If you had told me earlier this year that I would see a film version of Pinocchio that featured a cameo by Mussolini, I probably would have guessed that filmmaker Guillermo del Toro was up to his old tricks again. Indeed, the properly titled Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio does feature the Italian dictator as part of the film’s rise-of-fascism backdrop (not his first film to examine the corruptive virus of fascism). It is the perfect landscape to tell a story about who the real puppets are in this world and who are truly free. Del Toro (who co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Patrick McHale) directed this stunning stop-motion reworking of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale alongside animation legend Mark Gustafson (The Adventures of Mark Twain; Fantastic Mr. Fox; Return to Oz; The PJs), and the resulting work is both beautiful and low-level terrifying—exactly the kind of movie kids of all ages should be able to appreciate.
Structured quite differently than most versions of Pinocchio you’ve seen (especially either version by Disney, including the abysmal version from early this year directed by Robert Zemeckis), del Toro’s version begins by showing the close relationship between master woodworker Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) and his real-life son Carlo (Gregory Mann, who also ultimately voices Pinocchio as well). To begin with, the character designs here are spectacular, even the human ones, who often look like intricate wooden carvings, moving around in elaborate sets with the kind of details you would typically find only in live-action movies.
While Geppetto is installing the new Jesus on the Cross statue at the local church (with Carlo’s help), the structure is hit by a bomb from an aircraft simply dumping its payload to make it back home, and Carlo is killed. Geppetto is despondent for years to come and spends many a day drunk and cursing God for taking his son while sitting at the boy’s grave. After one such bender, Geppetto cuts down a tree near the site and brings it home to drunkenly craft a puppet version of Carlo. The final product is a sloppy, slightly horrific puppet that just happens to have a cricket (Ewan McGregor) living inside of it. The cricket had only just taken up residence in the tree when Geppetto cut it down; he was there to begin writing his memoirs when the chaos ensued.
One of the funniest running gags in the film is that the cricket keeps beginning to sing a song that will tell us his whole story, but every time he does, he’s interrupted by one thing or another. Considering that the song featured in Disney’s 1940 version of this character has become the theme song of the entire Disney company, the joke seems especially pointed; or perhaps it’s just del Toro’s way of saying there’s no way he could write a comparable tune (the filmmaker actually did write lyrics to many of the songs featured in his version of the movie). But even del Toro’s approach to the musical aspects of his film is unique: once the fascist elements of the story step into the foreground, the songs stop appearing.
Pinocchio is brought to life not by a Blue Fairy, but by a mysterious creature called the Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton). The Sprite is a classic del Toro creation with eyes in its wings and a noticeable mask covering up something that we imagine is quite horrible. Furthermore, the Sprite has a sibling (simply named Death in the credits, also voiced by Swinton), whom Pinocchio meets in the afterworld he is forced to visit each time he dies. Since he’s not a real boy, he’s able to die and come back after a few minutes, which gives him time to learn bits of wisdom from Death (also wearing a mask). Also on hand is del Toro regular Ron Perlman as Podesta, the local fascist enthusiast who doesn’t trust Pinocchio because he’s too much of a free thinker, even though his son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), is inclined to be friends with the wooden boy.
The storyline about Pinocchio joining the carnival is still here, with Christoph Waltz on hand as master of ceremonies Count Volpe, along with his trusted monkey sidekick Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett doing primate sounds as well as any two-time Oscar winner could). Also providing voice work are John Turturro, Burn Gorman, Tim Blake Nelson, and Tom Kenny as the aforementioned Mussolini. The sea monster that swallows some of our heroes also is still present; not content with simply having a whale to do the deed, del Toro provides us with a full-on, gross-out, horror-show water beast, inside and out.
Unlike many versions of Pinocchio, del Toro’s take makes it clear that his wooden boy must learn to be human by first embracing the common mistakes of humanity—compliance, the need to feel like part of something greater, and selfishness. Eventually, Pinocchio will learn these things will not get him what he wants, and that the path to fulfillment is love. It may sound corny, but the way it’s told here is mature, nuanced, and inventive. My criticisms of the film are minor: Gregory Mann’s voice is sometimes annoyingly energetic, but his levels are understandable. He’s realizing he’s alive as he’s learning about the world around him; the information overload almost makes him crazy. Also, Waltz’s Count Volpe is occasionally too cartoonish, but considering how measured everybody else is in this story, it’s manageable.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is masterful in its creation and execution, with del Toro and Gustafson putting actual thought into an animated project in ways that are rarely done outside of the halls of Aardman, Pixar, or Laika. I could watch this movie a dozen times and see something new each time. The film has drama, tension and heart, all of which give the film actual stakes. And since the story is significantly changed from versions we know, I wasn’t actually sure who was going to live or die (the number of times the cricket gets squished and lives gave me real anxiety). This is easily my favorite animated work of the year (and there were some strong contenders in 2022), and I hope del Toro continues to spearhead and direct new animated works going forward.
The film begins streaming Friday on Netflix.
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