“I got no strings to hold me down to make me fret or make me frown. I had strings, but now I’m free, there are no strings on me.” If you found yourself humming to these words, you must have watched the Disney film Pinocchio (1940) as a child or with your children.

But far from being a tale of a sweet, but naïve, marionette who longed to be a real boy, the film is based on the much darker book by Carlo Collodi The Adventures of Pinocchio, published in 1883. Collodi meant his work to be a commentary on moral identity when faced with colossal challenges posed by ideology: communism and fascism in Collodi’s day; Nazism in Disney’s day.

Above all, Pinocchio is a tale about the role of civil society, individuals and organisations which are independent of the government. A bit of stretch, you might think, but let us unpack the story.

As Disney is wont to do, the studio gave the tale the saccharine treatment to make it more palatable to its audience, you know, in the manner of “Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down” in Mary Poppins, even though some scenes gave me nightmares as a child. Since the images of the film are etched on our collective consciousness, I shall be focusing this piece on Disney’s interpretation of the book. You’d be surprised about the staggering reams of literature about this seemingly innocuous book and film.

Pinocchio longs to be a real boy, to be cut from his strings and live his life as a self-directed individual. But Pinocchio thought that this requires no difficult choices, only to go with the flow, to remain a puppet, bound to the strings of his mindset and comfort zone. Enter the wisecracking, all-singing, all-dancing Jiminy Cricket, who takes the role of Pinocchio’s conscience, the conscience that bugs him throughout the film to do the right thing in spite of himself.

That still, small voice that people won’t listen to, as the Cricket told Pinocchio. Or, may I add, blame for their wrong choices. After Geppetto prays that his son is not bound to ignorance, the Blue Fairy infuses the wooden Pinocchio with the ability to start thinking for himself, to be his own person, free from the shackles of outside influence.

Mr President, you are still in time to cut your strings and do the right thing for our country

But Pinocchio has other ideas. He stilled the voice of Jiminy Cricket and listened to the likes of a slick duo, a cat and a fox; the cat is mute and is a play on Harpo Marx, a not so subtle hint on the dangers of Marxism. But the main culprit here is the fox, Honest Joseph, sorry John, an oily used car salesman (oops, wrong century), I mean, a snake-oil salesman with the gift of the gab, who lures his victims with false advertisement and ruins them. A psychopath, basically.

Honest John convinces Pinocchio to join Stromboli’s travelling circus of puppets with the false promise of instant fame and fortune. Pinocchio brags that he has no strings on him but, ironically, he is captive to the will of the totalitarian puppet master who plunges him further into the abyss and locks him in a cage. Throughout this ordeal, Jiminy Cricket follows Pinocchio everywhere and he also gets a visit from the Blue Fairy.

Not wanting to incriminate himself, Pinocchio lies about not knowing how he got into the cage and his nose starts growing. The Blue Fairy gives him another chance at becoming a real boy and sets him free. But Pinocchio is obstinately unrepentant and still finds comfort in the strings he was born into. Enter the Coachman, the embodiment of all corruption of ideologies and governments that prey on the weak-willed and uneducated, and he nearly finishes Pinocchio off.

The hapless puppet ends up on Pleasure Island, where no rules exist and boys who fell into its trap of false promises are turned into braying jackasses. But Jiminy Cricket keeps bugging Pinocchio to do the right thing. At the last hour, the puppet proves himself “brave, truthful and unselfish” when he saves his father from the belly of the whale and, finally,  cuts his strings to become a real boy.

It is said that Collodi’s tale is one of the few tales in the canon of children’s stories where evildoers go unpunished. However, Collodi’s morality tale is a lesson about how, when we cut our strings to the ideologies and existing institutions or the strings we are born into, we can become autonomous individuals who can contribute to bringing about change, in spite of ourselves and the world around us. Only then we can sing: I had strings, but now I’m free, there are no strings on me.

Mr President, you are still in time to cut your strings and do the right thing for our country.

Alessandra Dee Crespo, president-elect, Repubblika

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