November 27, 2022

“Pinocchio” is a Dark Children’s Tale from Maestro del Toro (Review)

There’s no way a team-up between award-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro and the Jim Henson Company on the supposedly limitless dime of streaming giant Netflix results in anything but a truly magical experience. My optimism is helped by the fact that del Toro is my favorite director, responsible for some of my all-time top films (Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water among them), and my excitement was immediate when I discovered he was spearheading a darker adaptation of the classic Pinocchio story, while maintaining the tale’s all-ages appeal. In every conceivable way, it sounds like a recipe for success.

Image courtesy of Netflix

I realize it sounds like I’m about to say I was severely let down by
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio — but in fact, the opposite is even more true. His Pinocchio was first announced in 2008, but didn’t end up moving forward with production until ten years later, and its longtime spot in development hell was finally at an end. Now, after an extensive festival run and massive critical acclaim, its Netflix release is on the horizon.

You know the story of Pinocchio, but del Toro’s version (adapted directly from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio) gives the fairytale a specific setting by opening the film in the closing years of the First World War. Elderly woodcarver Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley, of Harry Potter and Doctor Who fame) loses his son, appropriately named Carlo, in a bombing and sinks into a deep depression.

Years later, fascism has descended upon Italy, and a drunken Geppetto, consumed with grief, re-creates his son out of wood from the tree that grew by Carlo’s grave. By coincidence, the tree has recently become the home of traveling writer Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who has a strong objection to his new house being used to create a wooden boy. He gets even more than he bargained for when a wood sprite (Tilda Swinton) gives the wooden boy a life of his own in order to make Geppetto happy, and Mr. Cricket becomes the boy’s heart and conscience.

Image courtesy of Netflix

There are lots of things present here I never thought I would see depicted in an adaptation of
Pinocchio, primary among them the blatant atrocities of war and an unfiltered look at the brutality of early 20th-century fascism. Even though this is a family film, it’s about what I expected from a del Toro-led adaptation of this story — the man has a penchant for telling dark tales, and this is about as restrained as he can be. The film incorporates elements of the classic story that Disney-fied versions never would, like religion and war, and it only further elucidates the metaphors on display here. The story of Pinocchio has never been more cogent and captivating than it is here.

As we see the world and learn lessons through the childlike innocence of the newly-born Pinocchio (voiced by the lovably perky Gregory Mann), we are ourselves reminded of the rudimentary and simple things that are key to leading a happy life, but that we often forget as we get older. Mann voices the character with enthusiasm, and as the film goes on his happiness becomes a sharp contrast to the setting and the darkness of the real-world context behind the aforementioned environment. The film is a look at the past with the hindsight we have with a modern-day view of Italian fascism, and a condemnation of their practices (many of which are spotlighted, including the cruelty of sending actual children to be trained for the impending war.

Despite the darkness, Pinocchio retains the emotionally resonant nature of the source material, and becomes a very touching story about family (chosen or not) by its end. It helps that the vocal performers are evidently invested as well — aside from Bradley, Mann, Swinton and McGregor, the film stars Christoph Waltz, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Burn Gorman, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro and del Toro regular Ron Perlman in roles both large and small, making the film a real “who’s who” of the modern acting scene.

Image courtesy of Netflix

I will also add that
Pinocchio is gorgeously stop-motion animated, the meticulousness of which jumps off the screen in its beautiful glory. It’s also a musical, which isn’t as vital to the story as much as its other elements, but the songs are written and performed with the utmost care, and the emotion they convey is not easily replicable.

I will always love Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio because it gives the director freedom to play in the sandbox of one of the most iconically metaphorical stories in history, and he has not only chosen to make it more allegorical but has also skillfully balanced the darkness and fun in ways I thought impossible. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year, and I hope it touches the hearts of many just like it did mine.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is playing now in select theaters, and will be released worldwide December 9 on Netflix. 

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