Anyone with “appearance by Mussolini” on their Pinocchio Bingo card deserves a gold star. The plot point involving “il Duce” is among the most unexpected twists of Guillermo del Toro’s dark re-imagining of Carlo Collodi’s beloved fable. This Pinocchio, directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson (animation director of The Fantastic Mr. Fox), brings the fairy tale to life unlike any film before. It is a visual wonder that demands to be seen on a big screen before its Netflix debut. Thanks to richly detailed woodcarvings that form the basis for the stop-motion animation, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a wonder to behold. It is a film of textures, shades, ridges, and jagged edges. Characters seem formed with wood plucked from an enchanted forest.
The film quickly signals that it’s not a squeaky-clean Pinocchio like the Disney classic that many cinephiles adore. This time, Geppetto (David Bradley), is a drunkard. As Sebastian J. Cricket (we’ll assume the “J.” stands for “Jiminy”) narrates, Geppetto lost his son, Carlo, during the war. The film offers Pinocchio’s origin story and flashes back to see bombs drop on poor Carlo amid the outbreak of war. Sebastian, voiced by Ewan McGregor, recalls finding the perfect tree where he could make a home and write his memoirs. That encounter, he explains, brought him into Pinocchio’s life. The new tree home doesn’t last long as the heartbroken Geppetto fells it in a drunken stupor. Like a mad Doctor Frankenstein, he constructs a replacement for Carlo from pieces of wood. And voilà! Audiences know the story and we can watch the noses grow of anyone who says otherwise.
Strange and New
The craft and imagination on display ensure that Pinocchio captivates even though most audiences have seen this story before. For example, this take is the second Pinocchio released this season. Robert Zemeckis’s adaptation landed with a thud on Disney+ in September, but expect more than crickets for this one. It gives new life to the story and delivers for anyone who’s still cautious after Roberto Benigni’s Razzie-winning 2002 monstrosity. Or audiences bored by Matteo Garrone’s stately but robotic 2019 adaptation. It, too, starred Roberto Benigni. Thankfully, this one doesn’t have Benigni even if it has Mussolini.
The unexpected injection of Fascism is a novel stroke. Del Toro brings Pinocchio into Pan’s Labyrinth territory, which imagined the Spanish Civil War through a fantastical lens. The sumptuous character design nods to the director’s prior work, too, as the spirit (Tilda Swinton) who grants Pinocchio immortality looks closely related to the titular Pan. Every fable has a moral, though, and the nod to Pan is just one reminder that we’re in the hands of someone who knows fairy tales through and through.
As Geppetto teaches the rambunctious Pinocchio about the responsibilities of being a real boy, he learns to respect authority. Pinocchio’s nose grows and grows as he lies childishly and lives in a world without consequences. His immortality lets him off the hook for his rambunctious behaviour. The spirit just keeps sending him back whenever he dies.
It’s also a Musical
Once Pinocchio runs off to join the circus, lured by Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) with promises of fame and chocolate, and then runs off again to join the youth of Mussolini’s army, he gradually learns that actions have consequences. The film pits Pinocchio in the trenches as boot camp sequences evoke Full Metal Jacket grittiness. The wooden boy gets into the mud with friends and rivals, including a monkey voiced by Cate Blanchett (a hoot!) but there’s always a sense of play. The film magically balances the darkness of the material with a light touch.
However, the sense of play sometimes overwhelms the magic. For one, Pinocchio, voiced by Gregory Mann, is an extremely annoying character. Particularly in the first act when he’s just finding his balance in “real boy” mode, Pinocchio natters incessantly. His overbearing energy is intentionally exasperating, but it’s almost too successful in conveying how much the kid irks his neighbours.
The film also grinds to infrequent halts with random songs. Pinocchio wheezes through numbers that do little to drive the plot. It’s nice to hear a young, untrained voice evoke the puppet’s innocence, but even the tunes sung by McGregor’s powerful expression aren’t especially memorable. There’s no “When You Wish Upon a Star” here, although a scatological ode to Mussolini invites a few laughs.
Awe and Magic
However, since one practically forgets the songs as soon as they’re over, the aura of the fable quickly pulls one back in. The music by del Toro’s regular collaborator Alexandre Desplat captivates with its magical air. There’s no need for lyrics, really, when every moment of Pinocchio sings with these perfectly-tuned enchantment.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio conjures a fantasy world for audiences of all ages. It’s hard not to be in awe of the world his team creates. The whale that swallows Geppetto and Sebastian, for example, is an astonishing monster. One can practically reach out and pop the zit barnacles that make the beast look so bumpy and gooey. The construction evokes painstaking research for fairy tales and religious iconography. The Italian setting is carved with expert care.
Then there’s the marvel of Pinocchio himself. No film has ever created the puppet boy with such a personality. Beyond the mad frenzy of Geppetto’s creation, Pinocchio has shades of Frankenstein’s monster with his jerky movements and ramshackle construction by his inebriated father’s hands. His missing ear, for example, finds beauty in imperfection. The film injects personality into its characters through the edges that other animation houses might otherwise smooth out. This wooden puppet who walks and talks like a real boy seems truest to Collodi’s vision. Who knew the key ingredient to Pinocchio was, well, wood?