Death and Disobedience in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a rich and imaginative take on a familiar story that illustrates the importance of being able to process the reality of death – not just for yourself, but for your loved ones.
The article contains spoilers for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, available to watch on Netflix, is a rich and imaginative take on a familiar story. Rather than transforming his protagonist into flesh and blood, del Toro uses the concept of a “real” boy to comment on the most universal aspect of the human condition: death. In doing so, he invites us to witness the sheer power of grief, and encourages us to think more broadly about mortality, which no-one can escape. Pinocchio illustrates the importance of being able to process the reality of death – not just for yourself, but for your loved ones.
We are first introduced to Geppetto’s son Carlo, a good-natured and happy boy, as they go about their daily life amidst a backdrop of a fascist Italy. The two clearly share a wonderful bond. When Carlo is killed, his father is deeply affected by the loss, barely working or eating. His anger and misery inspire him to create Pinocchio, underscoring grief’s potential as a creative, as well as a destructive force. As lightning and thunder flash a drunken Geppetto hacks at the tree standing over his son’s grave; close-ups of his tools and the brilliantly-executed sound effects immerse us in his process. His anguish and fury are enthralling and frightening, but they don’t just capture the attention of the audience. Moved by Geppetto’s mourning, a spirit visits his house to animate Pinocchio, enlisting the help of Sebastian J. Cricket – insect, homeowner, and narrator of the story – to help Pinocchio be “good.” This proves to be quite the journey. Pinocchio finds it difficult to be a well-behaved boy, and cannot be a real one; as such, he finds himself struggling to live up to the legacy of Geppetto’s son Carlo, in whose image he was created. It is significant that Geppetto needs to work through his grief in order to appreciate his second son as his own person, not a shadow of the one he has already lost. His character is a moving exploration of the devastating impact death can have. The spirit that first animates Pinocchio refers to herself as a guardian of the ‘little things, forgotten things’ – it is an important reminder that, although Geppetto’s grief threatens to destabilise his entire life, the world is far bigger than a singular loss.
This sentiment is also apparent in Pinocchio’s portrayal of the afterlife. After Pinocchio’s first death (via car accident), we see his body processed by a quartet of skeletal rabbits. To them, death is a matter of administration – and it’s no wonder, because Pinocchio’s coffin is one of many. When they discover that he is in fact alive, they are mildly put-out; but, overall, their focus is predominantly on their card game. They show Pinocchio to ‘the boss’, a sister of the spirit that initially gave Pinocchio life. As we soon find out, she does not share her sibling’s ‘sentimental’ nature. She tells Pinocchio that he was simply not supposed to have life, ‘no more than a chair or table should’ – and, as a result, ‘cannot truly, truly die.’ Pinocchio is initially pleased to discover that he is immortal, but becomes disheartened when she makes her point about wooden furniture plainer: he, unlike Carlo, is not a real boy.
The spirit explains her philosophy of death – that, all in all, ‘the one thing that makes human life precious and meaningful … is how brief it is.’ I’ve of course heard such sentiments before, but never framed as intriguingly as del Toro depicts it. The after-life is filled with sand-glasses and running sand, which Pinocchio falls through on his way back to Earth; there, too, the constant presence of danger means we are also constantly thinking about time. Or, to be more precise, how much time we might have left with any one person.
However, the sand-glasses aren’t just there to remind us of the possibility of imminent loss; they dictate the rules of Pinocchio’s personal afterlife. (Unsurprisingly, it turns out to be slightly different when you’re technically a wooden puppet.) Every time he dies, the spirit overturns a sandglass and waits for it to run out. When it does, she sends him back.
“The one thing that makes human life precious and meaningful…is how brief it is.”
Pinocchio eventually breaks these rules, in order to save the life of his father Geppetto. The spirit demands that he do so himself, underscoring the significance of human agency; Del Toro has spoken about the ‘virtue of disobedience’, something which Pinocchio’s character certainly demonstrates. Throughout the film, when it seems that he has failed to be a “good” boy, it is generally that he has failed to follow orders.
The significance of Pinocchio’s strong spirit is clear alongside the film’s portrayal of fascism. One of the film’s prominent characters is the podesta, an officer within Italy’s fascist regime. He recognises that Pinocchio has the potential to be the ideal soldier, in that he cannot die; however, he also knows that Pinocchio will not obey.
This trait proves itself to be dangerous. During military training, the boys are divided up into two “teams”: one captained by Pinocchio, and the second by his dear friend Candlewick. As the podesta’s son, Candlewick struggles under immense pressure, and the idea that he is a coward if he fears dying for his country. In this vein, the expectation is that the exercise will end with one boy “killing” the other. When they cooperate instead, the podesta demands that he ‘shoot the puppet’, this time with a real gun. Collaboration, skill and determination are not rewarded; fascism values obedience, and that is a quality Pinocchio has proven himself not to show. Here, del Toro’s message is apparent: when given certain orders, it is far more noble to disobey. Pinocchio’s principles may put him in danger, but they are also deeply important in a world governed by brutality and division. One of his later deaths is actually ordered by Mussolini.
Pinocchio eventually breaks the rules of the afterlife, so that he can save his father. This act makes him mortal too. As such, his disobedience not only makes him a “good” boy, in that he puts his father before himself, but the mortality that results from this act arguably makes him a real one. This, he resolutely accepts his own mortality and that of his loved ones.
In the final scene, we watch as his family slowly begins to leave him. As more graves appear, he leaves flowers; Sebastian, as always, is kept in Pinocchio’s heart. The soft sunlight reflects his attitude toward death in contrast to Geppetto’s earlier in the film; although he remembers and honors those he has lost, he also understands that he must move on into the world – which, our narrator believes, ‘embraced him.’
Megan Baffoe is a freelance writer currently studying English Language and Literature at Oxford University. She likes fashion, feminism and in-depth media analysis. She does not like Twitter, but can be found @meginageorge. Her published work is all available at https://meganspublished.tumblr.com.