While the movie industry has never shied away from remaking stories, there are some that seem to resonate so well with audiences that they wind up being retold over and over again. Pinocchio has proved to be one such tale, with Italian author Carlo Collodi’s 1881 stories having been adapted for film or television more than 30 times around the world, with this marking the 4th in 2022 alone. With the book’s core message seeming to be that children should behave, it’s easy to see why parents have taken to it over the last 141 years, and the cast of talking toys and animals adds appeal for children. Having been remade and reimagined so many times, it’s hard to imagine what there is left to do with the story, and despite being one of film’s more creative directors, Guillermo del Toro along with co-director Mark Gustafson and co-writer Patrick McHale initially seems to struggle with answering that question, delivering a story that while interesting only seems to head exactly where you expect it to. About halfway through however, the movie begins to feel more distinctly more “del Toro-ish” and it becomes a far more rewarding experience.
Italian carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) lost his son to a bombing raid in World War I and spent the next twenty years in mourning, unable to carry on with his work. After a night of drowning his sorrows in alcohol, he can’t take the pain anymore and hews the tree that has grown next to his son’s grave, hauling the wood home where he carves it into a puppet (Gregory Mann). When he passes out afterwards, a blue Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) takes pity on him and grants the puppet life, while also tasking the talking cricket Sebastian (Ewan McGregor), who had taken up residence in the tree, with acting as Pinocchio’s guide. The next day, Geppetto struggles to take in what has happened and heads to church. When Pinocchio follows him there the townspeople are terrified by the living doll, though the local Podestà (Ron Perlman) sees him as possibly useful in Mussolini’s youth army, arousing jealousy from his son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard). It is ultimately decided that Pinocchio will begin attending school, but the next day on his way there, he encounters carnival ringmaster Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his monkey assistant Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett), who persuade him to sign up with them and become a star.
And so Pinocchio finds himself repeatedly led astray by adults looking to take advantage of his guileless gullibility and unique gifts for their own personal gain, all while Geppetto comes to realize how much he cares for the little wooden boy. Choosing to set the story in fascist Italy allows del Toro to revisit some of his favorite themes, aligning especially closely with the juxtaposition of childhood innocence and adult cruelty he previously examined in Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Inspired by Gris Grimly’s work illustrating the original novel for a 2002 edition, the art direction is immediately striking, with the painstakingly rendered, CGI-enhanced stop-motion animation looking stunning throughout. The songs are a bit more a mixed bag, though they fortunately do improve as the film progresses, with “Ciao Papa” especially standing out. There is enough slapstick comedy mixed in to keep children entertained, while the more imaginative visual moments should have all ages enraptured, and the heavier themes around family, love, loneliness, aging, and ultimately death will move the adults (though be prepared to have to answer some questions from littler ones around these topics). While the simple message about trying to be a good person remains, here it has been wonderfully fleshed out to encompass so much more and reminds one why it’s safe to say that del Toro is one of the best filmmakers currently working without worrying about your nose growing any longer. ★★★★★
rated pg for dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor, and brief smoking.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor