Revisiting The Nightmarish Made-For-TV Musical Version Of Pinocchio Starring Drew Carey And Julia Louis-Dreyfus

On September 8, 2022, Robert Zemeckis' live-action adaptation of the Walt Disney animated classic "Pinocchio" comes to Disney+. It is yet another entry in the House of Mouse's ongoing attempt to remake their classic animated films, repackaging them with a new veneer. Yes, it is easy to decry the increased commodification of art, the lack of originality from a studio once known for innovation, and crassly utilizing the work of talented artists in service of keeping people subscribed to a streaming service. However, we know it will at least be better than the last time Disney took the classic "Pinocchio" story to a live-action arena.

On May 7, 2000, as part of "The Wonderful World of Disney," ABC aired "Geppetto," an original movie musical that took the story of "Pinocchio" and told it from the perspective of the puppet boy's creator/father, starring one of the company's biggest stars at the time in the titular role: Drew Carey. The pedigree behind the project was pretty good. Stephen Schwartz, who had recently written the lyrics for Disney's "Pocahontas" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and was about to have a little show called "Wicked" on Broadway in a couple of years, was brought on to write a full original score. A young Jerry Mitchell, now thought of as one of the most reliable directors and choreographers on Broadway, came in to choreograph the dance sequences. Tom Moore was a steady hand of a director with decades of experience on television and in the theatre.

The result is a baffling catastrophe, a film that is equal parts shrill and tedious, that turns the congenial Geppetto into a man you wouldn't want to spend more than five minutes with.

Bad dad Geppetto

The problem with changing the point of view for any story is that, generally, most are engineered so every supporting character is in complete service to the protagonist. This is especially true of children's stories, most of which are cautionary tales from which they can learn. Geppetto's whole existence in Disney's original film is to be the loving father that Pinocchio learns was all he needed all along. Fame, fortune, and the vices of Pleasure Island are nothing compared to a father's love.

By making Geppetto the protagonist, you give someone an arc who never had one to begin with. Drew Carey's Geppetto is a toymaker who has never had children, and his wish is to be a father. Thus, the Blue Fairy (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) turns Pinocchio from a lifeless puppet into a little wooden boy (Seth Adkins). As it turns out, being a father to an energetic, chaotic little kid (you know ... like most children are) is not exactly what Geppetto had in mind, and it's his hopeful wishing that he had a different son that causes Pinocchio to run away. So, Geppetto's manufactured arc as he sets on a quest to find the missing Pinocchio is to learn that he can love the puppet boy just the way he is.

Framing the story this way makes no one empathize with Geppetto in the slightest. He comes off as an egotistical sociopath who needs to learn the lesson "Love your child." You can understand a boy needing a journey to find appreciation for the one who takes care of him. A grown man having essentially the same arc as a child makes him seem thoughtless at best and malicious at worst. It doesn't help that he is played by Drew Carey.

A miscasting of epic proportions

I have nothing against Drew Carey. I quite like the man's work. "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" was a major staple of my television viewing growing up. Whenever I've seen an episode of "The Drew Carey Show," it's a good time. I even think he's done a fantastic job hosting "The Price Is Right" over the last 15 years. But what makes Drew Carey a compelling comedic presence could not be further away from who Geppetto is.

Carey's strength as a performer lies in his quick-witted, sardonic attitude. This is why he was the perfect choice to host "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" He could bask in the absurdity on a given episode, and once it was done, he always had the right line that let him stand on a tower above the improvisers and deliver his sarcastic judgment. Equally as funny was seeing that attitude get pummeled by his co-stars when Carey would stumble over his words or didn't land a joke.

"Geppetto" is pure sentimentality, and nothing about how Carey reads onscreen meshes with that at all. His idea of earnestness is stripping away every bit of edge and charm that he naturally has to take on this role, and the result makes him a void. His best moments are the ones where he is most annoyed with Pinocchio, most frustrated with the Blue Fairy's tactics, and most bemused at the strange folks he encounters. These does nothing to help us endear ourselves to him; quite the opposite, in fact. As a singer, he can carry a tune, but there's a harshness to his voice that matches his personality. He was one of Disney's big names at the time, but they couldn't have picked someone worse for the role.

Less than uninspired numbers

Stephen Schwartz can be an immensely talented composer and certainly knows how to write a tune that will bury itself deep inside your brain. Now, I am not a proponent for the notion that the goal of the music in a musical should be that it is catchy, but for a musical aimed mostly at children dealing with fairy tale magic by Disney, having a "hummable" score certainly does a lot of favors. Many a mediocre Disney project have been saved through a couple of memorable songs. Schwartz is fully capable of writing these tunes, as "Pippin," "Godspell," and "Wicked" are filled with them, but his method of doing that is within a pop context.

"Geppetto" looks to capture the sound of old school, golden age musicals, and I can feel Schwartz getting reined in by the need to create that sound. His work shines when the music taps into the pop sound of the day, as "Pippin" did with the whimsical early 1970s or "Wicked" with the bombastic early 2000s. Here, Schwartz's music feels like a pastiche of a pastiche that has no life. Some of the lyrics have some zing to them, such as:

"Silence the scoffers

Fill up the coffers

Weighing the offers

Everyone proffers."

But they are buried within melodies that go in one ear and out the other. What he's trying to do is what his "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" collaborator Alan Menken did so well when he joined up with Disney back with "The Little Mermaid," but their strengths as composers are not remotely the same. Menken can adapt to any style you ask of him. Stephen Schwartz has a signature mode, and "Geppetto" doesn't not fit it at all.

Brent Spiner innocent

Before television became a place for A-list actors to do challenging material in-between superhero movies, TV used to be where exceptionally talented theatre performers could get healthy paychecks to live off of in order to continue appearing on stage without going broke. Occasionally, these actors get hired onto a show that becomes massive, and they're forever associated with that character. If I say the name Brent Spiner, you immediately have an image of Data from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" in your head without question.

Before Data, Spiner was a jobbing theatre actor in New York who worked quite a lot in musicals, appearing in the Broadway productions of "A History of American Film," "Big River," and "Sunday in the Park with George" (my favorite musical of all time). This was his life, and because the US values theatre so little, I imagine a lot of people had no idea about this.

Brent Spiner plays Stromboli in "Geppetto," the nefarious puppet show proprietor who abducts Pinocchio, and he is almost the only person in the whole film who looks like he is enjoying himself. Spiner digs back to his hammy theatre days and chews on every bit of scenery he can find. Whether he is putting on a fake Italian accent or arguing with the puppet on his hand, the man knows he is in a silly kids movie and wants to give the audience a lively break from the schmaltz. His patter number "Bravo, Stromboli" tricked me into thinking I was watching a good movie and not utter trash.

Another theatre vet who shows up is René Auberjonois (who Spiner actually replaced in "Big River") to inject some life, but his song isn't nearly as fun as Spiner's.

Let's never speak of this again

To demonstrate just how different television viewing was back in 2000 compared to today, "Geppetto" managed to nab 14.59 million viewers when it premiered. For reference, the first episode of "House of the Dragon" received almost 10 million viewers, and that was the biggest series premiere in the history of HBO. "Geppetto" didn't even break the top 20 most watched programs that week. The episode of "The Drew Carey Show" from a few days earlier took in about 6 million more viewers.

Today, though, Disney wants you to forget that "Geppetto" ever happened. If you go looking for it on Disney+, you will not find it. If you want it on DVD, you'll have to shell out a cool $49 to buy it on Amazon (of course a Blu-ray doesn't exist). You can find it uploaded to YouTube, but that is, of course, without Disney's permission. Disney just did a big reunion for their "Wonderful World of Disney" production of "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella," and you will not be seeing that anytime soon for "Geppetto." Even Drew Carey quickly knew what a train wreck it was.

They would like us to believe that Robert Zemeckis' take on "Pinocchio" will be the first time this story has ever been adapted for live-action by them. But as much as they would like to forget history, you cannot deny it. "Geppetto" exists, and I will never forget it. Unfortunately.