Nearly 15 years in development hell, and it couldn’t have been released with better timing. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is exactly what it says on the tin: a stop-motion animated feature adaptation of the classic tale. And it came out mere months after Robert Zemeckis put yet another nail in his own coffin with the catastrophic live-action remake of the Disney interpretation. Disney itself has always seemed comically desperate for everyone to forget that remake ever happened, so here comes GDT and Netflix to try and sweep the Disney fallout from our collective memory once and for all.
(Side note: The stop-motion animation was split between two different studios: one in GDT’s hometown of Guadelajara, and one in my hometown of Portland. Don’t ever forget that since the days of the late Will Vinton, PDX has been the world capitol of stop-motion animation.)
Right off the bat, there are two crucial ways in which GDT puts his own unique stamp on the classic story of Pinocchio. First and foremost is in the design of Pinocchio himself (voiced by newcomer Gregory Mann). This is not some spit-polished corporate mascot lovingly made by a kindly old woodcutter. This is a slapdash effort that Geppetto (here voiced by David Bradley) threw together in a drunken rage out of grief for his long-dead son. This version of Pinocchio looks ugly enough that it adds to the villagers’ shock (not to mention Geppetto’s) when they see an autonomous sentient puppet dancing and singing of his own accord, yet he’s hideous in an endearing kind of way.
(Side note: This design was heavily inspired by the illustrated book by Gris Grimly, who was obligingly credited as a co-producer.)
Nobody could strike that balance so well as GDT. His entire artistic career has been defined by sympathy for monsters, arguing that ugliness is every bit as skin-deep as beauty. In a GDT film, even the most bloodthirsty and primal of monsters should at least be respected and recognized as something unique and extraordinary in an otherwise mundane world. The best of GDT’s films are all about how something wondrous can manage to live and thrive in “civilized” society while maintaining its individuality, and/or how society can learn and grow from something new and iconoclastic.
And here, he’s applying those same sensibilities to a wooden boy learning what it means to be an upright moral citizen. Which brings me to the second crucial part of GDT’s adaptation.
While this film keeps the traditional Italian setting of the fable, our plot is set in the 1930s. During the rise of fascism in Italy. The film even throws in a brief (and cartoonishly stylized) appearance from Benito Mussolini himself, voiced by Tom Kenny. This changes everything.
In keeping with the original story, of course Pinocchio is conned into running away from school and joining a carnival as a performing puppet. He’s lured by promises of fame and fortune, but that means something very different when Pinocchio is unwittingly turned into an instrument of fascist propaganda. What’s more, while it’s all well and good for Pinocchio to learn about obedience and following the law, that lesson gets a lot more complicated in the context of a warlike authoritarian regime.
There’s fighting in the interest of self-defense, there’s killing on the battlefield, and then there’s killing to partake in a dictator’s war crimes. There’s obeying Pinocchio’s father, and then there’s obeying his fatherland. At every turn, Pinocchio comes back to the question of how to know right from wrong in such a complicated and messed-up world.
The law is no help when the law itself is corrupt, written and enforced by self-serving tyrants. For that matter, Pinocchio has to figure out for himself that any authority only out for its own interests is no authority worth obedience. It’s a valid moral question of learning when to comply and when to fight back, and exploring that question by way of Pinocchio was frankly ingenious.
It certainly helps that opposite Geppetto and Pinocchio, we’ve got another father/son pair to serve as a contrast. Ron Perlman is on hand to voice the local Podesta, with Finn Wolfhard voicing his son, given the derogatory name of Candlewick. Geppetto’s son (by which I mean his young flesh-and-blood child Carlo, also voiced by Mann) was killed in the collateral damage of a WWI bombing raid, while Podesta is openly eager to send his son to die in glory on some battlefield. Geppetto gradually comes to accept a block of wood as his own beloved offspring, while Podesta never sees his own son as anything more than a tool of fascist Italy. Pinocchio himself is blissfully naive to the point where he only sees the best in everything, while poor Candlewick is a bully unwittingly shaped by his own trauma as an abused child.
The one thing that Pinocchio and Candlewick have in common is that they both want to make their respective fathers proud. But that similar motivation takes them down wildly different paths, and the both of them learn a lot from those differences.
And then we have what might be my favorite innovation to the original story. As ever, Pinocchio’s most imperative goal is to become a real boy, but that begs the question of what it means to be a “real boy” in this context. What does every other boy have that Pinocchio doesn’t?
But GDT and his team came up with a better question: Can Pinocchio die?
After all, Pinocchio is just an articulated chunk of wood and metal. He can’t bleed out, he doesn’t need to breathe, he can’t get sick, and any damaged parts can be painlessly and easily replaced. He doesn’t feel pain like mortals do, and it’s entirely possible that he’ll still be around long after all his mortal loved ones are gone. The upshot of all this is that Pinocchio doesn’t fear mortality — and therefore doesn’t treasure life — the way a real human would.
Time and again, Pinocchio’s lessons always seem to come back around to suffering. The finality of death, the terrible grief of premature loss, the trauma of abusive relationships, the pain inflicted by greed and corruption and dishonesty, and so on and so forth. As a basis for learning about morality and conscience, it’s really quite impressive how far that gets Pinocchio.
But that’s not why I love this part so much.
What I really love about Pinocchio’s quasi-alive status in this film is that Death itself (voiced by Tilda Swinton, who also voices the forest spirit that brought Pinocchio to life in the first place) doesn’t really know what to do with him. As best she can figure out, all Death can really do is to keep Pinocchio in the afterlife for an increasing length of time before sending him back to the living. This provides Pinocchio with an invaluable chance to learn from his mistakes, going to talk with Death and get a few words of wisdom every time he slips up and “dies”. Freaking genius.
As a neat little bonus, we get Tim Blake Nelson voicing the comic relief henchmen for Death. (Who are rabbits, for some reason. Weird, considering that rabbits are typically symbolic of birth and new life, but we’ll roll with it.) Speaking of the voice cast, Gregory Mann is more than spirited enough to play the vivacious namesake lead, David Bradley turns in a dynamic performance as Geppetto, and Tilda Swinton sounds more than sagely and regal enough for her twin roles. Elsewhere, we’ve got Ron Perlman playing cold-hearted evil like I never even knew he was capable of, Christoph Waltz plays Count Volpe as a hammy hate sink like only he can, and Finn Wolfhard does serviceably well as Candlewick.
But then we’ve got the voice actors that leave me scratching my head. I have no idea why John Turturro was brought in for a character who barely gets a line. Burn Gorman shows up to play the village priest, and the film hints at lumping religion in with fascism as a corrupt authority not worth obedience, but never really goes there, and so Gorman doesn’t get much to work with. Craziest of all, we’ve got Cate Blanchett voicing Count Volpe’s pet monkey. Who doesn’t even talk. Like they couldn’t get Frank Welker or Rob Paulsen to make some generic monkey sounds, why in the nine hells did they bring in goddamn Cate Blanchett to voice a character who doesn’t speak?!
(EDIT: I’ve since learned that the answer is surprisingly simple — She asked for it. Yes, it seems that after working with GDT in Nightmare Alley, Blanchett was so desperate for a role in the auteur’s magnum opus that she willingly agreed to the only role left open. Cate Blanchett decided that making a bunch of monkey noises in a recording booth was worth being in this movie. Hard to imagine anyone turning down that same offer, really.)
And then we’ve got Ewan McGregor, presenting the voice of Sebastian J. Cricket. Here we have an insect who’s traveled all over the world, settling down in the hollow of a tree to write his memoirs. And then his new tree is turned into Pinocchio, with the cricket’s living quarters situated somewhere around the puppet’s heart. The cricket naturally takes umbrage at all of this, but grudgingly agrees to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience in exchange for a wish from the wood spirit — one that Sebastian initially plans to use for his own gain when his memoirs are ready to publish.
(Side note: While the character of “Jiminy Cricket” is under the zealous copyright protection of Disney, he’s only Disney’s interpretation of a nameless character that did indeed exist in the original story.)
This character was positively bursting with potential, and the movie uses practically none of it. From the look of things, these filmmakers kept running into the same problems that Zemeckis and company did: Nobody wants to sit through two hours of listening to a cricket trying to hold up the plot by screaming into Pinocchio’s ear, and there’s no room for the cricket to get a full development arc when Pinocchio and Geppetto have so much to be getting on with.
As a direct result, Sebastian’s only real purpose in the plot is to use his wish in the film’s closing minutes as a thinly-contrived deus ex machina. Up until that point, he’s only here for comic relief. That’s it. Nothing but two solid hours of watching Sebastian get squashed and thrown around and flattened and trapped for our amusement. As with Zemeckis’ take, Pinocchio’s conscience is only here to be ignored, and I wish either filmmaker had been smart enough to make that into some kind of thematic point. No less than twice, the film makes a huge running gag about how Sebastian is about to break into a huge musical number, only for the other characters to promptly ignore him.
Oh, right. The musical numbers.
Given that Pinocchio is the star performer of a puppet show — which is kind of a central part of the story — of course we were going to get a few song breaks. The bad news is, these song breaks are limited solely to the first half and only one of them (that last one) is vital to the plot in any way. What’s worse, none of these songs are any good at all. The music is lifeless, the lyrics are lazy… it’s all so pathetically unmemorable.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio has some glaring flaws, made all the more aggravating because the rest of the film is so damned good. The character designs and animations are enchanting, the voice work is pretty solid overall, but what really sells this movie is the ingenious combination of the Pinocchio fable with GDT’s artistic sensibilities. He’s made Pinocchio into a misunderstood monster, a naive child looking for clear answers in a frightening and contradictory world. All of this has made the character timely and thought-provoking and heartwrenching in a way that hasn’t been done in generations.
It took a long time, but GDT finally got this movie made and we’re all the better for it. Check this one out.