Why is cinema so fascinated by the little wooden boy who wants to live like flesh and bones? Guillermo del Toro‘s Pinocchio is the second adaptation of the fairy tale to be released this year, following the Dead Eyes, live-action monstrosity that flopped on Disney Plus three months ago. But for those who want to do more than exploit nostalgia, this story offers a special kind of wonder.
Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel served as a moral warning to Italian peasants: if they didn’t work hard, they might end up like poor Pinocchio, who was turned into a donkey as punishment for his impulsiveness. But through its many iterations, the puppet child has morphed into the opposite of Frankenstein’s monster – proving that mankind’s ability to create life from the inanimate can be a source of joy, not an act of reckless pride.
Del Toro, the man behind it Pan’s Labyrinth, The shape of the water and this year’s nightmare alley, has a deep affection for monstrosities of all races. Co-directed with Mark Gustafson, who worked as lead animator on Wes Anderson’s film Fantastic Mr FoxDel Toro has incorporated poetry into craftsmanship and produced the most beautiful stop-motion animated film in years.
There’s a magnificent painterly quality to the way the moonlight filters through the rafters or the way stormy waves smash against the gnarled mass of the sea creature monstro. The characters here have the same rustic, carved look as Geppetto’s cuckoo clock figures, although the way their jaws clench and their lips purse gives a real sense of muscle under the skin.
Aside from del Toro’s interest in Pinocchio’s inherent unnaturalness and the delicate craftsmanship that created him, there’s little here that truly connects him to Collodi’s original story. But the film is much richer. Along with co-writer Patrick McHale, the director has returned to one of his most prominent themes: the searing inhumanity of fascism and its harsh notions of conformity and masculinity. But this time it’s a musical with tender jewel box songs composed by Alexandre Desplat.
Adapted as a story about Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, the film sees Geppetto (David Bradley) drunkenly modeling Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) out of blind rage at his own fate after losing his beloved son Carlo in the darkest of circumstances. Inspired by Gris Grimly’s illustrations from a 2002 edition of Collodi’s novel, this Pinocchio is extra wobbly and very Del Toro – all broken joints and exposed nails.
The Blue Fairy, which grants him sentience, now appears as an ethereal, doe-eyed spirit of the mountains (voiced appropriately by Tilda Swinton). Her sister (also Swinton), who rules the underworld, is a sphinx-like creature served by a small troop of zombie rabbits. Even Pinocchio’s leader and conscience Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) has become a penniless writer (with a McGregor tinge Moulin Rouge Rolle), whose constant unhappiness could be read as a commentary on the scourging of intellectuals under authoritarian regimes.
That might sound like a lot for a film aimed (somewhat) at children, but Del Toro and McHale’s openness about these issues speaks directly to the power of a child’s innocence. Pinocchio is branded a dissident only because he is unfamiliar with the cruel follies of adult society. The city’s fascist official (Ron Perlman) may not turn boys into donkeys, but he does force them into youth camps to play in the war. In unconscious rebellion, the recruits giggle as they realize the futility of their game. This may not be Collodi’s invention, but it is a sign that the enduring power of his story stems directly from its malleability. The wood boy belongs wholeheartedly to whoever carves it.
Dir: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson. Cast: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton. PG, 117 minutes.
Guillermo del Toros Pinocchio is now streaming on Netflix
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/guillermo-del-toro-pinocchio-stopmotion-netflix-b2239748.html Pinocchio Review by Guillermo del Toro: The most beautiful stop-motion animated film in years