Walt Disney set the gold standard for adaptations of Pinocchio in 1940, but many filmmakers have struggled to retell the tale since. Roberto Benigni tried to do a live-action version in 2002 and Robert Zemeckis tried one just this year, but both were lambasted more than cherished. Now, along comes GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO with the vaulted director’s name as part of the title, and his ownership is earned in every way. Smartly, he’s animated it, allowing for the fantastical parts of the narrative to truly play on screen. And from beginning to end, it’s a delightful film, beautiful to look at, and filled with great depth of emotion. Indeed, this is a quite serious version of Carlo Collodi’s famed children’s book, one that every member of the family should enjoy as much as the next.
Some of the greatest animated films of the last 20 years have incorporated stop-motion animation, from CORALINE to THE BOX TROLLS, and del Toro wisely chose to create his Pinocchio in just such a style. Stop-motion animation gives weight and depth of field to its characters and settings, a perfect match for the nuanced and layered story del Toro is telling here. The story of Pinocchio is one that can be buoyant and joyous, for certain, but it is also one about betrayal, abuse, and grief. At the core of it all is the story of a forlorn man grieving his dead son.
That grieving father is of course toymaker Gepetto (voiced by David Bradley) and he’s shown to have a wonderful relationship with his son Carlo (Gregory Mann) as del Toro vividly in the first act of the story. But the march of fascism is present in this telling and the father and son’s idyllic life is so shattered by an errant bomb taking out an Italian church where Carlo gets trapped in during the attack. His death sends Gepetto into a tailspin and the old man mourns the loss of his boy for years.
Gepetto’s pain is palpable as he’s unable to shake his grief, even a decade after his son’s death, and even with a pine tree planted in his honor growing big and tall as a monument to the memory. One night, in a drunken rage, Gepetto chops down the pine tree and carves a marionette facsimile of Carlo, wishing it would come to life. Two observers of Gepetto’s actions are deeply affected by the event. First is Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), a sly bug who had taken up residence in the tree before the old man destroyed it, and second is the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) from the tree. Taking pity on Gepetto, she brings life to the marionette, giving the wooden creation anthropomorphic life. Sebastian is amazed at what he sees and with the duty assigned to him by the Sprite to guide Pinocchio to a righteous life.
That task won’t be easy as soon enough Pinocchio runs into all sorts of bad influences. Most of the characters he encounters want to use him in some way for their own advancement, from the duplicitous Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) who sees in Pinocchio a novelty act that he can make money from, to a local fascist (Ron Perlman) who wants Pinocchio to be his soldier that cannot be vanquished. Even poor old Gepetto projects onto Pinocchio his own self-interests. He wants to recreate his relationship with Carlo, rather than embrace Pinocchio for his own personality and image.
One of the great things about del Toro’s take on the story is how boldly he embraces the religious overtones inherent in the story of a ‘resurrected son.’ Del Toro also doesn’t shy away from Catholic imagery either, particularly early on when Gepetto is commissioned to carve a new Christ on the cross for the local church. Additionally, del Toro wisely plays up how Pinocchio literally becomes the puppet of those opportunists wanting to exploit him for their nefarious means. None of it is heavy-handed, but del Toro boldly presents such themes without flinching.
To counter some of the darker passages, the director and his fellow screenwriter Patrick McHale ensure there are generous laughs and levity on hand, not to mention a number of delightful songs that add buoyancy to the proceedings. In addition to writing a number of clever and catchy songs with lyricist Roeban Katz, composer Alexandre Desplat pens one of the year’s best scores. It’s both magical and moving.
Adding all the more pizazz to the show are the vocal talents of recognizable voices such as Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, and Cate Blanchett. She plays Spazzatura, Count Volpe’s long-suffering monkey, of all the characters to be assigned. (She is wonderful in the part, no surprise.) McGregor is especially wonderful, given his cricket’s key supporting role, and the fact that he’s tasked with narrating the film as well.
Del Toro, the horrormeister that he is, also cannot resist drawing parallels to another famed story about a ‘son’ lost in the wilderness without the man who ‘birthed’ him. That would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, of course, and it’s clever how many similar themes del Toro finds between her creature and Pinocchio. Like Victor Frankenstein’s creation, Gepetto’s puppet is thrown into a vicious and harsh world, a struggling naif without the guiding hand or protection of his parent. And, of course, the real monsters, are all those wanting to exploit the innocents as well.
All in all, this is a film that has more artistry and nuance in it than many Oscar-bait productions this season such as THE FABELMANS, EMPIRE OF LIGHT, or the upcoming BABYLON. It is not only the best, animated film of the year but certainly one of the year’s very finest. It’s available on Netflix now and not to be missed.