The story of Pinocchio, first penned in 1883 by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, has long been a favorite of storytellers: A lonely man fashions a boy out of wood; the wooden boy becomes sentient; a cricket teaches the wooden child morals until a fairy comes along and turns the talking puppet into a real boy. The most famous adaptation probably belongs to the Disney version, made in 1940 under the guise of Walt Disney and animated by the legendary Nine Old Men.
Mexican writer/producer/director Guillermo del Toro has long been a fan of Disney’s Pinocchio, but what’s interesting about his stop-motion version—Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, available Dec. 9 on Netflix—is not in the similarities but in the malleability of Collodi’s story. Here, del Toro spans Pinocchio across two world wars. In the first, an accidental bombing takes Geppetto’s beloved son, Carlo (Gregory Mann), from this world. The old man (David Bradley) becomes a drunken recluse who spends his days moping about. He plants a pinecone at his son’s grave, and a tree grows and gains a boarder: Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor, fantastic), looking forward to retirement and working on his memoirs.
But a fury of pain and loneliness disrupts all that and sets the story in motion. In a drunken rage, Geppetto chops down his son’s tree and makes another in his image: Pinocchio, with Cricket still taking up residence in the body—right where the heart should be. It is this hunk of lumber that the woodland spirit, the Blue Fairy (Tilda Swinton), appears before and breathes in life, tasking Cricket to act as conscience.
But this Pinocchio (Mann again) is not like Geppetto’s beloved Carlo. Pinocchio is rambunctious, obnoxious, and shrill. He’s like a child let loose on too much candy. It’s a bit much for poor Geppetto, who is still nursing a hangover and mourning the loss of his beloved, quieter, much more obedient son.
That Pinocchio is not Carlo is an interesting spin on the character. When Disney’s Blue Fairy tapped Pinocchio’s wooden noggin, the puppet became Geppetto’s wish fulfilled. But in del Toro’s hands, Pinocchio springing to life is halfway between a horror story and a Faustian bargain. Years ago, This American Life told a story about a farmer who lost a bull so beloved that he had it cloned. But the cloned bull was not the same as the first bull. It was different, more aggressive, skittish. Maybe science and magic can only accomplish so much.
Is that the point of del Toro’s Pinocchio? A few staples reside: Pinocchio ditches school and joins the circus; his nose grows when he lies; Monstro shows up and gobbles up the characters and the plot; and so on. But del Toro adds a couple of innovative strokes. Since WWI took Carlo from Geppetto, it makes sense that the rise of fascism would also claim Pinocchio, who gets conscripted into Mussolini’s youth army.
The animation, under the direction of del Toro and Mark Gustafson, has a beautiful, spindly quality. The vocal performances from the adults are terrific, but Pinocchio is a grating presence—probably by design—and the songs are too simplistic to be catchy; too repetitive to be enjoyable.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a mishmash of tones that never seem to find the gear it’s looking for. It’s haunting in parts, humorous in others, and poignant throughout while being annoyingly childish. An odd film, though it feels personal throughout, which is much more than you can say about a lot of other versions of the same story.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro, Patrick McHale
Screen story by Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Based on the book by Carlo Collodi
Produced by Alexander Bulkley, Corey Campodonico, Guillermo del Toro, Lisa Henson, Gary Ungar
Vocal performances by Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton
Netflix, Rated PG, Running time 117 minutes, Premiered Oct. 15, 2022, at the BIF London Film Festival.