THE STORY – A father’s wish magically brings a wooden boy to life in Italy, giving him a chance to care for the child.
THE CAST – Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ron Perlman, Cate Blanchett, Finn Wolfhard, Christoph Waltz & Tilda Swinton
THE TEAM – Guillermo del Toro (Director/Writer), Mark Gustafson (Director), Patrick McHale & Matthew Robbins (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes
In the realm of shelved projects, no filmmaker has a pile taller than Guillermo del Toro. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, it seemed like the exuberant Mexican director had something new in development every week, but the vast majority of them never materialized. Remember when he was supposed to adapt “At The Mountains Of Madness”? And the new version of “The Haunted Mansion”? Plus, a “Hulk” television show? So many cool ideas, yet so many faded dreams. Buried amongst that pile of junked projects was one announced all the way back in 2008: a stop-motion dark reimagining of Carlo Collodi’s fairy tale “Pinocchio.” Over the years, information slowly trickled about its stop-and-start development before eventually landing at Netflix, and then the arduous hand-crafted animation process began. Unfortunately, in almost an exact repeat of the situation that befell “Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle,” Disney jumped in with their own remake of their 1940 film, but unlike their superior 2016 “The Jungle Book” movie, Robert Zemeckis’ Disney+ take was met with a dismal thud (and that’s not even getting into that weird Russian version with Pauly Shore that became a meme earlier this year). But now, after seeming like this would be yet another abandoned concept for the Academy Award-winning filmmaker, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is upon us. Thankfully, it has been more than worth the wait. From its earliest moments, it’s evident that this “Pinocchio” is a del Toro production, tonally sitting close to the fantasy of “Pan’s Labyrinth” but with the horror and gore obviously scaled back for the kids. It’s very reminiscent of the darker breed of children’s films from the 1980s like “The Dark Crystal” (which makes sense, considering The Jim Henson Company are producers of it), and more contemporarily, it has obvious echoes of Laika’s recent output.
The film gets off to a beautifully tragic start as we see Geppetto’s (David Bradley) relationship with his son Carlo before his brutally heart-breaking demise; it’s an opening that finally gives “Up” some competition for the saddest opening to a kids’ movie ever. We then move into the creation of Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) himself, which, with Geppetto’s mad ramblings and the thrashing lightning, brings to mind “Frankenstein” more than the original story. From there, it follows the expected beats of the classic tale but with an important setting change: this version is set in 1930s fascist Italy, with even Mussolini himself making a brief appearance. So the earlier comparison to “Pan’s Labyrinth” is certainly apt.
The totalitarian backdrop makes sense, considering the concept of free will would be necessary for a literal living puppet. Pinocchio has a variety of voices in his life trying to control him: Geppetto wants him to be an ordinary boy and fill the hole left by Carlo, the scheming showman Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) seeks to exploit him for monetary gain, the cold government agent Podesta (Ron Perlman) believes his immortality makes him the perfect soldier, all while the beleaguered Sebastien J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) tries to keep his morality on track to please the wishes of our Blue Fairy equivalent: Death herself (Tilda Swinton). This theme of control meets its ultimate height in its complete reimagination of Pleasure Island as a Hitler Youth-esque training camp where Pinocchio and Lampwick (Wolfhard) are forced to confront the realities of war.
This perfectly segues into the film’s musings on mortality. As said before, this Pinocchio cannot truly die, instead ending up in the afterlife after each demise to meet with Death before returning to his wooden shell. It turns his quest to become “a real boy” from a less literal transformation into a more existential journey to understand what makes us truly human. This theme of resurrection is literally compared to Jesus Christ at several points, with Pinocchio questioning why the people of his village hate him while worshipping the wooden Christ figure Geppetto has built for the church before he ends up tied to a crucifix during the fiery climax. It’s the most blatant Christian metaphor in a mainstream film since “Man Of Steel,” and I’m unsure what del Toro was going for with it, but it ultimately compliments its other themes more than distracts from them.
When it comes to casting Pinocchio, it’s always the right move to get a child to play him; anyone who remembers the awful 2002 Roberto Benigni version knows the horror of an adult man playing a little boy. It’s very easy for the character to come off as annoying or painfully stupid, which sadly happened in the recent Zemeckis version, but thankfully Gregory Mann’s portrayal balances that fine line between innocence and insanity. He’s still a clumsy and highly irresponsible character who will literally light himself on fire for fun. Still, the pureness of his soul shines from the start, and it’s clear he’s driven by curiosity and wonder more than selfish pleasure.
The entire supporting voice cast is just outstanding, with even small roles filled by the likes of Burn Gorman, Tim Blake Nelson, and John Turturro. Even Cate Blanchett returns to work with del Toro following their work on “Nightmare Alley.” Here she plays Volpe’s simian sidekick Sprezzaturan and all she has to do is make monkey noises! The real highlights, though, are David Bradley’s gut-wrenching take on Geppetto, Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket, basically reprising Christian from “Moulin Rouge!” but with the persnickety melancholy of C-3PO, and Tilda Swinton, who is perfectly cast as the most mommy interpretation of Death ever.
It’d be pretty simple for a passing onlooker to think this “Pinocchio” is the latest Laika production, as it has a similar aesthetic to the underrated studio that brought us “Coraline” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.” Rather, the animation here is courtesy of ShadowMachine, the company behind “Bojack Horseman” and the early seasons of “Robot Chicken” amongst many others, and the results are easily the finest work they’ve put out to date. For the most part, it has some of the smoothest and most detailed stop-motion work ever seen, though, at other moments, the frame rate can become quite choppy. Given the purposefully rugged look of the film, it’s unclear whether these drops are intentional, but it’s a relatively minor complaint. The character and production design look like it’s been ripped right out of a children’s picture book, with the appearance of Swinton’s Death being the most striking of all.
It’s not been widely advertised as such, but the film is also a musical and features songs written by del Toro, co-writer Patrick McHale, and composer Alexandre Desplat. The score by Desplat is suitably whimsical and sweeping, but the songs are unfortunately a little similar and end up blending together in the head. Despite that, they remain emotionally effective in the moment, especially Geppetto’s opening number, as he sings a lullaby about how much he loves Carlo. Also, any opportunity to hear Ewan McGregor sing should always be taken, and the movie doesn’t disappoint in this area.
It’s hard to see anyone who has been looking forward to “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” walking away feeling let down, as it is exactly what you’d expect from the title and yet so much more. More than just a twisted retelling of a fairy tale like so many emo fantasies (“American McGee’s Alice,” anyone?), this uses a darker tone and fascistic setting to say something different from any prior version of Collodi’s story and is a worthy yet unique addition to the director’s catalog of distorted fables. As proven by his excellent “Tales from Arcadia” series, del Toro’s style beautifully translates to the animated form, and it’s a medium he should explore further. Disney productions often hog the box office, critical praise, and industry recognition, but hopefully, come awards season, this truly one-of-a-kind feature can wrestle its way into the hearts and minds of all because it truly deserves it.