The twisted history of Pinocchio on screen

·8 min read
Disney’s live-action Pinocchio
Disney’s live-action Pinocchio

What is it about Pinocchio, the story of a marionette puppet who wants to become a real boy, that makes filmmakers keep coming back to it, again and again? There are dozens of film adaptations floating out there, dating all the way back to the silent era, from animated features for the whole family to soft-core porn. Even with all these variations, you’d be hard pressed to find one that doesn’t fall somewhere between unsettlingly creepy and downright terrifying. And yes, that includes the original 1940 Disney animated classic. Since Pinocchio happens to be the latest in a series of live-action adaptations from Disney—and one of at least three adaptations coming out in 2022—we thought we’d take a look at the history of Pinocchio on film and why he’s such a popular subject, despite the inescapable weirdness factor.

From humble origins

As fairytale characters go, Pinocchio isn’t as old as you may think. Created by Italian political cartoonist Carlo Collodi, he first appeared in the pages of a weekly Italian children’s magazine in the late 19th century. Collodi eventually collected the stories into a single volume and published it in 1883, but that serialized origin will always be a part of Pinocchio’s DNA. That could be one of the reasons why it’s so tricky to adapt. It also explains some of the attraction. There are so many elements of the story to pick and choose from—the wooden boy who wants to be real, who cannot lie without his nose growing, who’s tempted by the stage and a life of pleasure, nearly turned into a donkey, then swallowed by a whale—filmmakers can focus on what interests them and leave the rest behind.

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The very first screen adaptation of Pinocchio came out in 1911, just 28 years after the original book was published. It was a 45-minute Italian silent film that shows Pinocchio—portrayed by a fully grown man in a clown costume, complete with long nose—defying Geppetto as soon as he finishes carving him and wildly rampaging through a little village square. It’s creepy in the same way old vintage Halloween masks can be, probably cool for its time but nightmare fuel today.


PINOCCHIO- (1911) Giulio Antamoro, Polidor, Augusto Mastripietri, Natalino Guillaume

It wouldn’t be until 1940, the same year the book rights reverted to the public domain (no coincidence, that), before another big-screen adaptation would hit theaters. Walt Disney wasn’t the first filmmaker to attempt to make an animated feature based on Pinocchio (an Italian studio set out to produce one in 1936, but never finished), he was just the first to succeed. Pinocchio became Walt Disney’s second feature-length animated film after Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. Unlike its predecessor, Pinocchio was a box-office disappointment. That wouldn’t stop legions of imitators and copycats in the years to come, though. And while it may be the least cringeworthy adaptation of all the versions we found, it still has some pretty intense scenes that have left generations of kids scarred for life. Despite its initial stumbling, Disney’s Pinocchio eventually found an audience and, like many Disney productions, cast a long shadow.

Pinocchio’s adventures through the decades

The next notable adaptation came along in 1957, a black-and-white television special starring Mickey Rooney as the title character (he would have been 37 at the time). It only aired once, and the only footage that still exists is pretty poor quality, but you can tell it was wild.


Pinochio

But it was in the 1960s and ’70s when Pinocchio adaptations really started getting strange. Here are a few of note from those years, and not one of them is anywhere near normal.

  • Pinocchio In Outer Space (1965): A Belgian-American animated film in which Pinocchio blasts off in a rocket and has some adventures in space. In this version, Jiminy Cricket is replaced by an alien turtle called (no joke) “Nurtle the Twurtle.”

  • Pinocchio (1968): Another television movie starring Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits as Pinocchio and Burl Ives as Geppetto. It’s never not weird when Pinocchio is played by a whole adult man.

  • The Erotic Adventures Of Pinocchio (1971): An X-rated version billed as “a bedtime story for adults,” this hot take involves a “virgin” named Geppetta who stumbles upon a talking log in the forest and decides to carve it into the perfect man. No, really. The explanation can’t do this one justice.


Dyanne Thorne, The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (1971), Trailer.

  • Pinocchio: The Series (1972): Don’t let the animation fool you, this Japanese adaptation from Tatsunoko Productions (later distributed by Saban) takes the story to even darker places. This Pinocchio, known as Mokku of the Oak Tree, is a pretty horrible character to begin with. He literally kills a kid to steal his heart in his quest to become a real boy. He’s also a victim of abuse and cruelty himself. Not exactly a feel-good tale.

  • Pinocchio (1976): It’s not any less weird when Pinocchio is played by an adult woman. In yet another musical TV special, this time for CBS, we got Sandy Duncan (who also famously played Peter Pan) as the main character, with Danny Kaye as Geppetto and Flip Wilson as the Fox.

The ’80s and ’90s delivered a few more disturbing adaptations, including a 1984 episode of Faerie Tale Theatre starring Paul Reubens and a 1996 film with Jonathan Taylor Thomas (an actual child!) as Pinocchio and Martin Landau as Geppetto. This one even had a 1999 sequel called The New Adventures Of Pinocchio, in which Landau’s Geppetto is himself turned into a wooden boy. And let’s not forget Pinocchio’s Revenge from 1996, a horror movie that’s more of a Child’s Play ripoff than a Pinocchio adaptation.


Pinocchio’s Revenge Trailer 1996

The 2000s saw another TV movie, this time titled Geppetto, for The Wonderful World Of Disney. It stars Drew Carey as the woodcarver and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Blue Fairy. Star Trek fans might also appreciate the subtle reference to Data (a futuristic Pinocchio archetype) in the casting of Brent Spiner as Stromboli.

Which brings us to another category of characters that are clear Pinocchio references, though their stories aren’t direct adaptations. The modern version usually involves robots or androids who long to become real humans. We see it in films like Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence as well as Bicentennial Man, starring Robin Williams. You can even find traces of it in the popular anime Astro Boy. There’s even a Marvel comic which casts Vision as the Pinocchio figure.

And then we come to 2002, when Roberto Benigni made his first of two Pinocchio films. This one is by far the oddest of the two. Not only did he co-write and direct, but he cast himself as the puppet. (See above re: never not weird.)


Pinocchio (2002) Trailer

Pinocchio lives on, and on, and on…

As you may have noticed—no, you’re not imagining it—the pace of these adaptations has definitely increased in recent years. In 2019 Benigni took another swing at it, this time playing Geppetto opposite a CGI-enhanced child actor (Federico Ielapi) who still manages to be creepy.

Following in Benigni’s footsteps, voice actor Tom Kenny recently played both Pinocchio and Geppetto in two back-to-back animated productions from different studios. In the most recent one, Pinocchio: A True Story he plays opposite Pauly Shore as Pinocchio, a casting choice that’s as bizarre as it is inspired.


Pinocchio: A True Story (2022 Movie) Official Trailer - Pauly Shore, Jon Heder, Tom Kenny

Later this year, Guillermo del Toro will put his own spin on the story in a version that makes use of miniatures and stop-motion animation and sets the story against the backdrop of fascist Italy. He’s also stacked the cast with celebrity voices, including Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, John Turturro, Ron Perlman, Tim Blake Nelson, Burn Gorman, Christoph Waltz, and Tilda Swinton. This might be the one time that the creepiness works in the story’s favor.

If you want to dig into what it is that appeals to us about the story of Pinocchio, take a look at what all these versions have in common: there’s a moral through line that connects his adventures, and a series of hard and scary lessons he must learn on his way to becoming a real boy. It’s a classic coming-of-age story, an allegory for the journey from childhood into maturity. That reflection of the human condition comes through in nearly every adaptation, but to get there with Pinocchio we have to cross the uncanny valley, traveling with a character who is almost-but-not-quite human, through most of the story. That revulsive reflex comes from that same deep place that understands what the story is trying to tell us. It’s also why we’ll probably never stop reinventing it.