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Pinocchio (1940)

    When bad boys become good and kind, they have the power of making their homes gay and new with happiness.
        -Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio

Pardon the hyperbole, but I wonder if we can't trace a goodly portion of the decline of Western culture in just the drop-off from Walt Disney's Pinocchio to Steven Spielberg's A. I.: Artificial Intelligence.  Despite the surface similarities between these tales of a wooden boy on the one hand and a robot boy on the other, both of whom hope to become real, and despite Mr. Spielberg's quite conscious attempt to implicate Pinocchio in his film, it is really the differences between the two that are instructive.  Pinocchio is a story of the moral education of boy, an education which when completed makes him human.  A.I. is the story of the emotional retardation of a boy, a retardation which sees him live for thousands of years without ever progressing beyond a desperate need for his mommy's love.  It may well be that both stories are about becoming human, but what they tell us about how our culture perceived humanity at these different times is rather depressing.  In 1940, to be human was to be a moral being.  In 2001, to be human is to fixate on your own emotional needs.  That's progress?

In Pinocchio, the kindly woodcarver Gepetto has made one particularly beguiling puppet of a little boy.  Because of all the joy he has brought to others, when he wishes upon a star the Blue Fairy grants the puppet life.  Pinocchio mistakenly believes himself to have become a real boy, but the Blue Fairy explains: "Pinocchio, if you are brave, truthful, and unselfish, you will be a real boy someday."  She evens gives him a conscience, in the form of Jiminy Cricket, to help him tell right from wrong.

The task before Pinocchio then is plain enough, if not simple.  And so begins the familiar series of adventures that sees him skipping school, joining a theater troop, being kidnapped to Pleasure Island, and ending up finally in the belly of the whale, Monstro.  Along the way he learns vital lessons about what is expected of him, most memorably in the scene where his lies to the Blue Fairy make his nose grow, because a lie too grows until it's as plain as the nose on your face.  In a harsh but fair judgment, the Blue Fairy warns:  "I'll forgive you this once, Pinocchio. But this is the last time I can help you. Remember, a boy who won't be good might just as well be made of wood!"  Only after he takes these lessons to heart, proves his bravery by rescuing Gepetto from the whale, and sacrifices his own life getting his "father" to shore, is Pinocchio restored to life and made real.  His has been a journey of moral awakening and development, but it has made him worthy of being human and of his Father.

Meanwhile, A.I.,, which Stanley Kubrick originally planned to base on Brian Aldiss' short story "Super-Toys Last All Summer Long", tells the story of David (Haley Joel Osment), a robot, or mecha, whose creator, Professor Allen Hobby (William Hurt), has made him to be "a robot who can love".  The Professor says that "love will be the key by which they acquire a kind of sub-conscious".   So, right off the bat, we've switched from the timeless battleground of Man's struggle with Good and Evil to the oh-so modern realm of Freudian complexes and conflicts.

Nor does David even have much of a role to play in his own story.  Created as a child substitute in a future where overpopulation and global-warming catastrophes have led to strict limits on procreation, he's been programmed to love the person who "imprints" him, his "mother" in this case.  But, as one of the Professor's employee asks: "Isn't the real conundrum: can you get a human to love them back?  If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold toward that mecha in return?"  And so, while David loves Monica Swinton (Frances O'Connor) unreservedly, unthinkingly, and unflaggingly, she finds that she can not love him as she would a real boy.  His robotic mannerisms are too off-putting for her ever to forget his machine nature.  When her own son is revived from a coma and her need for even an imperfect replacement is removed, Monica leaves David in the woods, suggesting that the answer to the question above is a person has no responsibility to a mecha, even one that loves them.

Monica's decision, though extremely creepy, is defensible if we consider that David is not a moral creature, and has no free will.  Mere love is not adequate to impose an obligation on Monica, particularly when David's love is little different than that which a pet might have for his owner.  Compare Monica to Gepetto, who when Pinocchio goes missing sets out in search of him.  Pinocchio, though not yet human, is already human-like in that he's engaged in the struggle to be good.  This does impose an obligation on Gepetto, the obligation of one human to another.

In the second act of A.I., David is taken under the wing of Gigolo Joe, male hooker mecha who is taken with him to a Flesh Fair, a kind of Roman Coliseum entertainment where humans vent their hatred of mechas as the robots are destroyed.  After they escape, Joe guides him through Rouge City, a futuristic combination of Times Square and a Tokyo red-light district.  There a holographic soothsayer tells David where to find the Blue Fairy--who he's become fixated on ever since his "brother" had Monica read them Pinocchio--at the end of the world where the lions weep.

This cryptic locale proves to be a now submerged New York City, where Professor Hobby has his workshop, and the Blue Fairy a statue underwater at what was once a Pinocchio exhibit at Coney Island.  But David is determined that the Blue Fairy can make him a real boy and thereby win him Monica's love, so he sits before the statue for some two thousand years, praying to be made real, even as the seas freeze solid.

In the final act, he's found by an advanced group of beings conducting an archaeological dig at the site.  They are apparently the umpteenth generation of robots and have survived mankind.  David is precious to them because he's the only remaining intelligence on Earth to have known humans, to have known these machines' "creator".  They have been trying to clone humans from the bits of cellular material they come upon, but these clones never last for more than a day.

In a scene of surpassing selfishness, David has them bring Monica back for day.  And for this day he is, of course, the very center of her existence.  At last he gets to be loved, even if just for a day, and even if his wish requires her to die again.

How else can we describe this choice but as monstrous?  And what can this day mean to us, when an artificial boy who's programmed for nothing but to "love" his mommy finally gets to experience the "love" of this fake mommy?   David is thousands of years old but he has not matured at all.  Mommy is thousands of years dead and did not love him when she was real.  What purpose has been served by this "boy's" "life"?  What is it, if we look at him objectively, that would make him deserving of love or worthy of being a real human?

In defending his vision of David's purpose, Professor Hobby says that, after all, God made us to love him.  So why not make robots to love us.  Even if that were true, and I don't think it is, God also made us with Free Will.  God left it to us to make choices, even bad ones, perhaps even the choice not to love him.  Pinocchio captures our hearts and minds because he too undergoes the quintessential human right of passage as he learns which choices are good and which bad and struggles to make the good ones, even when the bad seem more inviting.  David's journey is never our journey because he has no free will, he is but an automaton.  And the idea that his creator--be it Professor Hobby or be it Mr. Spielberg--would give him as the sole aim of his existence the goal of being loved by mommy is too Oedipal and too shallowly emotional for it to be other than weird.  It's entirely possible that this is what has become of Western man, that we started out trying to develop souls and have ended up indulging our feelings.  If so, we too might just as well be made of wood, for we've lost what made us truly human, that spark of the divine that once animated us.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

    -INFO: Pinocchio (1940) (
    -INFO: Pinocchio (1940) (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Carlo Collodi (1826-1890) (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Hamilton Luske (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Ben Sharpsteen (Imdb)
    -ETEXT: The Adventures of Pinocchio (C. Collodi)
    -The story of PINOCCHIO (
    -Pinocchio (Animation History)
    -ESSAY: Pinocchio on the Damascus Road: It's not so easy getting over woodenness. (Vigen Guroian, May/June 1998, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY: The Gospel According to Pinocchio (Jon Jacobson)
    -ESSAY: In Pinocchio, a National Character (Daniel Williams, October 7, 2002, Washington Post)
    -ESSAY: Pinocchio Critical (Melissa Fredericks, Scholarly "Pinocchio" Paper, LitMeth02)
    -ARCHIVES: Pinocchio (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW ARCHIVES: Pinocchio (
    -REVIEW: of Pinocchio (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Pinocchio (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times)
    -REVIEW: of Pinocchio (Brian Koller, Films Graded)
    -REVIEW: of Pinocchio (Daniel Briney, Culture Dose)