Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – Review

You all know this story. The Disneyfication of Carlo Collodi’s tale of the wooden boy has long fascinated filmmakers, pushing many to try to adapt their own versions and mostly falling through the cracks. We’ve been granted two versions of the tale in 2022, with one being a horrifyingly bland offering from Disney by way of Robert Zemeckis and the other produced by Netflix and directed by Guillermo del Toro.

This is a passion project for a director that I’ve long been fond of, all the way back to seeing Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006 with no knowledge of what I was getting into. His take on the tale of the wooden boy comes to life in a format he’s never played in before, teaming up with first-time director Mark Gustafson to create a stop-motion world that feels more alive and tangible than most special effects extravaganzas I’ve seen this year. It’s luscious, built out of silicone and metal wiring rather than the wood Pinocchio is said to be carved from, and there’s so much light and life in this world of horrors and sorrow that it’s hard not to feel joy at this kind of delight.

And while most would look for a slightly darker take on the films made by Disney we are instead served something much more difficult to grapple with. Published in 1883, the original The Adventures of Pinocchio by Collodi was a moral tale about obedience that was targeted at children. Del Toro has crafted something kids can enjoy, but he’s also stuck to his guns and delivered a film that is horrifyingly stark in its depiction of fascism as it rose to power in Italy under the boot of Benito Mussolini. Fascism remains the director’s greatest fear, one that he continues to grapple with as he works his way through horrors and romances alike, but Pinocchio does perhaps the most frighteningly blunt work he could possibly have offered. Whether skewering parasocial relationships/politician worship, child soldiers being taught that war is a game they can win, or merely the abuse offered as love by those who believe themselves superior, Del Toro never shies away from his talent for mixing a message with those delightfully upsetting and whimsical images we all came to love him for.

Those visuals are perfectly rendered through the stop-motion work. Animation is complicated and difficult, often taking years to produce, but what Del Toro and Gustafson have created here is nothing short of stunning. Voice actors are only one part of the performance and there’s a marvelous job done by all, but the true star of Pinocchio is the animation team. When Geppetto (David Bradley) loses his son you feel it, his cries of agony paired perfectly well with an animate object that feels both of this world and another. His wooden second son is another matter altogether, put together by the drunken toy master in the dark of night after a severe bout of sorrow and regretted immediately on the morrow when the thing rises to life. Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) moves like the cobbled-together creature he is, more akin to Sadako or Kayako than any Disney design, but there’s a sweetness to the rambunctious and curious little kid. He’s kind and open, frightened and loving, and often all of these at the same time with an expressive face that’s as endearing as it is off-putting. His fragility is marked by multiple instances of damage and threat, with the boy constantly in danger and yet rakishly dashing ahead into any fray without always understanding what he’s doing. Ewan McGregor’s take on Sebastian J. Cricket is perhaps the most fun performance in the film, serving as both a counter to the ecumenical stances on morality (that align heavily with the fascism rising in Italy at that time) and comic relief. These great voice performances are joined by Christoph Waltz as the wicked Count Volpe, the villain of the film, Tilda Swinton as a creature of unknowable magic, Ron Perlman as a father that cannot decide if he loves supremacy or his son, and just for kicks Cate Blanchett as Spazzatura the monkey. All of these performances, from the animation team to the voice actors, come together to create a dynamic and thoroughly rousing film experience.

Music has always been key to the story, whether it be Geppetto singing to his wooden son with his accordion or the Disney weaponization of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Alexandre Desplat returns to the del Toro fold after an absence for Nightmare Alley. Challenging himself to only use wooden instruments, the composer has drawn up a series of original songs as well as a score and it might be one of the best offerings of his career. It’s whimsical and not unlike his work on del Toro’s last film, The Shape of Water, but there’s a wide-eyed sincerity this time around and it carries on to become something wholly worthwhile in a film full of wonders.

It’s such a sad thing that Netflix picked this up. Its brief theatrical run will sadly be missed by most, but for those paying attention, you may find that it’s playing briefly in your area. I urge you to see it in a theater, allowing the way this is put together to really sink in and let you marinate in it. This could go down as one of the director’s best films, and I think it deserves to be seen the way he hoped it would be.

Pinocchio is currently playing in select theatres, followed by a Netflix release on December 9th.

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