Producers: Guillermo del Toro, Lisa Henson; Gary Ungar, Alex Bulkley and Corey Campodonico Directors: Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale Cast: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Burn Gorman, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson Distributor: Netflix
The possessive in the title is fair warning that this new film of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fable about the puppet that comes to life reflects the sensibility of its co-writer/co-director. But after Robert Zemeckis’ blandly anonymous retelling of the story for Disney+ a few months ago, that’s a blessing. While Zemeckis did little but clone the famous 1940 animated film, del Toro attempts something far more adventurous—to meld Collodi’s dark vision with his own perspectives and—shall we say it?–obsessions. The result is a “Pinocchio” that’s a copy of nothing—neither the original nor any previous version of it—but a brilliant, highly personal reimagining of its themes. Even the slightly unfinished feel of its gorgeous stop-motion animation adds to the unique impression it leaves.
The outline of the tale is the familiar one. Woodcarver Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) fashions a puppet that’s brought to life. Pinocchio, as he’s called, goes through a series of adventures in which he learns lessons about life, death, obedience, and truth-telling. His goal is to become a “real boy.”
No screen retelling has been been completely faithful to Collodi, and del Toro’s is no exception; in fact his alterations, omissions and additions are more pronounced than one encounters in others. But it does reflect the original in that though the film doesn’t lack for moments of geniality, overall it’s far darker than previous takes on the tale.
That’s evident from the shifting of the narrative to the early twentieth century, and to a pervasive sense of loss. Things begin with a sweet prologue in which Geppetto and his ten-year old son Carlo (Gregory Mann) enjoy an idyllic life together in their small village, until the boy is killed during World War I by a stray bomb, dropped from a plane on the parish church where he and his father are working on an imposing crucifix to stand behind the altar. Heartbroken, Geppetto buries Carlo beside a perfect pinecone the boy had found, which grows into the tree beside which he sits constantly in a drunken stupor.
This is where the cricket enters the story—not Disney’s chipper Jiminy, but Sebastian J. (Ewan McGregor), a well-travelled litterateur who takes up residence in the tree to write his memoirs; he looks rather like something out of “Mimic” rather than a cartoonish figure, and gets squashed repeatedly (as he is in Collodi). When Geppetto cuts down the tree to carve a puppet to replace Carlo, Sebastian travels with him back to his woodshop.
But Geppetto leaves the puppet unfinished, which explains why, when Pinocchio is brought to life by the luminous Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), he’s a gnarly, rough-hewn, stick-like thing that terrifies the villagers when he enters their church. (There’s a remarkable moment when Pinocchio adopts the pose of the crucified Christ, only one instance in which del Toro uses Christian religious iconography, and then asks why the congregants revere one wooden figure while hating another. Indeed, Pinocchio will himself be crucified before the film is over.) And when his nose grows whenever he lies, Pinocchio sprouts what amounts to a branch, with leaves attached to the twigs.
By this time, Italy has turned to fascism—for modern viewers, a more accessible form of brutal administrative authoritarianism than the corrupt nineteenth-century Italian state Collodi portrayed—and the town Podestà (Ron Perlman) demands that the creature go to school and become a good servant to Mussolini. But Pinocchio shirks study and falls in with sleazy Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his monkey minion Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett), who force him into starring in their puppet act by threatening Geppetto. When Pinocchio rebels by insulting Il Duce during a command performance, he’s shot for his trouble.
Nonetheless he is compelled to join Mussolini’s youth brigade alongside the Podestà’s son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard). That results from the fact that, as explained by the Wood Sprite’s sister Death (also Swinton), a sphinxlike figure in the underworld, he cannot die permanently: after each “death” he will be brought to the underworld in a casket carried by four gruff poker-playing rabbits (Tim Blake Nelson)—only to be returned to life after a brief time with her. And in befriending the puppet against his father’s demands, Candlewick learns that sometimes disobedience can be a positive virtue, del Toro’s telling thus turning the usual message on its head.
The big finale, of course, is the episode in which Geppetto and Sebastian are trapped in a giant dogfish while searching for Pinocchio, but it takes an especially imaginative twist involving the upending of another traditional message—sometimes lying can be a good thing!—and multiple acts of self-sacrifice. Even what it means to be a “real boy” is reconsidered here. Rest assured that despite its darker-than-usual aspects, del Toro’s Pinocchio ends in sentiment with an injunction to be oneself.
The film has been lovingly made, and in technical terms it’s outstanding—besides the superior animation supervised by Brian Leif Hansen and visual effects by Jeffrey Schaper and Aaron Weintraub, its visuals boast exceptional work from production designers Guy Davis and Curt Enderle, art director Robert DeSue, and cinematographer Frank Passingham, all seamlessly edited together by Ken Schretzmann and Holly Klein. In addition there’s a typically engaging underscore by the always inventive Alexandre Desplat, who also supplies the melodies for a series of songs with lyrics by del Toro, Roeben Katz and Patrick Hale. These aren’t numbers of the big, splashy, repetitive sort that afflict most musicals on stage and screen nowadays, but simple tunes of the kind that Broadway composers used to turn out—charming rather than bombastic.
They’re one more element in a version of “Pinocchio” that’s very different from Collodi’s—and Disney’s, and everyone else’s—and reflecting the personality and creative energy of an idiosyncratic filmmaker at the height of his powers (and, happily, able to attract financing for his projects). Parents may have to explain some of its plot points to their children (who, after all, might not know who Il Duce was), and may in fact enjoy it more than their offspring do; but it’s an enchanting feast for all.