Of all the many, many beloved songs in the Disney musical catalog, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is indisputably the crown jewel. The song has been quoted in front of every Disney movie for the last forty years, and it’s been used to open Disney television shows going all the way back to the 1950s. In many ways, the song’s rose-tinted statement about faith being rewarded with dreams coming true is a central thesis statement of the entire Disney brand. It’s no exaggeration to say that the song is every bit as iconic to the Walt Disney Company as the Cinderella Castle and Mickey Mouse himself.
So you’d think that Pinocchio — the film that spawned such a beloved cornerstone of the Disney brand — might’ve been given exceedingly high priority on the list of Disney animated films to be given a live-action reheating. And when the remake finally came — with such high-profile names as Tom Hanks, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Keegan-Michael Key under the direction of Robert Zemeckis, no less! — one would expect it to be given all the hype and fanfare the Disney multimedia empire could muster.
Instead, the remake was dumped directly onto Disney+, with only the bare minimum of hype or promotion. I’m not even talking Turning Red here, I’d argue that this movie got less promotion than freaking Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers (2022). So what went wrong here? Well, the easy answer lies with the director.
I take no pleasure in saying this, folks, but Robert Zemeckis is washed up. His motion-capture phase flamed out with Mars Needs Moms, and his latter-day Oscar-bait phase (Flight, The Walk, and Allied) underperformed at the box office and at the Oscars before cratering with Welcome to Marwen. And now we have an entry in his ongoing “scare the kids with CGI” phase, which imploded with The Witches (2020) before it even began. Zemeckis simply doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing here anymore, so what in the nine hells are we doing here?!
To give due praise, at least Tom Hanks understood the assignment. For a kindly old cartoon grandpa performed in live-action — opposite a CGI scene partner — this is about the best Geppetto anyone could’ve reasonably expected. Likewise, I don’t know what was done to JGL’s voice in post, but he turns in a perfectly serviceable impression of Jiminy Cricket.
That said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Geppetto’s clocks. It seems that Geppetto made a number of cuckoo clocks in imitation of other Disney properties. If this was simply a matter of a few Easter eggs, I could respect that. If it was a quick throwaway joke (e.g. Zazu singing “It’s a Small World” in the original The Lion King), that would be something else. But no, we’ve got a freaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit?-themed cuckoo clock shot in extreme close-up at the start of a goddamn Pinocchio remake. This alongside clocks themed around Dumbo, Snow White, Donald Duck, and others all shot in extreme close-up so we don’t miss a single animated detail of all these properties that Disney owns. It’s out of place, it’s ugly, it’s unfunny, it’s witless, and it’s just plain tasteless.
But I digress. What about the title character?
Benjamin Evan Ainsworth does a perfectly fine job as the voice of Pinocchio, and the filmmakers clearly put exorbitant work into translating the classic cel-shaded Disney design into a viable 3D character. More importantly, Pinocchio comes through loud and clear as a boy who’s dangerously naive and terribly fragile because the whole world is new to him. He’s a boy who genuinely wants to do the right thing, but he keeps getting mixed up by contradictory messages because he’s got no idea who to trust. It certainly doesn’t help that Pinocchio is such a strange oddity that Geppetto and Jiminy are the only ones who really have his best interests at heart.
He’s a perfectly clean blank slate, which makes a fine protagonist for a morality fable. The problem is that as a blank slate, Pinocchio is only as strong as the villains he meets along the way, and the lessons he learns from them. And this is where we run into fatal errors.
Let’s start with Keegan-Michael Key as the con artist Honest John. Key was always at his most comfortable going over-the-top, but it’s like the filmmakers actively challenged him to a scenery-eating contest and then continuously shot his hideous CGI character in extreme close-up. It’s not menacing or manipulative, it’s just loud and annoying as hell. In point of fact, Giuseppe Battiston and Luke Evans fare no better as Stromboli and the Coachman. In all cases, across the board, it’s like every villainous actor was given the direction to act as one-dimensionally over-the-top evil and untrustworthy as possible. This blunt and brainless approach ruins the whole film because nothing so stupid and soulless could possibly have any kind of worthwhile moral. Which is kind of a dealbreaker in what’s first and foremost a morality play!
As if to prove the point, the film makes an effort to subvert expectations, suggesting that maybe Pinocchio doesn’t have to become a real boy because he’s special just the way he is. In theory, I appreciate the effort at weaving in themes of self-acceptance. In practice, it ultimately means a wishy-washy finale that leaves the story without closure and stops just short of making any definitive statement. Of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the morality angle was so mishandled throughout that there isn’t much of anything to subvert.
In all fairness, I suppose I should bring up Fabiana and Sabina, respectively played by Kyanne Lamaya and Jaquita Ta’le. Sabina is a marionette — not a living one, just a plain old puppet — operated by Fabiana, a young dancer who turned to puppeteering after a leg injury. I’ll admit that it’s refreshing to have (one or two, depending on how you count) non-white characters in what’s otherwise an overwhelmingly white cast, and a couple of female characters in what’s otherwise a heavily male-dominated film. More importantly, Fabiana/Sabina is a sweet and sympathetic character for Pinocchio to deal with at a time when he’s surrounded by villains and unsure of whom to trust.
In so many ways, Fabiana/Sabina provides a badly-needed change of pace. They’re completely useless to the plot and only serve to pad out the runtime because they were so clearly invented for the adaptation, but it means a lot to have them in the mix nonetheless.
Getting back to the CGI, the visuals here are only slightly above that of The Witches (2022). By which I mean it looks like this movie was rendered with technology from at least ten years ago. I’ll grant there’s never any pretense that this movie is supposed to take place in anything resembling the real world, so the cartoonish CGI gets a bit more leeway here. Even so, it’s freaking outrageous that Robert goddamn Zemeckis — hailed as a special effects visionary through so much of his career — is working with the largest media conglomerate in history to update one of the company’s flagship animated accomplishments… and this was the best they could do. Inexcusable.
There’s another point that comes up early and often: the musical numbers flat-out suck. The vocal performances are so flat that it’s often hard to tell if the characters are meant to be singing or if they’re only speaking in rhyme. We’ve got a handful of slapdash new songs that only serve to pad out the runtime, and the iconic songs from the original movie are poorly staged. And again, it bears repeating that “When You Wish Upon a Star” is the Disney song by which all others are measured, and it’s being sung by freaking Cynthia Erivo (winner of a Tony, Grammy, and an Emmy, with two Oscar nominations). Nothing less than perfection was sufficient here, and this take falls reprehensibly short of perfection. I might add that Erivo is playing the Blue Fairy like she was given no direction whatsoever, and she only appears for one scene. It’s flat-out criminal.
Once again, I’m brought back to my original question and I’m left without an answer: What the hell are we doing here? Pinocchio (2022) is a brainless, lifeless, soulless, gutless affair. It’s alternately bland and tasteless, crass and annoying, pathetically padded, and desperate for unearned sympathy. But what really hurts the most is that these particular takes on Geppetto and Pinocchio might have worked in the hands of halfway competent filmmakers who really knew what to do with them.
But in the end, I can only be so upset with this movie. After all, Disney apparently knew they had a stinker on their hands and thus did the bare minimum so this movie might quietly be swept under the rug. Additionally, I’ve long since lost my patience with the Disney live-action remakes and I should hope that we’re all flat fucking done expecting anything from them by now. And lest we forget, Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion take on Pinocchio is set to hit Netflix in a couple of months and (hopefully) overshadow this one to the point of absolute obscurity.
So basically, this movie is utterly and totally useless. We’d be doing everyone involved with this — including and especially Disney itself — a favor to forget this ever happened.