Real-Boy Stories (AKA, the “Pinocchio Story”). These fantasy/fairy tales tell stories of non-human protagonists that for whatever reason decide they want to be human. The creature in question is thrust into a world where the humans surrounding it decide it needs to behave according to their abstract moral code. Only that compliance will allow them access into the sack of meat human club that’s apparently so damn exclusive. Spoiler in case you haven’t read or watched a million of these stories, the outcome is typically tragic.
These stories have always spoken to me; there’s something so devastating about watching a sentient character struggle to understand what it means to be human for some superficial or naïve reason, the odds constantly stacked against them. And what’s worse, these characters are usual so good, and pure, and innocent to the core that watching their inevitable demise is nothing short of ugly-cry provoking. So, get out your tissues because today we’re examining my list of the Top 7 most soul crushingly sad real-boy stories that I’ve ever seen!
They wouldn’t be called Real-Boy stories if we didn’t start off with the dark lord and master himself. Pinocchio is the story of a lonely old woodcarver named Geppetto who carves a marionette out of wood, makes a wish upon a star for a kid and goes to bed. A sociopathic blue fairy hears his wish, decides to bring the wooden puppet to life, and gives him a whole laundry list of rules and moral code to abide by before telling him that at the end of this proverbial torture rainbow, he’ll be granted the pleasure of becoming human and getting to be the son of a man, who at this point, he still hasn’t met because they old man is still knocked out in a whisky coma in a tiny wooden bed.
There are nuances depending on which version you’re watching. For example, in the Disney movie, the fairy decides that there’s no better conscience for a sentient wooden boy than a cricket. All versions designate that when Pinocchio tells a lie, it’s written on his face when his nose grows. Which is grossly unfair, because good and bad, truth and lies, are all human moral code that are learned over time. This kid is set up with nothing- and then Geppetto’s like “Hey, you’re going to school now!”
The most uncomfortable scenes in the Disney one are definitely the donkey scenes. The idea that these children are kidnapped for wanting to have fun is just horrific. It just kills me when the little donkey Alexander cries that he wants to go home to his Mama, and he’s thrown in a cage with the other screaming and crying donkeys, all begging to go home. But we know they were slaughtered for meat or sold for sex shows or something gnarly. And that scene where Pinocchio and Lampwick are drinking, smoking, and playing pool when they suddenly transform? Nightmare fuel.
I can’t handle it. The ugly cry comes, and I want to throw up and repeat the cycle. And it’s not until Pinocchio is bogged with water-rot that he’s gifted with the privilege of humanity. But not every real-boy protagonist is as lucky…
The Little Mermaid (1975 Toei Animation Version)
The Little Mermaid is a Danish fairy tale riddled with heart slicing tragedy. The protagonist is a little waif of a blonde mermaid named Marina, who travels in tow with a young dolphin named Fritz. She’s sweet and curious and not at all the fire-cracker that Ariel is. After her family celebrates the fact that Marina rescued the prince from drowning, she decides she needs to be with him and sees the Sea Witch. And as anyone knows who has seen this version, the conditions of becoming human are grossly unfair. First, Marina has to give up her voice. Second, she has to make the prince fall in love with her. Third, he has to marry her. Otherwise, her heart will break and she’ll become sea foam.
Sure, fine; she doesn’t get her tongue cut out like she does in the original Hans Christian Andersen book version, but man! Come on! She’s a little girl! Although this is a beautiful movie, but I can hardly get through it. By the end, I’m bawling with the ugly cry. This poor naïve girl gives up everything just to be with this stupid young man with his own set of obligations. He’s a prince; certain things are expected of him. But even when Marina shows up, he loves her and tries to be kind. But sadly, he’s convinced one of the church girls rescued him, not Marina. Poor Marina doesn’t have the voice or writing skills to correct him. His parents announce his betrothal, and the princess he’s to marry is the one he thinks saved him. Marina knows now that she’s going to die.
Her sisters swim to the Prince’s wedding ship and throw her a knife, Marina’s last chance at life. Plunge it into the prince’s heart, let his blood splash on you, and you’ll be a mermaid again. But she can’t. She thrown herself into the sea. She doesn’t die, but gains a human soul via her sacrifice, and ascends to heaven.
This is all way too heavy- I saw this movie when I was four!
Edward Scissorhands is an interesting take on the standard Real-Boy story. Whereas Pinocchio was created and told “Hey, guess what- you’re going to do XYZ and become a real boy. Have fun!” and Marina saw a human and decided she needed to get in on that, the half-finished gothic wet dream known as Edward was perfectly content in his solitude.
The tragedy comes in Edward Scissorhands because the viewer knows that he didn’t ask for any of the heartbreak that comes his way. He never asked for that nosy Avon-Selling housewife to storm his castle. He never asked for her to drag him down to her home. He never asked to be loved by the neighborhood when it was discovered he was a good hair stylist. And he never asked to fall in love with Kimberly, the daughter in the house he was living.
Edward is eventually chased out of town, after the most beautiful scene in the movie, the ice dance. But it doesn’t stop for him there. Kimberly’s boyfriend stalks Edward back to his top-of-the-hill castle home and tries to kill him, resulting in the boyfriend’s own death. Kimberly asks Edward to hold her. He takes one step toward her, scissors outstretched, before he retreats and whispers, “I can’t.”
Immortal Edward stews in his own love for the rest of eternity, while an elderly version of Kimberly tells his story to her granddaughter who asks “How do you know he’s still alive?” Kimberly explains that before Edward came, it never snowed. And now, it snows all the time (as a result of him sculpting ice statues in her image). Oh damn it…that’s soul crushing. Tears. Too many tears. Let’s move on.
A.I: Artificial Intelligence
What?! I said I wanted to move on, not crumble into a heap of sobbing, disgusting, blubbering sadness! All right fine, subconscious. You win- let’s talk about every mother’s nightmare, a little Kubrick/Spielberg mashup called A.I- Artificial Intelligence. As far as devastating films go, this one takes the cake. Its mood is artfully mastered through its aesthetics and the acting is sublime. The combination results in a devastatingly sad movie about a little robot boy who wants nothing more than his mommy’s love.
The story: when a couple’s son falls ill and is put into stasis while he heals, they buy a robot son named David to take his place. The mom, Monica, activates David’s loving-imprint-obsession-with-mom mode and he’s forever stuck vying for her love. Unfortunately, this cold woman can’t step up to the task. When her son heals and is jealous of David, resulting in an altercation, Monica thinks it’s a good idea to take her new son out to the woods and abandon him. The rest of David’s journey is looking for a proverbial blue fairy (like in the Pinocchio story he heard) because he thinks it can make him real and then Monica can love him. So not only do we have a “I want to be a real-boy” story here, but we have a “I’m not good enough” adventure happening too. Oh, good- a double whammy in the feels.
Between scenes of David begging for his life in the Flesh Fair (where he’s spared because Mecha don’t beg for their lives), and traveling around with a gigolo robot who was framed for murder, the film is a trudging fever dream of despair.
Finally, after David is submerged underwater in a capsule, he meets alien-Mecha from the future, who grant him one wish. The wish he chooses- to bring back his mother, based on her DNA from a lock of hair he has and the memories imprinted in his mind. She’s brought back for just one day, and the two of them have his happiest day together.
What’s the most shattering about this is that the Monica that’s resurrected from his memories is clearly not the same woman he met over two-thousand years ago. It’s an interpretation based on the love he’s always wanted. And finally, at the end, when his dream of his mother’s love is finally fulfilled, he’s able to close his eyes for the first time in his life, and slip away quietly with her, holding hands.
I can’t take anymore sad movies right now. I’m running out of water. Let’s take a break and move onto soul-crushing TV shows. From the 80s!
While we’re on the topic of robots, I wanted to take some time to revisit the strange, low-budget sitcom Small Wonder. It told the story of a typical suburban family. But the twist? The father, Ted Lawson, is a robotics genius (working for a company called United Robotronics) who builds a fully functioning robot, sticks it in a shell resembling a human ten-year-old girl, and names her VICI (an acronym for Voice Input Child Identicant, but pronounced Vicky).
This is not only super creepy, but it’s not even a word.
Ted hides his invention from his boss and neighbor, Brandon Brindle, out of fear that his less-than-capable boss will steal his design and take Vicky away. Meanwhile, Vicky has super human strength, projects tears like a sprinkler, and lives in her brother’s closet. Ted, our megalomaniac, has zero fear that his creation will go insane and smash his son at night with her super strength. Much of the series revolves around keeping Vicky’s identity a secret.
The devastation comes front and center in this cheesy show every time Ted and family discount or doubt Vicky’s ability to have human feelings. They treat her like a daughter, act as though she’s their daughter, but when it comes down to the wire and there’s an opportunity for her to have emotions, Ted dismisses it with “Robots can’t have feelings!” such as when Vicky fell in love with the computer Max, and only the camera and the audience saw her slow-falling tears, the very last shot of the episode.
Ted and family laughed it off, never seeing that powerful moment. The series very well could have ended with that as its final episode and it would have been remarkable television.
Aside from humanoid robots, you know what else was popular in the 80s? Mannequins coming to life. And in the Canadian children’s show Today’s Special, that’s exactly what we got. The show was about a woman named Jodie, a night-shift inventory manager in the children’s area of a department store. One day, a bumbling magician called Waldo the Magnificent put a spell on a hat. The hat flew away, landed on a mannequin, and the mannequin was brought to life. Knowing nothing at first, the mannequin (whom they name Jeff) quickly learns how to sing and dance via Jodie.
The harrowing tragedy of the show comes via the conditions presented by Jeff’s magic hat. First off, if the hat falls off, he freezes back into a mannequin. He can only come back to life if the hat is placed back on his head and the words “Hocus Pocus Allamagocus” are said. That said, any scene involving Jeff was really tense back when I was a kid, because you knew that damn hat could fall off at any given moment. It put the enjoyment on a timer, because you knew disaster could strike at any time.
Second, Jeff is only alive in the department store, typically at night when Jodie comes to work and brings him to life. He learns about the outside world via the dark silence of the department store, when Jodie is setting up the children’s department for the next day’s theme. Through Jodie, he learns about video games, shoes, fairy tales, families, love, feelings, everything. Jeff is so touched in one episode by a story of a lonely boy and his bird that he’s crying for the first time.
The mannequin is affected to the point of tears. But still, he’s never allowed to leave the store. He will never exist without with magic hat and its spell. He will never be a man. And like all shows, Today’s Special simply ended without any grand ending. No magical miracle for Jeff. He’s to stay there until Jodie leaves or retires and then the store will turn into a Walmart and get demolished.
Let the feelings commence.
Last on our list of shattering Real-Boy stories is the tale of Astro Boy. I’m not completely familiar with the franchise, so I can’t speak for the impact of the whole series. But I sure as hell can tell you how upsetting his origin story is. Long and short, Astro Boy was built in the image of his creator’s son, who I believe is dead. (Please correct me if I’m wrong, friends). When his maker realized Atom would never age or express in a human way, he was sold to the circus. He’s seen performing in the circus by a Professor who buys the robot. The professor not only discovered Atom’s superior strength and abilities, but surprise, he can experience human emotions too.
Which means, in a nutshell, the whole time Astro Boy was in the circus, he was experiencing abandonment, pain, and trauma from being given away by his father. Luckily, it’s a somewhat happy story because he became the super turbo fighting-boy we have today, but that origin story sure stings.
We can’t talk about sentient robot creatures without giving Mega Man an honorable mention. But because his story is the only one here that’s happy, he doesn’t get a true entry. He has a sister, a companion, who is just like him. He’s loved by his creator, Doctor Light. He has a mission that he chose to do, and he can do things that humans are too weak to accomplish.
He beats the Real-Boy story and triumphs over its confining rules when he goes after Dr. Wily and his army of evil robots. Plus, he obtains a new power after he defeats each one, which is thoroughly bad ass.
Did I miss any of your favorite Real-Boy-Soul-Shattering stories here? Please tell me all about them in the comments! I’m might not have any tears left, but I still have enough of those blubbering shaky hiccups to feed a village.