s be honest…do we want a world that’s more “just” or more “merciful”? Do we want more political extremist groups who constantly are looking for ways to “inflict revenge” on each other for every act one of them commits? Do we want more people who sees the world full of evil to be punished or good that needs a chance to “come out”? If you did wrong yourself, would you hope the person deciding your fate was just or merciful?
In spite of what the media and press constantly tries to get people to think, this world has more good people in it than bad by far, and of the “bad” ones, very few are the dyed-in-the-wool evil. So please don’t encourage kids to think that way. Only in fiction can a person die completely without consequences or heartache to someone. And if that sort of thing does happen in real life, then it’s far more an indictment of our own callousness than the individual’s wickedness in the far majority of cases.
In conclusion, if ever your own kid admits that a particular scene in a juvenile movie left them feeling scared or distressed…give the moment a bit more thought before encouraging them not to “be a wimp”. It might end up being a better sign than you think.