Wearing all its provenances and influences right there on its wooden and modeling-material sleeves, in every sense Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is what it is.
In fact, that tautological phrase, synonymous with resignation and acceptance of flaws, crops up in the film’s final minutes. It’s like an affirmation that just as life is messy and marvelous, so too is this baggy, sometimes raggedy but often beautiful adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s episodic book about a living wooden puppet, first published in the late 19th century, rendered here via exquisitely executed stop-motion animation.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
The Bottom Line
It’s got no strings to tie it down.
Walt Disney’s animated feature from 1940 whittled away the darkest, cruelest parts of the source material and sanded down the more nightmarish elements. (But not all the way! Many a child over the years has been psychologically scarred by those donkey transformations.) This take on the material, co-directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson (animation director on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) and co-written by del Toro and Patrick McHale (from animated series Adventure Time), puts many of the scary parts from Collodi back in, but much more besides. It’s no more “faithful” to its source than the Disney version or the bulk of the many and varied film, TV and theatrical productions that have the name “Pinocchio” in the title.
That’s a strength. Via a kind of thematic jujitsu, the filmmakers have turned what has often been read as a morality tale preaching obedience in children into an allegory about “imperfect fathers and imperfect sons,” to quote the voiceover narration by Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) — a tale that urges acceptance of people for what they are. It even celebrates disobedience in a way, particularly when it’s Fascists being disobeyed, a timely lesson for tots today. These Fascists are the old school, 1930s-40s Benito Mussolini-worshipping variety, incorporated directly into the action via the setting being updated to Italy at the start of World War II. Il Duce, or Il Dulce as Pinocchio calls him, even puts in an appearance, as an honored guest at the puppet show our pine-derived hero (voiced wonderfully by British child actor Gregory Mann) has been pressured into appearing in.
There are a lot of original inventions in del Toro and McHale’s script that are effective, potent and bright, like that shifting of the period setting. Effectively splitting the life-giving Blue Fairy into two different magical creatures painted varying shades of blue — one a benevolent woodland sprite and the other a sphinx-like creature called Death no less, who keeps bringing Pinocchio back to life — is also inspired. (Both are voiced by Tilda Swinton through a distorting effect, like a malevolent vocoder.)
The same goes for the preamble that shows Geppetto (David Bradley, having a busy autumn in 2022 with this, Catherine Called Birdy and Allelujah) and his first-born, human-fleshed son Carlo (also Mann) living in ecstatically, almost unhealthily happy codependence with one another before Carlo is killed by a stray bomb on a church during World War I. That last move emphasizes how much this has always been a story built on grief and loss, going back to the original text in which the Blue Fairy, like so many mothers felled by childbirth itself, is apparently killed.
Neither necessarily good nor bad is the way the film gestures beyond Collodi to the work of one of its directors. As if putting his own name in the title weren’t enough, del Toro makes his presence felt in nearly every frame. From the supernatural creatures with uncanny peepers scattered about their bodies — like one of the most famous monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth with eyes in its hands — to the carnival settings that recall his last feature, Nightmare Alley, and the watery realms echoing The Shape of Water and other back-catalogue efforts, the film sometimes plays like a greatest hits album of del Toro tropes. The auteur’s passionate fans, whose number is legion, will likely swoon over the self-quoting; more critical, less indulgent viewers might find this self-referencing a distracting sign of grandiosity or even just laziness.
Personally, I’m somewhere in between. Being the sort of critic who has almost never met a work of stop-motion animation she didn’t like, especially if it’s just on the edge of being too creepy for kids, and who loves any adaptation of Pinocchio, this film is right in my sweet spot. The fact that the filmmakers choose deliberately, per the film’s press notes, to make the animation just a little bit stuttery, drawing attention to the technique and not smoothed out as it so easily could have been given modern technology, is the maraschino cherry on the sweet spot.
Plus we get delicious uncanny valley sprinkles in the character designs for the living, non-wooden characters, folks who are expressive but not too expressive, always keeping us aware of the fact that we’re watching a stop-motion puppet show. The best one is Count Volpe (creamily voiced by Christoph Waltz), a slinking, gangly impresario who is a mash-up of the Fox and Mangiafuoco in the Collodi text, a character with fantastic hair like a hedge of angry copper beech that won a battle with a lawn mower.
His monkey mini-me enabler Spazzatura (the word means garbage in Italian) is a less effective piece of design, looking as it does like a reanimated marmoset corpse, but perhaps that was entirely intentional. It is delightful, however, that Spazzatura’s various grunts, shrieks and simian cackles, and a few odd lines in actual English, are voiced by Cate Blanchett. This may be the greatest instance of a distinguished, feted actor hired to do animal noises since George Clooney did the voice of Sparky the gay dog on South Park.
Where the film is more problematic is in the editing and pacing, a flaw it shares with too many Netflix-produced features. Although, again, it’s nice that room is made for eccentric digressions and sight gags like, for example, scenes with card-playing rabbits that echo Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s famous paintings of dogs playing poker, it’s not so funny that we needed to see it two or three more times. I feel tempted to say there’s a leaner, stronger film inside this that could have been coaxed out, but in the light of the film’s message about accepting people as they are, maybe we shouldn’t be shaming this film either. It is what it is, and that’s perfectly imperfect.