Over the past 110 years, the living puppet Pinocchio has been played by everyone from 1950s Western hero Dick Jones to 1990s tween heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas to 2000s adult man Roberto Benigni. Most adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio follow the same threads: a fairy brings a puppet to life, and he runs around having ill-advised adventures. Eventually, he learns to behave, and becomes a flesh-and-blood boy. But only one adaptation sends Pinocchio on a hellish descent into madness parallel to the one Todd Phillips tracks in Joker.
The 2000 Disney TV musical Geppetto was written by David I. Stern and directed by Tom Moore, featuring songs penned by Broadway veteran and Hunchback of Notre Dame lyricist Stephen Schwartz. The composer allegedly developed the project as a reunion for Mary Poppins stars Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke, but when Andrews dropped out due to throat surgery, the casting possibility of van Dyke went off the table and the creators had to settle for the next best thing: Drew Carey.
The resulting film purports to tell the story of Pinocchio from his creator’s point of view, introducing the toymaker in an opening narration as an “overlooked character” as if he’s Third Guy From the Right instead of the protagonist’s father. To be fair, Childhood Me loved this bizarre cultural artifact, which attempted to capitalize both on Carey’s early-millennium celebrity, and on the resurgence in made-for-TV musicals inspired by the hit 1997 Brandy / Whitney Houston version of Cinderella. So imagine my surprise when a rewatch revealed that the film isn’t the charming twist on a familiar story I remembered — it’s a nightmare tale about an incel toymaker gaslighting his wooden son into a life of anarchy.
That’s quite the departure from the kindly Italian woodcarver from the book and the 1940 animated Disney classic Pinocchio. The traditional version of the character is a poor, lonely man who so desperately wants a child that he carves one out of wood. When the puppet comes to life and runs off on a picaresque series of adventures, Geppetto spends the rest of the story scouring the countryside to find him. To be fair, Collodi’s novel has its fair share of demented flourishes, like Pinocchio murdering his talking-cricket conscience with a hammer, burning his own feet off, or being hanged by bandits and left for dead. But it yielded one of Disney’s best animated features, a high watermark for the studio in terms of craft and storytelling. Also, Jiminy Cricket absolutely rules.
There is no Jiminy Cricket in 2000’s Geppetto, but there is Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the Blue Fairy who brings Pinocchio to life, Brent Spiner as the duplicitous puppetmaster Stromboli, and Usher in the pivotal role of Carnival Barker Who Fucks. Presiding over it all is, of course, Mr. Drew Carey himself, who doesn’t come off as a charming Italian paternal figure so much as an exact imitation of me walking around my apartment after taking a Benadryl, singing half-remembered Disney songs.
Carey’s Geppetto is also — and I cannot state this often enough — a bespectacled and bewigged toymaker who spends an opening number not interacting with the various excited patrons who have rushed into his shop to examine his latest playthings, but instead moping about why he can’t get laid.
Forget “When You Wish Upon a Star.” This Geppetto lurks in the corner singing things like, “Why is it the people who shouldn’t have children who have children?” That is both a sentence that’s missing at least one conjunction, and the toymaker’s “We live in a society” battle cry, a perma-virgin “I want” moment. It’s followed by this misanthropic lyric:
“There must be a slip-up in heaven’s workshop
Or a wrinkle in nature’s design
That I spend my days with the children
Of the people who shouldn’t have children
And none of them are mine.”
As he stalks the upper levels of his toy shop, stroking his cat Figaro like a judgmental Cleveland-based Blofeld, it’s easy to think, “Sure, this is all a bit creepy, but he just wants to be a daaaaaad!” But boy oh boy do Stern, Moore, and Schwartz have a curveball planned.
You see, this Geppetto doesn’t want a child because he’s lonely and feeling paternal cravings. He wants a child because he’s jealous of all the other father-son establishments on his block. “See the words on the sign in that window?” he sings of the neighboring tailor shop, Mancuso and Son’s. “Those are words I have envied for years.” And why not? If Signor Mancuso had a kid who grew up to be exactly like him, why shouldn’t Geppetto have his very own boy-servant who he can show off to his neighbors and force to make toys? And so he hopes and prays for a kid who’ll “grow up to be exactly like me.”
I bring all this up because after this added musical context, the reveal that Geppetto has spent his spare time creating his own puppet-kid plays less like a bit of Disney charm, and more like the reveal of what’s going on in Buffalo Bill’s basement in The Silence of the Lambs.
His Frankensteinian experimentation seems even weirder when Pinocchio is brought to life by the Blue Fairy (played in such a locked-in performance by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it’s a wonder she didn’t EGOT in one fell swoop), and Geppetto is not absolutely stoked at the arrival of the son he’s been longing for. Instead, he hates his fucking guts.
On the first night of Pinocchio’s life, Geppetto does not join his new child in revelry and dancing as he does in the animated version. Instead, he immediately puts him into bed. Pinocchio, being a recently animated block of wood, understandably has questions about the world, but Geppetto can’t be bothered to answer them. “Go to sleep, Pinocchio,” he hisses, like a psychopath at the end of his rope, even though he’s only been interacting with his son for two minutes, and Pinocchio, it should be made clear, does not know what sleep is.
The next day, Geppetto becomes incredibly agitated when Pinocchio shows no interest in becoming a toymaker. He doesn’t accept that his day-old marionette son probably doesn’t understand the concept of taking up a trade, or that he also might have complicated feelings about making toys, having until recently been a toy himself. And after Geppetto sends Pinocchio to school (literally so he doesn’t have to deal with him at home), Pinocchio gets in trouble for imitating another student (Geppetto told him to “act like all the other kids”), and is sent home. At no point during all this does Geppetto take a moment to give his newborn son the information he might need to function in modern society. He doesn’t say, “Hey Pinocchio, when I said ‘act like all the other kids,’ that’s not what I meant” or “Hey, Pinocchio, this is how you sleep.” Instead, he sends his crying child to his room and promptly abandons him at home, embarking on a quest not (as in most adaptations) to save his boy, but to get the Blue Fairy to replace him with a more obedient one.
At this point, the creators have clearly assembled the perfect ingredients for a classic feel-good family musical: an irrational, rage-filled father on a quest to get rid of his three-day-old child because he finds him defective, and a gaslit puppet who has absolutely no choice but to turn to madness.
Pinocchio is always a parable of sorts, though it’s usually about a precocious innocent whose misbehavior gets him into dire situations. He lies and his nose grows. He’s seduced by the limelight, and imprisoned by a greedy, abusive impresario. He drinks and smokes, and his behavior makes him turn into a donkey. But these dilemmas are always instigated by characters with shady moral intent, and there’s always the guiding light of a conscience on the other end, the reward of becoming a real boy and going home to a kind, loving father at the end of the day. Geppetto removes that reward by making the father figure one of the shady manipulators, which turns the story into a bizarrely nihilistic hellscape where Geppetto is wrong, Pinocchio is wrong, and chaos reigns.
As of this writing, Geppetto is conspicuously absent from the Disney Plus streaming catalog. (You can find it on Youtube, but you didn’t hear that from me.) Some may argue this is due to the film’s lack of quality, but the real reason is obvious — the second this film was available for mass cultural consumption, it would undoubtedly trigger a children’s revolution. Imagine an army of jacked-up kindergartners, their faces painted like wood, their eyes ablaze with hate, taking to the streets in wild rebellion against the Drew Carey-esque paternal figures in their lives.
Sure, there was similar concern of violent uprising around the 2019 release of Joker, the most recent cultural conversation piece to blame villainy on bad parenting and societal rejection. But that film’s bathroom-set Twyla Tharp choreography and shocking footage of Joaquin Phoenix climbing into a fridge is nothing compared to Geppetto’s “Pleasure Island,” where Usher and a troupe of gay acrobats throw glitter and tell kids to smash mirrors. Why would any child want to abide by rules when they can rail against their dismissive fathers by playing pool with Mr. Entertainment himself?
By the time Geppetto corners Pinocchio amid this R&B-tinged gay carnival, and the little wooden anarchist commands the other children, “GET HIM! HE’S A PARENT!”, this film has done a far better job at getting me on a dubiously moral side than that previously mentioned Joaquin Phoenix clown movie. I rolled my eyes when Phoenix mounted a car in the midst of an adoring throng in that film, or smeared a blood-red smile on his face. But I would completely accept it if the children in Geppetto tore the toymaker limb from limb and feasted on his bones, before hoisting Pinocchio up on a pulpit and hailing him as their liberating Lord and Savior. Alas, we cannot always get what we want, and the Wonderful World of Disney television event has a more quietly distressing ending in mind.
And it comes after an entire film spent watching a man who’s trying to murder his child for not wanting to make toys. It comes after Carey engages in a pas de deux with the Blue Fairy where he calls Pinocchio “damaged” and begs for him to be changed back into a block of wood, all while transparently leering at Louis-Dreyfus’ breasts. (“Oh beautiful fairy, with the loveliest pair of … wings.”) It comes after an extended stay in a neighboring village, where Geppetto tries to get Rene Auberjonois to manufacture a Stepford Wives-esque replacement for Pinocchio, in a scene featuring a machine spitting out little children who hug Drew Carey and call him daddy. After all that, the creators of Geppetto have the gall to try and redeem all this questionable behavior with a heart-tugging ballad, “Since I Gave My Heart Away,” performed charmingly but blankly by Mr. Carey himself.
His performance, in fact, is so charming and blank that I have no choice but to interpret the scene not as a plea for reconciliation and an apology for being such a grade-A asshole for this entire movie, but as a sociopathic bit of bargaining with the Blue Fairy. Perhaps the opaque subtlety of 2000 Drew Carey’s acting style is beyond my ken, but again, this is a character who blames his celibacy on a “slip-up in heaven’s workshop,” a man who wants a child because his neighbor Signor Mancuso has one who makes cool clothes.
Sure, the puppet becomes a real boy, but to what end? After a shockingly perfunctory encounter with Monstro the whale, Geppetto and Pinocchio rush into the toy shop arm-in-arm, and the Blue Fairy casts one last spell, changing the sign above the door from GEPPETTO’S to GEPPETTO & SON’S. This quietly sinister transformation confirms that in spite of Pinocchio’s protestations, he’s traded in his wooden status to live the rest of his days as a toymaker. It’s exactly what Geppetto wanted, and enforcing this future without Pinocchio’s consent is the perfect crime.
Like Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange striking a deal with the State to continue his psychopathic activities if he keeps up the illusion of having been cured, this deranged toy-smith feigns a heartfelt plea with the Blue Fairy, using a Stephen Schwartz song for evil — three and a half minutes of earnest crooning buys him a lifetime of filial servitude. And so this version of the story doesn’t leave us with the traditional validating ending of father and son living happily ever after, but of a bizarrely unsettling one where Pinocchio cuts the strings that held him down, only to find himself straitjacketed in his own Arkham Asylum till the end of his days.
“I used to think my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a fucking comedy,” Phoenix says at one point during Joker. The Pinocchio of Geppetto should be able to relate. But in his case … it’s a Drew Carey musical comedy.