It might actually be the beer in particular that causes the children to transform into donkeys, given that Lampwick was probably the last of his batch to fully transform, and Pinocchio stopped drinking when he saw his friend's donkey ears sprout. Pinocchio only partially transformed because he didn't drink enough.
According to the book, it was the water on the island that slowly turned the boys into donkeys. It is likely possible that the booze used the water that caused the process.
Further brilliance: the Coachman's accomplices would of course have laced everything they could with this cursed water, including the food and the liquor, but Pinocchio and Lampwick barely had more than a bite of their food before they ran off to join a big fight and then vandalize a model house. Only later, when they're shooting some pool, do they draw themselves some beer. Also, as noted on the I'll Tell You When I've Had Enough! page, unscrupulous bartenders tend to break out the watered-down stuff after their customers get too drunk to notice the difference. Given Lampwick's Hidden Depths (seems this is hardly the first time he's ever been in a pool hall or a bar), it's likely that he knew enough about getting drunk to tell Pinocchio to save the drinking for last if he wanted to get the full measure of fun out of the island. Hence, they started drinking last, imbibed the least cursed water out of any of the boys, and their transformations therefore took longer.
When being introduced to the scene of Pinocchio and Lampwick playing pool Pinocchio asks Lampwick, "Where do you suppose all the kids went to, Lampwick?" after realizing that things have become unusually quiet on the island. Unconcerned about the odd silence outside Lampwick answers with an assuring but uncaring, "They're around here somewhere's, what do you care?" Why couldn't either or both Pinocchio and Lampwick pause from playing their game and step outside the pool hall to realize all the boys on the island are gone including the coachman and that the park attractions are in shambles thus hinting to them that something's not right? Lampwick is not interested in the well-being of others but his own and believes that the other kids are at a far off part of the island.
How Pinocchio was led astray so easily by Honest John and the Cat twice makes complete sense when you consider that Pinocchio was only "born" the day before. Just as he doesn't yet know right from wrong, he does not have enough social awareness to know when others are lying to him, and is thus led around like a puppet still on strings.
Similar to the above, Honest John sings "an actor's life for me!" Considering that he's only acting like Pinocchio's friend, it's true on a level that Pinocchio doesn't even realize.
While Honest John stopping in the middle of his song (when Jiminy whistles to get Pinocchio's attention) is pretty funny on its own, it makes sense when you consider why John is singing in the first place. The whole point of the song is to put on a fun, friendly facade to manipulate Pinocchio. The way John stops at even the slightest possibility of someone watching indicates just how dishonest the song is.
Why did Pinocchio only partly transform into a donkey unlike the other boys? Because he's not fully human! To explain, he's partially transformed because he is alive just not a real boy and because he wasn't a real boy yet, his transformation wasn't complete.
As pointed out above, it helps that he didn't eat/drink very much from the island, especially after seeing Lampwick transform.
Looking at the coach taking the children to Pleasure Island, it appears to be pulled by donkeys. Thus, little boys are kidnapped and changed into donkeys, losing everything they ever loved in life and on top of that, some are forced to pull the coach of the man who changed them in the first place and carry other children so that they can share the same monstrous fate as themselves. (In the book, this is definitely stated.)
On top of that, there's the fact that no one rescues the boys after they're robbed of their humanity and sold into slavery. Nobody even bothers to mourn for them, but we're supposed to clap and cheer because the hero gets out OK. And the Coachman is never stopped, so he presumably goes on doing it to more boys.
Originally there was supposed to be a brief scene at the end where the Fox and Cat were arrested and it was implied the whole scheme would be exposed. It was cut.
Fridge Logic: It would seem that the film intended that the Coachman, while evil by today's standards, look more like a 'force of nature' against the bad boys. Turning into a donkey is considered to be a just desserts for being 'bad boys'. Perhaps they meant it that way so the Coachman turns into a Karma Houdini.
Perhaps Disney went too over the top. In the book, Pleasure Island was the Land of Toys, a place of innocent games, not "bad" stuff — it was just all play and no work or school. In the 1940s when Pinocchio was released, society had begun to fret about "juvenile delinquency", the idea that kids were lazy, spoiled, disrespectful and undisciplined.note The same as every generation before and after them, in other words. J. Edgar Hoover warned about "truants", who were routinely arrested and thrown in jail. Bad/naughty kids were considered a serious matter, so Disney decided to be as Anvilicious as possible in an attempt to Scare 'Em Straight.
Alternatively, Pinocchio was supposed to represent the idea of "get a chance to learn from mistakes and find redemption" — his experiences, including as a donkey, are this in the original book and serve as a kind of Purgatory. The rest were considered beyond repentance — once God says you're not welcome in Heaven, your only place is Hell. No Purgatory for them! It just means Disney just chose to save Pinocchio... while damning the rest with no chance of redemption. Again, I repeat... WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?!?
It could just be that they wanted a really strong cautionary tale: Be careful where you go and who you hang out with, because you might screw yourself over beyond the point of recovery. Which is definitely a Hard Truth Aesop, but one that certainly does have some truth to it.
It's symbolic, at least it was in the novel. You choose to blow off school, and you will only be able to get the most menial and backbreaking of work when you grow up, for you will be no better off than a common donkey. Those boys chose to run away and be little hooligans and never go to school; all the Coachman did was give them the rope to hang themselves with.
Viewing it again as an adult, I'm starting to see a secondary moral as well, which makes this Fridge Horror into Fridge Brilliance at the same time. Questions people in general ought to learn to ask themselves when they see so much "free" stuff being offered such as Pleasure Island's expensive outlays of food, liquor, tobacco, and a model house to vandalize is who's footing the bill for all of this extravagance and what's in it for them? Naturally, Pinocchio and Lampwick and all the other victims are too young to know any better, but even a lot of educated adults don't think to ask these questions in Too Good to Be True situations like this; hence things like the rise of totalitarian welfare states with their Bread and Circuses and out-of-control deficit spending that ruins whole nations. What happens when the bill comes due for those things is far worse than anything that happened to those boys on Pleasure Island.
And the Coachman is a Karma Houdini. For all we know, he could still be turning kids into donkeys and selling them off to the circus, salt mines, etc. Hell, he's a pedophile too, stripping little donkey kids' clothes off. And he's still out there.
This reinforces my belief that he really is a metaphor for Satan: after all, though The Bible does mention his ultimate fate being to be cast into Hell along with his followers, Satan is still indicated to be on the job for now... just like the Coachman.
And we never do find out what happened to all the boys who were turned into donkeys. Most of them probably spent the rest of their lives as donkeys!
The ones that still could talk could've very well been butchered for glue and other byproducts!
Remember near the beginning when Pinocchio touched a burning candle? What if Geppetto hadn't been there to put out the flame on his finger?
The book answers that one. The finger would have burned off, and Geppetto would have had to make a new one. Such a finger (or foot in the book) would probably be paralyzed and numb for a while as Pinocchio's circulation rebuilds the tissue in the cell walls.
I don't know about you, but I always got this weird and creepy sense that the Coachman was an allusion to pedophilia and child trafficking. That's what always crept me out about this whole operation. I mean, Pleasure Island??? *Shudder* (The author of this article has exactly that take on it.)
I never got that impression. His evil stemmed not from lust, but from greed so fierce that he was willing to destroy the lives of small children for money. But then, considering his actions, he probably WOULD have sold children as (human) sex slaves if he'd found the market for it.
Each of these points brings up a Nothing Is Scarier bit of Fridge Horror: notice that the Coachman targeted bad boys exclusively. Is there a Distaff Counterpart to him and his business? "Billy Houses" for boys do exist (as if we needed a reminder that Real Life has even worse places than Pleasure Island), but the overwhelming majority of sex slave trafficking is still in girls and women. The Coachman's line of work is bad enough, but meeting his real-life female equivalent would send the story straight into X-rated territory.
In the book, there are girls at Pleasure Island too — again, in the book it's a place of toys and innocent play — and they meet the same fate.
When Foulfellow asks, "What about the law?", Coachman assures him that there is no danger of that because THEY NEVER COME BACK AS BOYS. He also carefully prevents ones that still talk from getting away. Does this mean that Pinocchio, the first to come back as a boy, thanks to his conscience, had the potential to send all the king's horses after The Coachman?
I'm going to tell myself that's what happened after the end of the movie. It's the only way I can sleep at night.
This would make good Fridge Brilliance; after all, it wouldn't count as a good ending for nothing if it weren't for this line.
Well it would make sense, but it's a pretty far-fetched tale. "Officer. There is an island offshore where small boys are turned into donkeys and sold as slaves!" But then, when you consider that most people don't consider six foot tall talking foxes and blue fairies and talking wooden boys to be out of the ordinary, that story could possibly be feasible.
I have to think this about the donkey children. If proving yourself brave and caring and unselfish can make you a real boy, perhaps the donkeys are changed back when they do such things. Take a whipping for a comrade, for instance, or take the burden of one who's exhausted. Even Lampwick might do that. God knows the Blue Fairy doesn't do shit to help these kids, and in the book Pinocchio only changes back because he's thrown into the ocean to drown and is eaten by fish.
Pinocchio telling others about the Coachman's operation is, actually, very possible. When Honest John heard about Pleasure Island, he asked about the police. Pleasure Island and what happens there is what is called a preternatural: A phenomenon that might be of a supernatural cause OR a normal one that is unknown by people. Whether the island is cursed, has some substance in it, John's reaction implies that the police IS aware of its existence and what it does, but the Coachman knows a secret path to it and, after all, the victims cannot say anything. So if Pinocchio tells the authorities about the Coachman, they will listen.
Pinocchio's father is really old (old enough to be his grandfather if it's worth guessing, but we're still unsure) and is most likely to die as soon as he reaches puberty. It's worth noting that this is a famous fan theory, having gen fics depict Pinocchio as a teenager, coping or witnessing his father's death.
When Pinocchio returns as a real boy, he asks his father why he's crying. Gepetto doesn't seem surprised to hear his voice, just tells him he's dead, actually insists on it when Pinocchio tries to convince him otherwise, and asks him to lie down. This implies that Gepetto's been hallucinating in his heartbreak and thinks he has heard Pinocchio speaking to him already. The broken way he asks Pinocchio to lie down suggests he just wants his mind to stop playing tricks on him and let him grieve.
The scene of Pinocchio and Lampwick playing pool as Pleasure Island has now become deserted and in ruins strongly implies that the kids on the island began changing into donkeys around the time after Pinocchio and Lampwick went into the pool hall and both were completely oblivious to the horrifying chaos outside. But, then why didn't the Coachman realize there were two boys still at the park who haven't transformed yet? He might have been too busy rounding up the hundreds of newly transformed donkeys to go himself or send his henchmen to check other buildings throughout the park.
Maybe a bit of a Fridge Tear Jerker but if one remembers the scene where Pinocchio's revived as a real boy, when Jiminy steps out it's all ready night. By the time that Pinocchio had died it was around morning, maybe an early afternoon...that means that Gepetto was mourning his son for almost a whole day. No wonder he thought his son was dead even when he was speaking to him.