Year:  2022

Director:  Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson

Rated:  M

Release:  In cinemas now, streaming from December 9

Distributor: Netflix

Running time: 117 minutes

Worth: $18.00
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Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, Tim Blake Nelson, Tilda Swinton (Voices)

There have been many versions of Collodi’s tale, but none have the thematic richness of del Toro’s work.

Since the publication of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio in 1883, there have been countless adaptations of the morality tale. 2022 alone has brought Robert Zemeckis’ bloodless live action remake of Disney’s 1940 animation (a film so well regarded that most only know the story of the wooden boy who longs to be a real child through it). Guillermo del Toro first announced he would be making a version in 2008, and despite the travails of getting the film off the ground, the director, or in this case co-director (stop motion legend Mark Gustafson shares credit) has produced an adaptation that is perhaps closest to Collodi’s original vision, despite changing the setting to Italy during the rise of fascism in the 20th century.

Scripted by del Toro and Patrick McHale (with a story credit given to Matthew Robbins), Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio does for Fascist Italy what Pan’s Labyrinth did for the Spanish Civil War – showing the nature of despots through the eyes of a child, or in Pinocchio’s (Gregory Mann) case, the eyes of a veritable newborn. While disobedience is discouraged in most fairy tales, del Toro understands that disobedience can also be resistance to corrupt regimes.

The story begins with Gepetto (David Bradley) living with his ten-year-old son, Carlo (again voiced by Gregory Mann). The woodcarver lives a complete life with a son he adores. He’s viewed by the village he lives in as an upright citizen, good father, and devout Catholic. He teaches Carlo to value life, nature, and all the gifts bestowed on humanity. When a stray bomb hits the Church where he is carving a Christ on the cross, Carlo is caught inside and all that remains is a perfect pinecone that the child found.

Years go by and Gepetto becomes an embittered outcast. He visits his son’s grave next to which a tree grows that comes from Carlo’s pinecone. He is watched by the narrator of the tale, Sebastian J Cricket (a truly brilliant Ewan McGregor) who has taken up residency in Carlo’s tree. Gepetto is also watched by the spirits of the forest. One drunken night after crying out to an indifferent Christian God, Gepetto chops down Carlo’s tree and carelessly makes the puppet Pinocchio.

Unlike the Disney versions of the tale, Gepetto makes no wishes on stars for the puppet to become a real boy. The puppet is born out of rage and grief. However, a version of The Blue Fairy, here an uncanny looking wood sprite voiced by Tilda Swinton, takes pity on Gepetto and brings the puppet to life. Sebastian J Cricket (writer and raconteur) strikes a bargain with the wood sprite that he will help the puppet to be good – “I’ll do my best, which is the best I can do,” he promises.

Gepetto does not want a replacement son, he wants Carlo. Yet, Pinocchio’s devout love for his Papa eventually wins him over.

David Bradley’s voice performance is incredibly nuanced in creating the range of emotions Gepetto feels – he’s not simply a kindly old man, he’s a fully formed character with his own narrative arc.

Pinocchio comes to the attention of the village’s Podesta (Ron Perlman), a true believer in Mussolini’s Italy. The Podesta’s son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) is in the Podesta’s estimation the epitome of Fascist youth – but when he discovers that Pinocchio cannot die, his interest shifts into trying to work out how to use the puppet as a weapon.

Pinocchio resents being told what to do. On his way to school (insisted upon by the Podesta), he is spotted by the simian Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett) and is soon seen as a saving grace for the nefarious Count Volpe’s (Christoph Waltz) ailing carnival. Pinocchio is easily seduced by the idea of fame and when Gepetto angrily arrives at the carnival to take him home, he is sullen. Volpe sues Gepetto for an exorbitant sum, and the Podesto begins to insist that Pinocchio go to Le Colonia for training. All of this is a “burden” to the old man. Pinocchio, knowing what burden means, runs back to the carnival on the proviso that Volpe sends money to Gepetto.

From here, Pinocchio’s adventures are familiar, but del Toro and McHale breathe a particular life into the tale. Pinocchio dies often and visits the underworld which is inhabited by talking rabbits who play poker (all voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) and ruled over by a Sphinx-like Death (voiced by Tilda Swinton). Each time Pinocchio is returned to the world of the living he is given a lesson on mortality, but one that remains tantalisingly incomplete. Further to this, del Toro and McHale do away with Toy Land and Pleasure Island, and instead the Coachman (the Podesto) takes Candlewick and Pinocchio to a fascist training camp for children.

Guillame del Toro’s vision of Pinocchio is replete with his signature style, the horror elements of the film are abundant; from the design and cruelty of Count Volpe and Spazzatura (who becomes an unlikely ally to Pinocchio) to the increasing dominance of Fascist propaganda in the background, to a sea that is littered with mines (making the Terrible Dogfish only one of the threats of the ocean).

The stop motion characters look exactly as you’d imagine coming from de Toro’s aesthetic – somewhere between opulent beauty and unnerving ugliness. All but Pinocchio himself, who is an embodiment of his messy, haphazard innocence.

Alexandre Desplat’s dazzling score complements del Toro’s visuals and provides some beautiful musical numbers, including the wonderful “Ciao Papa” for which del Toro co-wrote the lyrics. There’s a running joke in the film that whenever Sebastian J Cricket is up for a musical number, the film cuts away to something else. Ewan McGregor is no stranger to musicals, and the audience waits impatiently for his voice.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a mature and gentle meditation on what it is to live well. It is also a film about grief. There have been many versions of Collodi’s tale, but none have the thematic richness of del Toro’s work. Pinocchio takes the audience on a journey of discovery that is rooted in love. There is wisdom to be found in the film as Sebastian J Cricket talks about life; “What happens, happens. And then we’re gone.” Yet, for all the melancholy and loss in the film, what binds it together is “goodness” and how a puppet created from grief brings new life and purpose to those who are willing to believe in his innocent spirit.