The trouble didn’t really start yesterday until I got home from work. Sam was cheerfully watching PAW Patrol and playing with Duplos. After we said good-bye to my mother, he trotted over to cuddle on my lap, there wanting to play with me and watch videos on my phone, as we tend to do in the afternoon.
And really, it didn’t start until I started playing with the Duplos. He wanted me to build a light saber and fight him, but I was exhausted from a busy day at work and the looming prospect of cooking dinner. I stacked the 1×1 bricks into a tower, light saber style, and then held the tower against my nose. “I’m Pinocchio!” I told Sam and received a blank stare in response.
Oh. Right. My son isn’t quite three yet, and we don’t own Pinocchio, and it’s too popular of a Disney film to be available on Netflix or On Demand. It’s a classic, so they want you to spend lots of money on it, but I’m just not that committed. Pinocchio hasn’t ever been one of my favorites, though until last night, I’d forgotten why. Still, when Sam didn’t understand that reference, I went into Google-fu mode and pulled up a clip of Pinocchio dancing to “I’ve Got No Strings.” Sam thought it was hilarious, particularly the Russian marionettes at the end, kicking themselves in the head and shouting, “Hey!” He wanted more, so I blindly tapped on the next video.
As an adult, you realize a lot of things about “charming” children’s films you watched in your youth. Pinocchio, for example, is about as charming as the latest installment of the Saw franchise. Oh, sure, it starts out innocently enough, with a kindly old man wishing on a star to have a son and a blue fairy granting his wish by giving life to a puppet, but it’s all downhill from there. The living puppet gets kidnapped by an amalgamation of racist stereotypes who threatens to literally murder him if he doesn’t stay in his cage and perform on the road. That “I’ve Got No Strings” scene? It’s immediately followed by Pinocchio’s kidnapper laughing maniacally as he throws Pinocchio into a birdcage and throwing an axe at a pile of splintered wood that used to be marionettes just like Pinocchio. Yikes.
(“this is the axe I will use to tear you limb from limb if you try to run away”)
And that’s just the beginning! The movie ends with a terrifying sequence involving a giant whale that could only be described as “rabid.” The beast, drawn with horrific exaggerated features, chases Pinocchio and his kindly father (and a cat and a goldfish and a cricket) through the ocean before attempting to crush them against a seawall. And he actually succeeds in killing Pinocchio! (I mean, inasmuch as one can kill a child made out of wood)
(a family picture)
AND THAT ISN’T EVEN THE SCARIEST SCENE. The scariest scene, by far, takes place on a place called Pleasure Island. On Pleasure Island, “bad boys” can run wild to their heart’s content: drinking beer, smoking cigars, destroying a house, fighting, eating all the delicious food they want, and so on. The average denizen looks to be between the ages of eight and ten, so you can imagine their propensity for chaos. Things are not as they seem, though, as we’re taken below and discover that this island is magic: it turns “bad boys” into donkeys (“jackasses” per the film). Once they’ve completely lost their humanity, they’re sold into various forms of slavery in salt mines or circuses or various other places.
As if that’s not horrifying enough, we the audience get to watch this transformation take place. Pinocchio, hanging out in a pool hall with his new friend Lampwick, takes a long drag of his cigar and then sees Lampwick’s ears turn to donkey ears. A tail bursts from the back of Lampwick’s pants, and his face becomes that of a donkey. “What do I look like: a jackass?” Lampwick asks with a laugh, sounding every bit like a Chicago gangster.
“You sure do!” Pinocchio also laughs, but his laugh morphs into a donkey’s bray.
Lampwick, still naive to what’s happened, finds this hilarious. He laughs, but his laugh, too, becomes a donkey’s bray, and he clamps his hands over his mouth in horror. AND NOW THINGS GET REALLY FUN. Lampwick realizes that he’s turning into a donkey, and the bravado and tough-guy image vanish in an instant. He panics, as you do, and claws at Pinocchio, begging him for help, but there’s nothing Pinocchio can do as his friend’s hands turn to hooves. Lampwick’s pleas for help turn to only one word, a scream of “MAMA!” as the transformation completes. The donkey formerly known as Lampwick kicks and runs in terror, braying and screaming.
(Walt Disney, are you okay)
It is fucked. up.
So. Which of those scenes did I accidentally show my almost-three-year-old? The deceptively charming opening? The whale? The chopped up marionettes? OR THE DONKEYS.
(it was the donkeys)
I think I’d suppressed how horrifying that scene really is (seriously, Walt Disney, what was wrong with you making that scene), along with its wretched implication that these children deserved this horror because they were “bad boys.” As the scene progressed, I felt a mix of emotions, the most prominent of which was the sinking regret of knowing I’d just created a new phobia for my son.
His tiny hands gripped my arm tightly as the scene played out. When it was over, we sat in silence for a beat, before he said in a quavering voice, as if fighting back tears, “I don’t want that.”
MOM OF THE YEAR RIGHT HERE.
I flew into damage control mode. The first step was to give him some resolution. I showed him the ending scene of Pinocchio and pointed out, hey, Pinocchio’s not a donkey anymore and he’s okay and everyone’s happy!
Then I gave him a hug and told him very firmly that you cannot turn into a donkey. Little boys do not turn into donkeys no matter what they do. This movie is not real. And for good measure, I added that I would never let that happen to him anyway, and if anyone ever hurt him or tried to hurt him, I would kick them and punch them and hit them.
(he liked that quite a lot)
But now he started going on about the donkeys in his room. “Mommy, go upstairs and kick and punch and hit the donkeys in my room,” he ordered. So we had to tackle the donkey issue now. I explained that no, there were no donkeys in his room and that donkeys are actually quite sweet creatures. I showed him cute videos of donkeys and then Donkey from Shrek as comparison. Eventually, he calmed down and hugged me and said, “You’re the best Mommy ever, you’ll kick and punch and hit them,” which assuaged my guilt a little bit.
But of course, that was undone entirely this morning, when Sam climbed up into my lap and said, “Mommy, do you remember the video and he turned into a donkey? That was scary.”
Sigh. All I can really say in my defense is that sometimes, you get a blue fairy to grant a wish and sometimes, you make a complete jackass out of yourself.