In an attempt to survive Lockdown boredom, I decided to re-watch all of Disney’s feature-length films, from first to last, (yes, with 57 and counting, this could last a lifetime). I began with every intention of rolling my eyes at the endless display of helpless princesses that needed the aid of a prince and so on and so forth, to a happy ever after, very Disney, we all know it. As it happened, my childhood memories had deceived me, instead, I found myself faced with fewer princesses and more trauma. In fact, 1930’s-40’s Disney displayed themes that were altogether quite tragic. Particularly striking to me was the story of Pinocchio, our favourite wooden puppet, who occasionally tells a lie (a surprisingly insignificant part of the film).
In brief, Pinocchio starts life as a little wooden puppet, brought magically to life by a fairy. From here on out it all goes wrong. Day one of school he meets two sinister characters; fox and cat con artist duo, Honest John and Gideon; they are full of grand ideas, with talk of stage acting and big adventures! Suffice to say Pinocchio is sold, we can’t blame his naivety, he is a child, this really does sound fun. You could hope that my use of the word ‘sold’ stopped at ‘drawn in’, ‘agreeing’, ‘made an assertive decision’, I wish that too, unfortunately for Pinocchio, I meant it in a literal sense. The dream and promise of life as an actor quickly turned into a life exploited, forced on stage to perform and locked away in a cage with no key. As film fantasy life would have it, our fairy comes back and offers him an escape and we are allowed a glimmer of hope. Yet soon enough the cunning plans of the wicked snatch him away to Pleasure Island, a school-free zone of free cigarettes, alcohol, ice creams, and even a fight club! At some point down the line, we see a transformation occur in the boys residing at the island, and not the happy one we saw at the start of the film. These boys turn into donkeys. From here they are traded to work in mines until they die of sheer exhaustion. And so, we see that actually, it wasn’t the harmless, happy Disney narrative my childhood memories would have me believe.
Whilst heart-wrenching to watch these characters played out, they are just that; characters, and drawn ones at that. The trafficker’s subtlety in manipulating and deceiving Pinocchio is unsettling and unlike the usual cartoon depiction of the big scary bad guys, this sadly rings truer in real life. Trust gained and false promises are just a few steps towards the awful realities of exploitation. One of the more sinister moments we see is Pinocchio thinking he is going home, his captor plays along with him for a while, only to crush his hope and lock him away. It’s a brutal leap from innocence to exploitation for poor Pinocchio.
In recent years the issue of human trafficking has become an increasingly popular film narrative. There is a quintessential villain looking to lure and kidnap their victim into a sad and seedy world of exploitation. We often see these victims as young girls and, more often than not, as film-lore would have it, they’re found by their rescuer, and justice is had. With a large focus on the trafficking of females, it can be easy to forget this is not just an issue faced by girls but many young boys (and men) too. According to the ‘Modern Slavery: National Referral Mechanism of 2020’, 79% of potential child victims and 69% of potential adult victims are male. Exploitation can come in a variety of forms; from cleaning an office to serving in a restaurant, to working in construction, and more commonly for children, in criminal exploitation, especially in males.
Going back to another family favourite, Oliver Twist, which raised the issue of street children exploited as pickpockets by the shady ringleader Fagin; young Oliver raised in a loving home, is thrown into a life of crime through a series of unfortunate and tragic life events. The UK age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old, which results in young boys being exploited by their traffickers for their age and vulnerability.
Whilst stories in film and media can have their benefits, such as raising awareness, there is a danger that the realities of such a life may be considered unrealistic; do people really believe trafficking exists, or does it only happen in movies? Does it really happen in the very country we are living in or just the places we see in films? More often than not, the more extreme depictions tend to be somewhat unrealistic, which prevents people from identifying signs of trafficking and exploitation within their communities, as well as hindering those trapped in the invisible chains of abuse to step forward in fear of not being believed.
Pinocchio exposes some of the subtleties in the emotional and psychological acts of coercion often used by traffickers, for example, tempting the children with drugs (cigars), which in turn transforms the boys into donkeys. The film doesn’t give the full picture, of course, and in true Disney fashion, Pinocchio not only escapes his physical situation but also manages to evade the emotional trauma that would accompany such an experience (as does Oliver). Having said that, unlike many other Disney films we see now, and rather curiously, the unsettling villain characters are not reprimanded. We don’t see justice, instead, we are left to assume that their evil operation continues as the next young child strolls down the street.
These films show the power of effective storytelling and its potential to raise awareness and motivate action. Perhaps, as we watch them, we won’t be tempted to turn off the tv, close the book and let these stories remain in the world of fiction…
Written by Georgie Thomas, Trustee of the Brave Bear Trust. Read about a Brave teddy bear that saves his friend Bella from a life of exploitation, at www.jointhebravebear.org