Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (now on Netflix) is the fourth iteration of Pinocchio released in the last two years. The puppet onslaught began with a visually off-putting Italian film starring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, followed by a chintzy Russian cartoon with Pauly Shore voicing Pinocchio (strange but true!) and a pointless Disney “live action” remake of the 1940 animated classic from director Robert Zemeckis. We’re therefore inspired to make a safe assumption: The new, stop-motion-animation version by del Toro, winner of multiple Oscars and one of the most creative filmmaking visionaries of the last couple decades (see: Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water), is not only the best of the recent bunch, but likely the best Pinocchio in 80 years.
The Gist: “By the time Geppetto made Pinocchio,” Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) narrates, “he had already lost a son.” The boy was Carlo (Gregory Mann). He was 10. Flashback: Geppetto (David Bradley) sings Carlo to sleep every night, while gently playing his squeezebox. They’re inseparable. The boy helps his father in his woodcarving endeavors – cutting down trees and planting pine cones to replace them, or, this being a del Toro movie, shaping a massive crucifix for their church and therefore allowing the filmmaker to further ruminate on his famously fraught relationship with Catholicism. War rages outside their quaint little Italian town. One day, Geppetto is up on a ladder asking Pinocchio to bring him more red paint for the blood from the crown of thorns on the crucified Christ when they hear airplanes. A bomb falls. But the crucifix still stands.
“The years passed,” the cricket narrates. “The world moved on. But Geppetto did not.” At this point, Sebastian introduces himself. He’s a writer. He’s been on marvelous adventures. And now he wants to settle down and pen his memoirs. He finds a tree with a cozy hollow spot and settles in. It stands next to Carlo’s grave. In a fit of drunken grief, Geppetto topples the tree and carves Pinocchio from it and now Sebastian lives precisely where the puppet’s heart would be. A visit from the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), who, par for the del Toro course, is creepy but beautiful but still creepy, brings Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann; read into that as you like) to life so he may perform a musical bit in which he mistakes a chamber pot for a hat, and so he can mightily disrupt Mass by impersonating the crucified Christ in front of the congregation – the crucified Christ that has stood unfinished since the awful occurrence years prior.
This Pinocchio has a tender singing voice, but that doesn’t mean he’s a sweetheart. Despite Sebastian serving dutifully as the woodboy’s conscience, Pinocchio’s stubborn and disobedient. And so the local fascists, of a subsect of the national fascist in charge, Mussolini, get involved: the Podesta (Ron Perlman) orders Geppetto to send the puppet to school, and during the meeting, we learn that Pinocchio can consume food (although how he digests it remains uncertain; later, he’ll sing a song about poop, but it will remain uncertain as to whether he can produce the substance), and, when his feet burn off in the fire, Geppetto simply carves him new ones. Pinocchio doesn’t even make it to school for his first day – he’s sidetracked to a nearby traveling carnival and puppet show run by the sniveling Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), who has a baboon sidekick, Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett!). Of course, Pinocchio is a smash star, and he runs away with the circus, a panicked Sebastian chasing him, so he may have strange adventures that take him to stages across Italy, Mussolini’s version of a Hitler Youth training camp and the inside of a terrifying sea beast. Oh, and also to death and back a few times. Anybody else have a few dozen lingering questions about the existential nature of this Pinocchio?
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: GdT’s P has more in common with strange-but-wonderful endeavors/relative commercial outliers like Coraline and Wes Anderson’s stop-motion work (Fantastic Mr. Fox and Isle of Dogs) than anything Disney ever did. Then again, the brutal, hilarious depiction of Mussolini brings to mind Der Fuehrer’s Face, the Donald Duck cartoon that rendered Nazis as clowns and splattered Hitler’s mug with a juicy tomato.
Performance Worth Watching: The voice casting here is impeccable – Bradley, McGregor, Waltz, Blanchett (I’ll say it again: !), Swinton as bizarre, ethereally voiced spiritual beings. But we should single out Mann for finding the mischievous tone of a sweet naif for Pinocchio, whether he’s singing or speaking.
Memorable Dialogue: Love both of these bits:
Pinocchio, on his apparent immortality: “I could get killed a lot! I’m the luckiest boy in the world!”
Or this exchange:
Mussolini’s lickspittle: “Yes, poop, your excellency.”
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: Those familiar with del Toro’s aesthetic, tonal and thematic proclivities won’t be surprised by this Pinocchio – it’s bizarre, lovely, grotesque, fascinating, unsettling, sweet and intensely moving. Rather than reiterating or adapting an all-too-familiar story, the filmmaker seems to have put a large portion of himself in his interpretation of author Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, filtering the characters through his distinctive lens so he may explore ideas about waking and dreaming, the spiritual and the corporeal, consciousness and sentience. Also liberty and oppression, as del Toro jettisons the classic donkey vignette for a chapter in which Pinocchio joins the Podesta’s son Candlewick (Candlewick!) at Mussolini’s Li’l Fascie Camp for Tweens – a sequence that bears more dramatic weight than it might have a decade ago.
So: The inner self, fathers, political tyrants, forest spirits, the father of Christ – seems like someone’s always pulling the strings.
Heady stuff for a “family movie”? Maybe – visually, the film is likely to be challenging for young audiences without being overwhelming. The primary hurdle is the design of the title character, who’s the Unpainted Arizona version of Pinocchio – raw wood, crudely carved, unclothed, missing an ear, crooked jack-o’-lantern smile, hole in his heart where a bug lives. Huggable, he’s not. He’s a puckish, rascally imp; or, as the Podesta calls him, a “dissident puppet.” His most unsettling adventure is to the afterlife, which he greets in true del Toroian fashion: not with dread, but open-hearted wonder and curiosity.
The hook for children may be the father-son bond of Geppetto and Carlo, which roots the story in grief (think the heartbreaking sequence in Pixar’s Up, which tells the sad story of Ellie and Carl) before moving on to grander, more sophisticated notions about finding happiness beneath the looming specter of impermanence. I laughed frequently, more from the delight of surprise, although more conventional stabs at comedy are prevalent: The cricket routinely interjects his nervous, but upbeat sense of humor, frequently just prior to being squashed; Volpe is the resident Snidely Whiplash, a cruel, selfish buffoon; Spazzatura, with a mottled eye, mangy fur and the bedraggled clothes of a ragamuffin, would sell scads of plush likenesses in a just world, but nevertheless will win hearts.
Del Toro is assisted here by two key artists: Writer Patrick McHale, creator of standout animated series Adventure Time and Over the Garden Wall, co-scripted the film, and stop-motion vet Mark Gustafson, whose many and varied credits include Fantastic Mr. Fox and Return to Oz, co-directs his first feature. Their expertise in the medium meshes sublimely with del Toro’s idiosyncratic warmth, and his vision of a world defined by its wonders and horrors. There are forces of nature and forces of men at work, and Pinocchio, wooden of body but empyreal of soul, exists between them – an idea asserted during a heartbreaking, are-these-tears-of-pain-or-tears-of-joy postscript. Only del Toro’s Pinocchio could be so provocative, and scary, and endearing, and comforting.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Guillermo del Toro is the new master of fables, and his Pinocchio is a marvel.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.