Friday, November 18, 2022

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

For whatever reason, 2022 saw the release of four separate Pinocchio films, each attached to a different studio and distributor. These included Pinocchio: A True Story, Pinocchio and the Water of Life, Disney’s own live-action remake of their 1940 classic and a stop-motion film co-directed by none other than Guillermo del Toro. As it turns out, del Toro had announced development for his take on the original Italian novel The Adventures of Pinocchio all the way back 2008, but it didn’t really enter production until Netflix picked up the project in 2018, largely because no one else would finance it until then. Though we had little familiarity with del Toro’s work outside of Pacific Rim, The Shape of Water and his involvement in Death Stranding, we jumped at the chance to see the finished product, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (aka Pinocchio), through an early limited theatrical run. Fortunately, not only was the film worth the money, it easily washed out the bad taste left by Disney’s Pinocchio remake.

The basic setup is similar to the popular Disney interpretation, but with some major differences. Though the story still takes place in Italy, it shifts the timeline from the late 19th century to the 1930s, during the height of fascism in the country during WWII. Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) made a pine tree his home so that he could write his memoir shortly before Geppetto (David Bradley) cut it down, so he lives inside Pinocchio’s (Gregory Mann) heart while serving as his conscience. Geppetto also has more of a backstory, with a more established presence in his town and a deeper explanation for why he had created Pinocchio in the first place. Notably, Pinocchio is also comparatively far more disobedient and mischievous here than in other adaptations, especially both of the Disney films.

Pinocchio (Gregory Mann, right) is more disobedient in this version;
Also pictured: Geppetto (David Bradley, left)

Taken as a whole, this Pinocchio has a much darker tone. Not only does the story touch upon the familiar theme of “right vs wrong”, it also plays around more with the concept of “obedience vs disobedience” and includes more mature themes of war, religion and mortality. These themes help Guillermo del Toro’s take on the story stand out, as it allows for some memorable interactions and raises unique questions, including Pinocchio asking why the townspeople love the image of Christ in the church but not him, even though both are made of wood. Setting the story in fascist Italy also opens up commentary about the ideology while taking advantage of the opportunity to show the devastating effects of war.

There are many other differences, of course. Both the Fox and the Cat, as well as the original story’s Mangiafuoco are combined into one character, Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), who has a monkey assistant named Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett) and serves as the main antagonist, also giving the marionette portion of the story more prominence. The magical fairy, here known as the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), has a greatly expanded role in a rather unexpected way. Pinnochio and Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) don’t go to a magical place that turns them into donkeys, but they do go through a sequence showing the grim reality of being a fascist youth. All of these changes are very well thought out and actually meaningfully serve the story all the way to its emotional and well-earned finale.

Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) is the main antagonist in this interpretation.

Watching this interpretation in close proximity to the live-action Disney remake also unintentionally highlights just how poorly they had written the latter. One element introduced in the Disney remake, that Geppetto created Pinocchio to replace a lost child, is more fully fleshed out here and adds a very emotional character arc for the woodcarver, whose relationship with Pinocchio gradually evolves into more genuine fatherly affection. Other points of comparison are how the (book-accurate) giant dogfish that eventually swallows the main cast actually does get mistaken for an island and that Sebastian J. Cricket actually displays basic intelligence when trapped by an overturned glass. Admittedly, this film also has an increased amount of toilet humor, though thankfully never with the intent of grossing out the audience.

Alongside the well-written story, Pinocchio also has spectacular stop-motion with a detailed visual style reminiscent of executive producer Gris Grimly’s illustrations from the 2002 edition of the original book. Several shots left me wondering how they accomplished them, including explosions, falling sand and moderately complex stage performances, and the subtle facial expressions added a lot to certain scenes. The wood sprite never changes expression, but this deliberate choice combined with her unique design adds an otherworldly air to her otherwise benevolent actions. I also found the water effects rather impressive, especially when characters interacted with bubbles. Then there’s the editing, which does a great job at subtly highlighting the themes of the story and adding more emotional depth during certain moments.

The detailed visual style still allows for impressively subtle facial expressions.

Throughout the film, all of the voice actors turn in incredible and emotional performances, with special mention to Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket, who doubles as the narrator. Despite this, however, the only real weak point in the film would be the songs. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re actually well-produced and display the singing talents of Gregory Mann quite nicely, but that they’re not that memorable outside of maybe a chorus or two. I’m not sure I’d find myself thinking about them out of context later, but I at least liked that a number of the songs featured are in the context of Pinocchio putting on a stage performance, so they suited the story.

Ewan McGregor impresses as Sebastian J. Cricket.

On its own merits, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a well-crafted film that helps showcase not just the strengths of stop-motion, but also the power of pure passion for the material. While not completely perfect, this more mature take on Pinocchio is worth watching, as long as you’re at least old enough to handle some of its darker concepts. If nothing else, this Pinocchio certainly has the heart that Disney’s own remake sorely lacks.

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