A film review by Craig J. Koban December 22, 2022

Rank: #5

Guillermo del Toro's PINOCCHIO  jjjj

2022, PG, 117 mins.

Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket (voice)  /  David Bradley as Gepetto (voice)  /  Gregory Mann as Pinocchio (voice)  /  Christoph Waltz as Count Volpe (voice)  /  Tilda Swinton as Wood Sprite / Death (voice)  /  Ron Perlman as The PodestÓ (voice)  /  Finn Wolfhard as Candlewick (voice)  /  Cate Blanchett as Spazzatura the Monkey (voice)  /  Tim Blake Nelson as The Black Rabbits (voice)  /  John Turturro as Il Dottore (voice)  /  Burn Gorman as Priest (voice)  /  Tom Kenny as Mussolini / Right Hand Man / Sea Captain (voice)  /  Alfie Tempest as Carlo (voice)

Directed by Guillermo Del Toro and Mark Gustafson  /  Written by Del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the novel by Carlo Collodi




One thing came to mind all throughout my screening of (to quote its fill title) GUILLERMO DEL TORO'S PINOCCHIO: 

Man, this is more like it! 

I say this after experiencing the other PINOCCHIO adaptation that also came this year from director Robert Zemeckis and star Tom Hanks, who combined their not-so-inconsiderable-talents together to make yet another on a long list of creatively lazy and bankrupt live action updates of cherished Disney animated classics.  The House of Mouse's 1940 animated version of PINOCCHIO (which, in turn, was loosely adapted from the 1883 Italian children's novel of the same name) is as heralded as they come, which made watching the hopelessly wrongheaded and wholly unnecessary retread by Zemeckis and company all the more frustrating.  Del Toro has always highly regarded the Disney animated film among the pantheon of the studio's best, mostly because of the inherent darkness and "horror" aspects of its story and material.  His lifelong passion project was to make his very own animated version of this classic tale, albeit with more faithful ties to Carlo Collodi's original 19th Century source material.  Using stupendous stop motion animation alongside displaying a loving faithfulness to the children's text while giving it a fascinating historical update and subtext, GUILLERMO DEL TORO'S PINOCCHIO is a dark, haunting, visually stunning, and soulful exploration of this mythology that emerges as one of the director's finest works ever. 

Originally announced in the late 2000s before going into developmental hell, del Toro revisited the project in the late 2010s before finally finding and securing financing from Netflix, the only studio that seemed willing to see the Oscar winning filmmaker's unique vision through to successful fruition.  This is still a PINOCCHIO film that contains all of the requisite and familiar elements that made the 1940 Disney effort so memorable and beloved, but make no mistake about it - del Toro's aesthetic fingerprints are all over this production.  He clearly loves what Disney brought to the table all those decades ago while also holding Collodi's children's book in supreme high regard, but del Toro also does something endlessly compelling by centering his PINOCCHIO in post WWI and pre-WWII Italy and set amidst the rising tide of fascism (we even get a cameo by Mussolini himself in the story).  The tender tale of Gepetto making his wood puppet that comes to life via the magic of a Blue Fairy is still here (albeit in different forms), as is the titular character's desires to become a real boy while surviving through one hellish ordeal after another apart from his maker.  But the emotional stakes have a harder hitting element of tragedy here, not to mention that the time period's dynamically changing socio-political landscape offers up an enthralling new viewfinder into the material.  Plus, how mind blowing is it that this PINOCCHIO is the first animated film version since Disney's?  Yes, there have been many live action attempts, like the aforementioned and dreadful one from this year to the truly bizarre versions by Roberto Benigni, but del Toro's is the first to utilize animation to tell this story in 82 years.  

Yeah, pretty astounding. 



The film opens in Italy during the Great War, during which time we meet Gepetto (voiced by David Bradley), whose only son in Carlo died a very young death and under nightmarish circumstances when Austrian forces launched an aerial bombardment of their town and inadvertently bombed a church that Carlo was in, killing him instantly.  This opening is crucial to cementing the overall tone that del Toro is aiming for here, which is steeped in grimness and hits viewers so much more ruthlessly in the gut than any other version has in the past.  It's so painful to witness Gepetto enjoy his life with his young son, only to have him be taken away from him in a cruel twist of fate.  It's also complicated for Gepatto because he was in the process of constructing a large crucifix for the church in question, but after the bombing and his son's death he has a radical change of religious spirit and turns his back on the Catholic Church as a whole.  It's at this stage when more familiar elements start to settle in, like Gepetto making a marionette puppet of a boy to fill the void of his real son, only to dream that he was a real boy to replace his dearly departed offspring.  Of course, a magical fairy (Tilda Swinton) swoops in and not only makes the puppet come alive, but also gives him a soul.  When the wooden creature springs up under his own power, Gepetto is equal parts shocked and non-accepting of his new child, with many local Catholics thinking that its evil sorcery at play. 

Much like the Pinocchios of other film versions, this one (Burn Gorman) is endlessly curious about the world around him, but bumbling in his naivetÚ, which predictably gets him into a lot of trouble.  One local priest thinks he's literally the devil, whereas a Nazi official thinks that he could be groomed into a weapon used in WWII to come.  Pinocchio is first lured away by the Svengali-like charm of Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), who - as almost every version of this story told reveals - doesn't have pure motives.  From here we get Gepetto desperately searching for his lost faux-boy, which takes him to sea and a fateful confrontation with a massive sea creature.  Other memorable and core aspects of this mythology are present, like Pinocchio's nose growing whenever he tells a lie and a cricket companion for him (this time named Sebastian, and voiced by Ewan McGregor).  Everything comes to a climatic head in similar ways to what we've seen before, but the journey towards it is so decidedly different in tone.  The ominous shadow of both World Wars and the sinister underbelly of fascism are omnipresent throughout.  And one fresh new concept deals with Pinocchio's many lives and how he speaks to spirits from beyond each time he dies. 

I think you're getting a vividly clear picture for just how different del Toro's whole take on PINOCCHIO is here, and it's so audaciously different that it's no wonder why he ended up being funded by Netflix.  He incorporates the chilling aspects of Collodi's book with traits of the Disney animated movie, but placing the puppet within the grip of real world early 20th Century fascism is this film's real coup de grace move.  People myopically focused on what Disney gave us will, no doubt, probably be taken aback by del Toro's methods here.  I applaud del Toro's singular vision and focus in not giving us the same type of PINOCCHIO that we've come to expect or have experienced in one form or another before.  Why make - or remake - a classic tale without taking some risks?  And del Toro takes bold and calculating risks here, to be sure, especially when it comes to examining Pinocchio's quest to attain true living boy stature amidst some of the harsher and evil ideologies that historically ravaged the world.  One of the driving engines of the story is the theme of fathers and their fractured ties to their sons.  Gepetto lost a son, but then is granted a new one, but has trouble initially accepting him in his magical form.  Then there's Podesta (HELLBOY himself, Ron Pearlman) a government man raising his son in Candlewick (Finn Woldhard) under maliciously stern rule.  Del Toro approaches these father/son relationships and allows for them to play off of one another in compelling ways, with the fathers all yearning to exude some level of control over their respective kids. 

Del Toro using stop motion animation is his other masterstroke move.  It was telling how artificial Zemeckis' "live action" version of Pinocchio was in so many ways; his wooden boy was just a bland and lifeless CG recreation that lacked charm and soul.  Del Toro's version of Pinocchio is less cute, cuddly, and audience friendly.  Avoiding the pratfalls of Disney-ifying a toyetic creation, del Toro opts to make his Pinocchio literally look like something that was carved out of wood and held together by rickety screws and gears.  That's not to say that Pinocchio looks ghastly, but he looks nothing like his Disney counterpart.  He's a wooden puppet replete with wood blemishes, cracks, and imperfections in the material used to build him.  And when he moves - especially after his birth, so to speak - it's less than smooth and fluid, and it's here where the choice to go stop motion really pays off.  It should be noted that the film was co-directed by Mark Gustafson - making his feature film debut after being an animation director with LAIKA Studios - and the level of detail on display from the characters to the environments is simply extraordinary.  The picturesque and classical storybook beauty of Disney's visuals is something that's hard to duplicate, so del Toro and Gustafson widely understand why the ethereal quirkiness and character that stop motion brings to the table would allow their Pinocchio to richly and proudly stand apart.  There's a density and generosity to the images presented here, with no shortage of things on screen to engage the eye and facilitate a sensation of awe and wonder.   

Two minor things hold back del Toro's vision here.  Firstly, at nearly two hours, it runs perhaps a bit too long and may have young viewers checking out at the 80-90 minute mark.  Beyond that, this PINOCCHIO doesn't use any classic Disney songs (for obvious reasons) and instead incorporates its own, with none of them coming off as especially memorable (del Toro would have been better served to have turfed them off to the sidelines altogether).   Quibbles aside, del Toro's PINOCCHIO is so boldly arresting in both conception and execution that it all but washed away the thoroughly awful taste that the very recent Zemeckis live action version left in my mouth.  This PINOCCHIO is truly visionary and has something artistically ambitious and thematically mature that it wants to do with this ageless material, whereas Zemeckis' crack at it was a cynical minded and corporate motivated cash grab lacking magic altogether.  I've been harder than most on a majority of del Toro's films in the past, but I will say that the Mexican filmmaker has carved out a career of helming one visually arresting - but sometimes dramatically inert - feature after another.  With PINOCCHIO he has made not only one of the most gorgeously animated and atmospheric films of recent memory, but one with the most heart and soul on his resume as well.  

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