No one could fault those who endured the full-blown embarrassment of Robert Zemeckis’s live-action Disney+ Pinocchio film for rolled eyes and exasperated sighs upon learning of yet another high-profile feature-length take on the wooden boy whose nose grows when he lies.
Ah, but this one has a Pinocchio whose conjuring runs closer to that of Frankenstein’s monster, whose ersatz papa Geppetto is a grief-stricken drunkard, whose adventures run parallel to Italian fascism, whose impishness includes shit-talking Benito Mussolini himself, and whose cohorts include a rheumy-eyed monkey named Spazzatura with harried howls given voice by Cate Blanchett.
Yes, this is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, a stop-motion animation adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale that is radical, raucous and resplendent where Zemeckis’s was simply risible. Following his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and Oscar-nominated Nightmare Alley, this is Guillermo Del Toro’s first directorial foray into animation; he shares credit with Mark Gustafson, who served as the animation director on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, to which this could be an oddball cousin. (The film expands in its limited theatrical release Friday ahead of a December 9 premiere on Netflix.)
Diverging from either Disney version in ways that develop Del Toro’s fascination with the intersection of human weakness and political will, Pinocchio also finds brittle but valuable sadness at the heart of this story about simulacra and simulation. Its notions of loss are compounded creatively, deeply and dependably. There is still plenty of adventure here. It’s just the adventure of life — brief and hopefully buoyed by reciprocated love — more than any macabre merriment on Pleasure Island or journeys inside the muck of the Terrible Dogfish (even as both of those turn up here … one “in a way,” as it were).
Even without an abominable counterpoint from earlier this year, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio would feel like a dusty first-edition treasure waiting to be discovered by just the right heart, soul and hands. Its humans boast ruddy faces, hands reddened and worn by weather, nails caked with dirt. Its dogs’ rib cages are nubby. Its monkey’s eye is rheumy. (It bears repeating: Two-time Oscar winner Blanchett voices a creature resembling a mix of Joe Dante’s Gremlins and Harry Potter’s Dobby … although there are words in there eventually.) This is an adaptation enlivened by enjoyable eccentricities and endlessly engaging ideas.
As adapted by Del Toro and Patrick McHale (Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall), this version begins with the prologue of woodcarver Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) and his son, Carlo (Gregory Mann) — who enjoy a simple but fulfilling life in a small Italian village circa World War I. After a senseless bombing run claims Carlo’s life, Geppetto abandons his tradecraft and spends his days soused and sobbing at his son’s gravesite. Del Toro and Gustafson’s visual choices contextualize Geppetto’s loss in a way that frankly does not need the atypically heavy touch that composer Alexandre Desplat brings to the score and songs here. Frankly, this incarnation of Pinocchio doesn’t need songs at all. You won’t remember a single one, even as actors like Ewan McGregor and Christoph Waltz give their playfully performative all.
McGregor voices Sebastian J. Cricket, more of an oafish opportunist who could’ve waltzed in from Hellboy’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense than a voice of clear conscience. Sebastian just wants to tuck away and pen his memoirs (Stridulations of My Youth, tee-hee), but he gets swept up in Geppetto’s drunken rage and the forest magic of a wood sprite (Tilda Swinton, who also voices the wood sprite’s counterpart of Death later). After Geppetto carves a crude rendering of his son from a nearby pine, the wood sprite infuses his creation with life, and Sebastian only becomes Pinocchio’s pal when the sprite promises him a wish in exchange.
This sequence plays like a devil’s bargain struck by a Stephen King character, Geppetto hacking and slashing on a stormy night and his drunkenness to blame for the rough, knotty edges of Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann) — a spindly shape with nails sticking out from his shoulders, hinges that creak, a lurching gait and gangly arms. It’s no wonder Geppetto seems initially horrified when his creation comes to life, and Bradley delivers a powerhouse vocal performance that’s always rooted more in the pain of resurrected worry for a child than rediscovering the pleasure of a chipper companion. (Again, the film softens up Pinocchio, and calms any frightened kids, with a soothing-falsetto song, but Pinocchio’s better nature could do the job on its own.)
So begins an odyssey of imperfect fathers, imperfect sons and the burdens with which they both live. It’s carried along by the considerable conditions of Pinocchio’s magic (which brilliantly turn the tale on its ear at the halfway point), the opportunism of disgraced circus entrepreneur Count Volpe (Waltz) and his minion Spazzatura, and the warmongering of the Podestà (Ron Perlman), a fascist government official whose son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), first becomes Pinocchio’s bully and then his buddy.
The Podestà resembles a life-sized version of Blade from the Puppet Master films and Candlewick’s increasingly haggard face looks like a Team America version of Jimmy Neutron — aesthetically emphasizing how sharpened blades of war whittle away humanity. You’ll come to feel sorrow for Spazzatura and compassion for Candlewick. And although Pinocchio’s circus adventures are fun and familiar, the undercurrent about curating a cult of personality culminates in, well, one of the most delightfully bizarre things you could ever see in a film about Pinocchio. What a rush it is to see such sights in a dogeared story. Unexpected delights also include Tim Blake Nelson’s turn as the Black Rabbits (poker-playing pallbearers who function as a working-class chorus at crucial moments) and the design of the Terrible Dogfish that temporarily swallows some of our heroes — all waterfalls of bile and chittering, plopping digestive processes.
There’s also a poignancy to the way Del Toro, Gustafson and their team of animators (notably credited before any of the more recognizable vocal talent) depict what lies do to Pinocchio’s nose. The branches that grow aren’t brittle. They’re blooming, green, and abundant. Lies and war are foul but fertile enterprises, often organic and well-tended. It’s just one of many embellishments Del Toro, Gustafson, McHale and company allow to echo well after the film has ended — which it does in a way that makes it a perfect double bill with Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, another children’s film from 2022 whose daring difference pays in dividends. This Pinocchio film is a triumph that won’t have you rolling your eyes, but it just might have you wiping them.