Overview:

Del Toro’s latest film contains humanistic ideas of interest, but the lingering impression is of missed opportunities.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It should’ve been so much better.

A film from Guillermo del Toro, director of the inventive, visually engrossing Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. Stop-motion animation from Jim Henson’s studio. A soundtrack from Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat, the go-to music maker for Wes Anderson. Characters voiced by Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Ewan McGregor, John Turturro, and Christoph Waltz.

This latest film adaptation of Pinocchio—the 22nd by Wikipedia’s count—is clever in some ways, but mainly leaves the aftertaste of a botched opportunity. On the interesting side of the ledger, Del Toro and his co-writer Patrick McHale moved the story from the 19th Century to fascist Italy 50 years later. Geppetto is not just a lonely craftsman, but lost his flesh-and-blood son Carlo to an errant bomb. When he crafts his wooden boy in a drunken nighttime rage, his excavation of an ear here, an eyehole there, is executed with desperate brutality. The wood sprite who animates Pinocchio is part of a parade of spirits that wouldn’t be out of place in a Miyazaki forest.

Instead of Disney’s Jiminy, the boy’s conscience is Sebastian, a bluish cricket with a walrus moustache. Pinocchio himself is barely this side of animate, more lumpen log on arthropod legs than human boy.

Apart from these flourishes, the visuals of this Pinocchio have a been-there, done-that feel to them. Creepy skeletal characters à la Tim Burton. Italian village akin to Pixar’s Luca. The temptations of the carnival life are represented by a washed-up Count Volpe and his milky-eyed monkey Spazzatura, both lazily extracted from animation’s central casting.

Del Toro, open about his atheism, interweaves religious and philosophical commentary into his story.

I get the impression the voice actors did their best with the material, but the script disappoints with its blandness. Sebastian bemoans his hard life after a few too many near-death squishings. A toilet humor musical number sung by Pinocchio is no wittier than (literally) stringing together fart-poop-fart-poop. Despite an Oscar-winning composer in their pocket, the score is unmemorable, the songs and melodies forgotten by me 12 hours later. In a playful tweak of movie musical convention, a couple of numbers are interrupted by action that breaks out partway through the first stanza, but this also serves to hide del Toro and McHale’s lack of skill in composing song lyrics. This Pinocchio contains no “When You Wish Upon a Star,” not even a “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee.”

Only preschoolers and film novices will be surprised by the plot twists. The malevolent characters who leave the Dark Side and the last-minute deliverances will astonish very few. (However, I admit being taken off guard by the number of deaths, both violent and natural, in a film that will be watched by plenty of tykes on Christmas vacation.)

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio does have its merits. In this version, the title character has more to contend with than the lure of the stage, as an alternative to school’s tedium and an appeal to his vanity. The fascist setting means our hero must resist a cancerous worldview. It also provides one of the best bits of dialogue: when the mayor attempts to demean Pinocchio as a mere puppet, the wooden boy retorts by asking “who controls you?”

Having a Geppetto who’s a bereaved father means that Pinocchio is always failing to measure up to an idealized long-dead child. The subplot of fathers who sometimes succeed, sometimes fail to overcome their imperfections was affecting to this dad, at least.

Del Toro, open about his atheism, interweaves religious and philosophical commentary into his story. The fascist murals of the Italian village read “believe, obey, fight,” showing the too-common interweaving of political and religious oppression. True to Italian and German history of the era, the mayor is nearly always accompanied by a sycophantic priest. The villagers’ fear of the new, represented by Pinocchio, is fueled by religious superstition.

At the time of Carlo’s death, Geppetto was putting the final touches on a crucifix in the village church. The way this morbid sculpture looms over father and son, along with the mass departure of child soldiers for the front, condemn society’s willingness to sacrifice its children for an alleged greater good. Even here, though, the script contradicts itself, as Pinocchio’s deeds during the film’s home stretch turn him into a Christ figure.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio introduces a new character, sister to the blue sprite, who offers the boy eternal life. This allows del Toro to make the sophisticated point that the prospect of a deathless existence would itself be hellish, while diminishing the value of our finite life.

Del Toro’s film was the second English-language adaptation to arrive on screens this year. The other, a live-action version from Robert Zemeckis, earned a dreadful 27% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m left to conclude this puppet ought to be left undisturbed on a shelf for a while.

(Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is now playing on Netflix.)

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