In 1940, Disney released Pinocchio. It was the studio’s second movie after Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. But over the years, that has been the template most filmmakers have used for the adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, which was way darker in tone. Granted, the scene of the boys being turned into donkeys probably scared a lot of children, but even during the Hays Code, there were rules to follow.
In 2022, Disney released a live-action/animated version on Disney-Plus with Tom Hanks playing Gepetto. It had its moments but it wasn’t the best. Twenty years earlier, Roberto Benigni chose to play the titular character in his follow-up to the Oscar-winning Life is Beautfiul and the European version got mixed reviews and the English-dubbed version released through Miramax got negative reviews across the board.
But no one could stop Guillermo del Toro from doing his own version with his special touch. The movie is co-directed by del Toro with Mark Gustafson and was his passion project for many years. But when I saw on the credits that The Jim Henson Company is one of the production companies behind this latest version on Netflix, I immediately saw similarities with The Storyteller, an anthology series in the late 1980s that the late Jim Henson created based on European and Western folk tales. It’s a shame Henson didn’t live long enough to work with del Toro. They would’ve been a great collaboration.
This is probably the closest we’ll ever get to that. And del Toro moves away from what we’ve typically known as the story. He takes the framework of the story but tells a different story set during the 1930s during the rise of Fascism in Europe following the aftermath of World War I. Gepetto (voiced by David Bradley) and his son, Carlos (voiced by Gregory Mann) are living in Italy during WWI when they’re attending a church one night. Gepetto goes outside while Carlo remains inside but is killed by an aerial bombardment of Austro-Hungarian forces.
Gepetto in mourning plants a pine cone near Carlo’s grave. Over the next 20 years, it grows into a tree. During a drunken rage, Gepetto cuts it down and makes a wooden doll out of it. Inside the tree is the talking cricket, Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor who also functions as the movie’s narrator). Gepetto passes out drunk but a blue Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) appears and she brings the doll to life calling him “Pinocchio.” She promises to grant Sebastian one wish if he would look over Pinocchio.
Gepetto is not willing to accept Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann) as his new son and tries to avoid him. But Pinocchio follows Gepetto to church where his identity is revealed to the townspeople including Podesta (voiced by Ron Perlman), a Fascist government official, who feels that Pinocchio, like a lot of children, including his son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), can be turned into soldiers. He instructs Gepetto to send Pinocchio to school the next day.
But when the new day comes, Pinocchio is kidnapped by Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz) and his abused monkey assistant, Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett). del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Matthew Robbins and Patrick McHale, takes the movie on a different yet similar path. There’s no kids being turned into donkeys but I think it’s worse that they’re being brainwashed into becoming Fascist soldiers.
Going into this, you ought to expect del Toro is going to do something different. From the moment he became a household name with Pan’s Labyrinth, people knew to expect something different from. This is not saying, the movie is as puzzling or dark as that movie. It still has a PG rating. It’s more on touch with Henry Selick’s Coraline than with Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.
Since it is a stop-motion animation movie, there is a lot of singing in the movie. Yet this is my only complaint because none of the songs really stand out. Alexandre Desplat composed the music and songs while Roeban Katz was the lyricist. Sometimes the songs just aren’t as memorable and I feel making it a musical takes away from a more serious tone that del Toro was intending.
The animation is top notch through ShadowMachine as well as certain scenes done through del Toro’s own animation student Centro Internacional de Animacion. The filmmakers do their best to move away from Disney by making Pinocchio look more and more like a wooden creature rather than the more boyish creature we all familiar. It looks like something Roald Dahl or L. Frank Baum would’ve written. It also looks like the Rankin/Bass adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, based on the book Baum wrote.
I think the casting is just perfect. Waltz can do no wrong and he nails the role as Volpe. Blanchett’s casting was done in part because she wanted to work with del Toro and was willing to do whatever she could. Perlman and Burns Gorman, who voices a priest, are regulars of del Toro’s work. There’s also John Turturro as a doctor and Tim Blake Nelson as a flock of black rabbits that work for Death (also voiced by Swinton) in the afterlife.
Probably the most amusing casting is Tom Kenny in a small role as Benito Mussolini as well as two other minor roles. Kenny is a comedian and reknown actor famous for voicing Spongebob Squarepants.
Altogether, del Toro has made a Pinocchio adaptation that is a good alternative to the Disney version and should be just as memorable in the years to come.
What do you think? Please comment.