Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio review: A bold creation
James R | On 11, Dec 2022
Director: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, Ron Perlman
From Robert Zemeckis’ mo-capped adventure to Matteo Garrone’s fairytale adventure, the world isn’t exactly short of Pinocchio remakes these days. But where both those adaptations had clear roots in Carlo Collodi’s original book, which inspired the classic Disney animation, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio has its roots in, well, Guillermo del Toro. In some ways, this feels like his most personal film to date – even if, as a result, it doesn’t really feel like Pinocchio anymore.
The story begins before the familiar fable of a wood-carving father making a son, as we meet Geppetto (David Bradley) living a happy life with his actual son, Carlo. When Carlo passes away, Geppetto sinks into a dark depression, only to end up carving Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), a rickety simulacrum of a young boy. Things get darker from there, as Pinocchio is brought to life not by Disney’s Blue Fairy but by a Wood Sprite voiced by Tilda Swinton, whose sister – Death (also Swinton) – is waiting in the afterlife to greet the puppet when he dies. Where Pinocchio desires to become a real boy in the original tale, del Toro’s retelling focuses much more on what makes him not human, from his flammable, wooden qualities to the fact that he can’t technically be killed because he doesn’t have a soul.
The setting also flips the story’s central theme on its handmade head – relocating events from an imaginary town to 1930s Italy, as Mussolini rises to power, del Toro presents Pinocchio as a disobedient hero in a time when humans were doing dark deeds by behaving like obedient puppets. And so the story does away with subplots involving donkeys and carnivals and instead introduces a fascist officer (Ron Perlman) who bullies the local town and recruits all its young boys to train up as soldiers – Pinocchio’s apparent immortality, in a particularly dark twist, is seen as something that would make him the perfect fighter. As for Sebastian J Cricket (Ewan McGregor), Pinocchio’s conscience is a reluctant sidekick who is more concerned with writing his memoirs than being a moral compass.
If by this point you’re wondering why this is called Pinocchio at all, it’s an understandable reaction. The script, co-written with Patrick McHale, is so busy trying to do its own thing that it almost feels like it’s weighed down by the loose connections to its source material – there are so many ideas packed in here (including a puppet show and a tangent involving a giant fish) that it’s too much to fit within that neat, familiar label. The notion that the film should be a musical ends up a distraction rather than an asset, with the occasional song proving more underwhelming than moving. (The positioning of Ewan McGregor’s stellar song and dance number is perhaps telling.)
But if the film is overstuffed at times, the seams are bursting with beautiful images and concepts. From the juxtaposition of the town’s horrified reaction to Pinocchio with its adoring reaction to Geppetto’s wooden sculpture of Jesus on the cross to the moral that dying is what makes life precious, del Toro’s film is a gorgeously profound affair, tackling grim topics with a gentle sentimentality (viewers under the age of eight might struggle). Co-director Mark Gustafson (Fantastic Mr Fox) works with him to assemble some dazzling set pieces and a stunningly vivid stop-motion world, in which Pinocchio’s creaking movements often feel more human than the rustic figures around him. Over two hours, del Toro crafts a thoughtful meditation on the need for parents to value their children for who they are rather than holding them up to impossible expectations. It’s fitting, then, that it’s only once you separate this idiosyncratic odyssey from the preconceptions of its title that the whole thing sparks to life.