Review: A Wooden Puppet Dreams of Coming to Life While Disney’s New Pinocchio Never Does

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes movies really depress me. I’m not talking about movies with depressing storylines of someone dying of a disease or breakup movies or any number of other subjects designed to evoke sadness. In the case of the new live-action (and I use the term loosely) adaptation of Disney’s animated classic Pinocchio, the film’s very existence bums me out to no end, because it provides further proof that one of my favorite—and the world’s most reliable—filmmakers is slumming hard. 

Oscar-winner Robert Zemeckis helms the live-action/CGI combo platter Pinocchio, starring his regular creative partner Tom Hanks as the aging woodcarver/clock maker Geppetto, who is still very much in mourning for his departed wife and son. As a coping mechanism, he constructs a marionette puppet boy, makes a wish upon the wishing star, and goes to bed. During the night, his wish comes true courtesy of the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) as she brings the wooden boy to life (and then sings the classic “When You Wish Upon A Star,” which has served as Disney’s theme song for decades). When Geppetto awakes, Pinocchio (now voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is still figuring out walking and talking, but he’s as happy as he can be. But the Blue Fairy told Pinocchio before she left that if he wants to be a real boy, he’d have to prove himself worthy, and thus begins his journey into learning what it is to be human.

Aside from a few not-so-clever lines and inside jokes, this version of Pinocchio is pretty much the one you presumably know, complete with the original songs (plus one really weak new song). Hanks brings next to nothing to Geppetto, beyond a generic gloominess, and his Italian(?) accent…well, some of you saw Elvis, right? It’s slightly better than whatever that accent was. One of the only highlights of the movie are his wall of cuckoo clocks, many of which depict scenes from classic Disney or Pixar movies. It sounds like pandering to the corporate overlords (and it absolutely is), but it also happens to be exceedingly funny when you really pay attention to what scene is being depicted in each clock (the Snow White clock is particularly inspired). But the clocks feel more like a distraction from how uninspired the rest of the work is, and that, as I mentioned, bums me out.

Technically, our guide through this story is Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levihtt), an insect in the top hat and waistcoat who spouts dad jokes and eventually is given the job of Pinocchio’s conscience, meant to guide the newborn puppet down the path that will eventually grant him his boyhood. But Pinocchio is a bit of a dumb shit, so when making his way to his first day of school, he’s tempted by a talking fox named Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), who wows him with tales of becoming famous. Pinocchio eventually manages to ditch Jiminy, as Honest John takes him to become a performer in a traveling carnival, where he dances up a storm. Before long, Geppetto realizes his wooden son is missing and goes out looking for him, and thus their often terrifying adventures (both together and separately) begin.

Written by Zemeckis and Chris Weitz, Pinocchio takes us into the belly of a sea monster, reveals that the puppet’s nose grows when he lies, and even visits the hidden Pleasure Island, a cursed place that occupies an amusement park headed by the Coachman (Luke Evans), which is designed to turn mischievous young boys into donkeys after they drink tainted root beer (gone are the funny cigarettes of the 1940 animated film). This sequence is perhaps the most artificial-looking location of any movie I’ve seen all year, and does little else than destroy any perceived magic in this story. Did I mention there’s a new character? Lorraine Bracco voices Sofia, the talking (and seemingly chain-smoking, based on her voice) seagull. The character does very little, and I’m guessing she’s only here to…actually, I have no idea what purpose Sofia holds. Maybe bring in that Sopranos demographic?

As you’ve probably seen by now, the character design for Pinocchio is essentially the 1940s version but three-dimensional, and that’s fine, but something about Ainsworth’s voicework makes him sounds like he’s just screaming his way through every scene; shockingly enough, it doesn’t get better over time. Beyond that, it’s Zemeckis’ work that lacks that same spark of life that Pinocchio is seeking. Any technically savvy director could have made this movie; there is truly very little that is special about it or anything that indicates that Zemeckis was invested in the subject or this story at all. 

In December, Guillermo del Toro is releasing a version of the Pinocchio story on Netflix that looks like a complete aesthetic reimagining of the classic story, and honestly, it looks like pure, PG-rated nightmare fuel in all the best ways. I will never understand this Disney model of retelling these stories using effectively the same design palette as their originals. If you’re going to tackle this material, start from scratch or don’t start at all. As it stands, this version of Pinocchio is almost as pointless as Tim Burton’s Dumbo. I hate pulling out the D-word, but if the wooden shoe fits….

The film begins streaming Thursday, September 8, on Disney+.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.

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