Since its publication in 1883, Italian author Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio has been adapted on paper and for stage and screen many times. The most well-known, of course, being the 1940 Walt Disney animated adaptation. It’s a story ripe for telling as a puppeteer longs for a child and that puppet child longs to be human, enabling audiences to go on a fantastical adventure of longing, love, and birth. For some time now, writer/director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) has tried to make his own version of the story and, with Mark Gustafson (The PJs) co-directing from a script del Toro co-wrote with Patrick McHale (Adventure Time), that vision is available for all to see. Rather than just re-do what’s been done, del Toro, Gustafson, and McHale offer something more macabre and, in doing so, provide a richer experience, one that shifts away from the notion of human-as-real and addresses the deep longing that all humans crave: connection. In select theaters now and coming to Netflix December 9th, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is exactly what one expects from the author of Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water (2017), a classic child’s tale that isn’t afraid to bear its teeth toward the follies of humanity in its quest to open and uplift hearts.
In a small Italian town lived carpenter Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) and his young son Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann). One day, tragedy strikes and Carlo is suddenly taken from the devoted father. In his seemingly unending grief, an idea hatches to remake Carlo out of wood, a replacement for what was lost. Except, what the burdened carpenter doesn’t realize is that he’s caught the attention of a wood sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) who decides to offer a balm, blessing the wooden boy with life. The easiest challenge for Geppetto is coming to terms with this newly animated puppet. The hardest is how those around him see Pinocchio as a means to their own satisfaction and glory, the naïve child unaware of the dangers around him.
Given his love of monsters, it should surprise none at all that del Toro would be able to tell the famed Pinocchio story with his gruesome flair while also avoiding retreading old roads. There are certain beats that the film follows that are true to prior retellings, but the elements around them are reshaped through a specific lens. For instance, in the original Collodi edition, Pinocchio dies at the end, hung from a tree, the story intending to be a warning of what happens to adolescent boys who don’t behave or don’t reign in their impulses. If you, like me, were unfamiliar with this (thinking that the other versions’ positivity is all there was), the horror underlying del Toro’s tale might seem like a surprise because the script he and McHale created utilizes both the period of the first World War and the fantasy elements to explore grief in a time of war, the casualties that often result from it, and the power of a pure heart. Carlo’s death is not the only one the audience comes to see (not graphically, thankfully). The film is listed as PG for “dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor and brief smoking.” The ones following Carlo are handled with the same wink fans of del Toro’s other works will recognize. Yet none are absent emotional heft, nor is the supernatural treated as merely a gimmick to gloss over what would otherwise be final. Just because something is humorous doesn’t make it less ghastly or does something appearing frightful mean it’s without levity. The balancing act that the team of del Toro, Gustafson, and McHale accomplishes with the narrative rides a razor’s edge, sometimes veering too far to one side or the other, but never with such force or surprise as to slice or tear.
So what does this mean exactly?
Audiences are likely well-familiar with aspects of Pinocchio which deal with truth-telling and following one’s bliss to the point of pain, but this film takes a different view while incorporating the familiar. Here, Pinocchio is born not from Geppetto’s wish, but from an outside entity who recognizes the horrible pain the carpenter is experiencing. They see it as a way to ease the torture and bring light back to the man. It’s a supernatural act of tenderness and goodwill. The intention doesn’t match the result with Geppetto first coming to terms with his creation coming to life with the voice of his son and then that Pinocchio has neither Carlo’s obedience nor restraint. Perhaps it’s because, as a parent with two young children, there’s a fine line between getting your children to listen to you and forcing them into a rigid box of expectation that the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio slowly becomes as powerful as it does. Geppetto wants his son, something which Pinocchio assuredly is not, yet he quickly determines that he must protect his creation from harm. Sometimes that means desperately trying to reduce impulses (like sticking one’s wooden feet in a fireplace) or not lying (you know) or thinking things through before doing. None of these things are acts that reduce Pinocchio, they merely are ideas to help him become the best version of himself that he can be. This is the struggle that Geppetto faces as he becomes a parent once more, but the face and voice of Carlo don’t match the actions or deeds to the child he knew before. Wisely, this is where the film gathers its tension (as well as from two specific individuals who wish to make use of Pinocchio for their own means) rather than from the “real boy” desire that guides other iterations. This Pinocchio story isn’t about changing who you are for others, but about being the best version of yourself and loving it. Amid the violence that spews from the mouths of nefarious men, seeking to twist, change, and otherwise take advantage of the wooden boy, Pinocchio harbors a message of love and understanding that hits home well before the magic of the film fades.
Pinocchio may be a tale of fathers and sons, but that doesn’t stop it from being a del Toro tale. The cast is a veritable who’s-who with Swinton (Okja) in the dual role of the wood sprite and Death, Cate Blanchett (Hot Fuzz) as the voice of carnival monkey Spazzatura, Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) as carnival owner Count Volpe, Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge) as Sebastian J. Cricket, and del Toro-casting favorite Ron Perlman (Hellboy) as local fascist leader Podesta — each one of these actors offering a performance that elevates even the smallest contribution. The design for the puppets is specific and immaculate, the details making the difference between merely being puppets and inspiring the audience to view them as living creatures. The stop-motion animation by ShadowMachine, known for their projects like Booksmart (2019), as well as television series Robot Chicken (2005-2012) and Morel Orel (2005-2009), do some truly incredible work here. Of course, much of this is due to the character design which never once undercuts the rules it makes, creating a film world in which all puppets are real, even if they’re made of wood and not traditional material. The detail work in the design and execution really shows in the wood sprite and Death, as their form and functionality differs significantly from human characters or Pinocchio. The closest similarity would be akin to Pan or the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth, making them feel familiar while being something totally new. For my money, the best of the characters and their execution are the Black Rabbits, emissaries of Death voiced by Tim Blake Nelson (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), who epitomize the balance between macabre design (worn fur with the skeleton showing through in parts) and whimsy (dialogue and vocal delivery) that del Toro so often nails in his tales grim, gothic, or fantasy.
While this version of the Pinocchio story may not have you wishing upon a star, the morality story remains. It’s just shifted so that it’s not about whether someone magical can become real, but what being real means. This may carry far more weight in the conclusion for modern audiences as so many in the world seek to confine one’s identity, seeking acquiescence to an old-fashioned and antiquated view of how people fit within society. One doesn’t need to be made of flesh and bone to be real. More than that, it’s about the value of a life and the significance it holds, which is why focusing solely on military glory or financial gain is about as worthwhile as a lie: you might not see the truth written upon your face as you tell it, but the rest of the world will.
In select theaters November 9th, 2022.
Available on Netflix December 9th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.