The story of Pinocchio – the story of an artificial being, a creation, becoming real – is a story in which the most childlike longing, one experienced by anyone with a favorite toy or an imaginary friend, meets the deepest theological truth. That is why it can justly be described, like the tale of Sleeping Beauty or the tragedy of Oedipus the King, as timeless. It is both universal and intensely personal, for it reflects our profoundest experience, and our profoundest experience is never ours alone.
Pinocchio’s story is our story. We are all of us less real than we ought to be, and as we move toward union with God, the fount of reality, we become more real than we are. Yet the story goes both ways. We are God’s creatures, but we are also creators – sub-creators, in Tolkien’s phrase – because we are made in His likeness. To create is godlike; to love the creation is Christlike.
Wall•E is the most theologically astute gloss on a theme found throughout Pixar’s work – the reality of the inanimate or subhuman. Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic, is similarly preoccupied with artificial beings’ attempts to become real. Both of these films find a newly resonant context for the Pinocchio story by transplanting it into a science-fiction future.
In both films, the heroes become more human by imitating the humans who created them. Alone on a desolate Earth, Wall•E sifts through the waste of an absent mankind, picking out abandoned objects as if they are precious artifacts. He communes with his creators through rituals that mirror theirs, taking his shoes off when he enters his home, watching movies and mimicking the actions of the people onscreen, treating his cockroach companion the way a man might treat his dog. (The fact that Wall•E has an insect sidekick is our first hint that he is a new Pinocchio, with his own Jiminy Cricket.) Likewise, K (Ryan Gosling) returns to an empty apartment after his day of fruitless toil, listens to old music, and pretends to love his holographic girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas). K’s relationship with Joi is make-believe, but it makes him more human by preparing him to truly love.
For both Wall•E and K, the ascent to reality begins with romantic love. Dante, among others, highlights the spiritual significance of first love. The first vision of the beloved – the smile of Beatrice, the eyes of Laura – is a vision, however brief and clouded, of a reality beyond and above oneself. This vision pierces the fog of solitude and self-preservation to inspire love, self-donation. Per G.K. Chesterton, “A man must have magnanimity of surrender, of which he commonly only catches a glimpse in first love, like a glimpse of our lost Eden.” Aptly, then, it is EVE who descends from the heavens like the Blue Fairy and inspires Wall•E to transcend his workaday world of Sisyphean labor. (For K, the part of the Blue Fairy is played by two distinct feminine influences: Joi and Ana Stelline, the memory maker, whose name means “grace,” “star.”)
Pinocchio’s first temptation is to be part of Stromboli’s puppet show. Instead of becoming real, Pinocchio could be merely a puppet, with someone pulling his strings. Similarly, Wall•E and K’s lives are initially dominated by their programming and their respective material functions: cleaning up the earth and retiring rogue replicants. They live in the world of what Josef Pieper calls “total work;” essentially, they are slaves to their work. Work is what man was created to do, but outside of relationship with the Creator, work becomes meaningless, purposeless toil. As Wall•E and K seek to return to right relationship with their fathers or creators, their first step is to escape the slavery of work.
However, the next temptation lies in the opposite direction. Pinocchio goes to Pleasure Island, Wall•E flies to the Axiom, and K goes to Las Vegas. The delinquent boys at Pleasure Island are transformed into donkeys, the people on the Axiom have degenerated into shapeless blobs, and Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) totters around an empty Caesar’s Palace, surrounded by the digital ghosts of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. In each of these locations, people are enslaved not to work but to empty, idle, restless amusement, which also dehumanizes them and keeps them from becoming real.
Finally, Pinocchio and K go to sea, while Wall•E goes to space. In each case, the greatest danger is the ultimate antithesis to warm, harmonious reality: cold, chaotic oblivion. Yet in each case, this is precisely where the son is reunited with the father, the creature with the creator. Descent into the unknown is crucial. To find oneself, one must risk losing oneself. In fact, paradoxically, unless one gives oneself, one does not have a self. Whosoever will save his life shall lose it – or, per C.S. Lewis, “Until you have given up your self to [Christ] you will not have a real self.”
Pinocchio saves Geppetto from Monstro the whale, K saves Deckard from the evil industrialist Niander Wallace (whose watery lair resembles a whale’s belly), and Wall•E inspires humanity to return to Earth. All three artificial beings save their fathers or surrogate fathers; all three die in the attempt. Pinocchio drowns in the sea, K is stabbed, and Wall•E is crushed.
Ultimately, however, all three are restored by the feminine figures who have been watching over their journeys from the beginning, and here, the story takes its most profoundly theological turn. Unreality cannot become reality by its own effort; reality must condescend to imbue it with life. Love is eternal, but it condescends to express itself in a moment in time – a moment that opens the eyes of poor time-bound creatures like us and turns them upward. K dies looking skyward, as Joi taught him. EVE breaks open the roof of Wall•E’s home so that the sun can revive him. Pinocchio ends, like the Divine Comedy, with the female agent of love resuming her place in the heavens – and with a reminder that good dreams can indeed come true, if only they are united to the love that turns the sun and the other stars. As Wall•E and EVE know,And that is all That love’s about And we’ll recall When time runs out It only took a moment To be loved a whole life long