Synopsis – A darker version of the classic children’s fairy tale of a wooden puppet that transforms into a real living boy.
My Take – It took me a while to get around to watching this one, mainly because I was personally no longer keen to watch yet another interpretation of Carlo Collodi‘s beloved children’s tale, even though I proud myself to be a fan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro‘s work, but mostly because I was left too scarred with the horror that was the soulless Robert Zemeckis directed Disney live action remake that released last year.
But with multiple award wins under its a belt, including a Golden Globe, and the knowledge that the Netflix release doesn’t adopt the light-hearted and happy-go-lucky vibes of Disney, in favor of a darker version, I ended up fully embracing the film. Keeping in count the film’s personality, heart, and soul, this one is no doubt among the best adaptations of its classic source material.
Using the tactility of stop-motion animation to lend splintery weight, both physical and emotional, to the story, here, directors Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, known for his work on Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), conjure a beautiful and unique interpretation of a classic that explores death and grief in ways that are often emotional and heartbreaking whilst still delivering a fun adventure with gorgeous animation against a classically disturbing del Toro backdrop.
Based on the screenplay by del Toro and Patrick McHale and a story by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, the tale deals with the malleability of identity, unconditional love, the impressionable nature of children, and the close link between joy and sorrow. And it does so with dark wit, refreshingly complex three-dimensional characters, and stunningly haunting stop-motion animation. Everything from the movement of the characters, to their designs and the vibrant color palette is gorgeous and endlessly watchable.
Sure, it deals with mature themes and might look unsettling to some, yet audiences of all ages will be moved by the film’s truths and appreciate the efforts that went into making the film.
The film starts in a small Italian village during World War I and follows Master Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley), who with his young son, Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann), is living out their days as peacefully as they can during wartime. But when Carlo dies under tragic circumstances, he resorts to a spiral of grief and drunkenness.
Years later, in a drunken rage he ends up cutting down a pine tree near Carlos’s grave, unaware of the fact that Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a traveling cricket has settled into it, building a ramshackle puppet to replace his lost child.
While Geppetto goes to sleep, the Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) appears, feeling sorry for Geppetto, instills life into the doll, naming it Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) and giving Cricket the responsibility to be its consciousness since he has already made his home in Pinocchio’s heart (chest).
And when the sun rises on Geppetto and Pinocchio, they commence a journey filled with horror and beauty, while encountering carnival barker Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz) and his monkey Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett), fascist general Podesta (voiced by Ron Perlman) and even Death (voiced by Tilda Swinton), learning important lessons along the way about recognizing evil and putting others before oneself.
Conceptually this is a heavy film that doesn’t condescend on its younger audiences nor its older ones. It respects all the age groups equally and without compromising the story and fairy tale-qualities of the story at its core. It’s like a hard-boiled folktale that knows when to be optimistic and when to be cautionary in equal measures.
The film isn’t afraid to delve into neither Gepetto’s alcoholism nor his disillusionment over the rise of Mussolini taking over his village, and his character arc fills the adaptation with compelling and powerful humanity. This is by no means a sanitized version of the story and its antifascist messaging is pretty timely.
The propaganda is on the streets via aggressive posters, and propagators of said propaganda are everywhere, especially in the church. They are out there proudly overlooking poverty and Roman saluting their way through every conversation because as long as the dictator is prospering, everything else can go to hell. But that’s not where the film stop with its take on the classic fairy tale. It goes a step further by commenting on how children and entertainment can be turned into effective tools of fascism.
They show us that the conversion process can be smoother if artists and ordinary citizens prioritize validation from dictators and their minions over their basic needs and rights. And, like every good film out there, the writers highlight the importance of education, democracy, integrity, camaraderie, ethics, mortality, and selflessness as the means to counter fascism.
Ultimately, this one is yet another story about a dysfunctional father-son relationship and accepting about each other for who we are rather than rejecting each other for what we are not. It’s not that Pinocchio needs to learn to behave like Carlo, but Geppetto needs to learn to love Pinocchio for who he is.
Without a doubt, the first thing that stands out in this film is the magnificent design work. Pinocchio looks very much like a wooden puppet carved in a drunken stupor, spindly with nails sticking out, missing an ear, and he moves like a monstrous insect until he gets his physical bearings.
Currently the longest stop-motion feature film ever made, every frame of the film is a significant feat of artistry come to life and vision explored, with one left wondering how on earth the team behind this effort managed to pull off such exemplary feats of animation to birth this tale into existence and whether its colorful cities, mangy looking monkey sidekicks, rabbit filled underworlds or a belly of a giant sea beast there is no doubt every inch of this Netflix original is right up there with the best of animated film-making.
Even the songs composed by Alexandre Desplat are the type of plot-pushing numbers that suggests this film might be getting a stage adaptation soon enough. If that doesn’t make this the greatest Pinocchio adaptation, I don’t know what will.
Voice performance wise, Gregory Mann is just incredible, imbuing Pinocchio with a boundless warmth and naivety that thankfully never becomes annoying. Ewan McGregor makes for a terrific comic relief and is an absolute joy to hear whenever he’s on screen. David Bradley is great as Geppetto, subtly bringing so much pain to his character that breaks your heart and makes his moments of happiness all the better to experience.
Christoph Waltz as Count Volpe is magnetic, seedy, and oddly charming. Tilda Swinton as the Wood Sprite and Death is hypnotic and soothing as always. In other roles, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, John Turturro, Burn Gorman and Tim Blake Nelson are excellent. On the whole, ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ is a stunning and breathtakingly different take that is both uplifting and heartbreaking.
Rated – PG
Run Time – 117 minutes