SPOILERS FOR PINOCCHIO AHEAD! READ AT YOUR OWN WILL!
Honestly, I might just call 2022 the year of Pinocchio. This year has brought multiple renditions of the little lively wooden boy, from Disney’s shocking live-action reboot of its classic 1940 animated film to that peculiar Lionsgate straight-to-DVD film. Unsurprisingly, these two renditions of the character have had their spotlights smeared with pushback, either being ridiculed for its format or being meme’d to death. It looked like the iconic character had finally lost his strings.
However, things began to take a change as the maestro of mystery, Guillermo del Toro, sought to rework the traditional tale all the way back in 2007. Since then, del Toro has been hard at work to create this mystifying, darker adaptation of the story, which he considers to be his passion project for the past fifteen years. The only question remains is this: does it succeed?
My answer: yes, definitely yes.
Directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson, Pinocchio retells Carlo Collodi’s children’s story of the wooden boy brought to life by a father’s wish through the setting of fascist Italy during Mussolini’s reign. However, del Toro’s influence on the story brings the character to a deeper place of understanding and learning as Pinocchio’s adventures lead him to fantastical and terrifying places. The movie sees Gregory Mann as Pinocchio, Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket, and David Bradley as Geppetto.
The visual style of Pinocchio perfectly encapsulates the tone that del Toro wants to create. Each set piece takes on its own life, reflecting the feeling it wants to create or emphasizing the actions on screen. From whimsical lights and stages to the gloomy and sinister pits of the world, all of the locations in the movie managed to have their own specialty in forming Pinocchio’s character and what they influence him to be. I have to commend Guy Davis, Curt Enderle, and Robert DeSue for visualizing and constructing these different locations and making them their own. However, while the visual designs help create what Pinocchio is, it’s the animation that fully brings the life within these characters.
Unlike the previous two renditions, del Toro’s choice to use stop-motion animation was the right step forward in exploring this character. In addition to the character designs, the use of stop-motion makes each and every character feel more expressive, especially in the case of Pinocchio and Sebastian. There’s a balanced mix between subtle and overt movements that showcases and highlights each character’s personality as well as the surrounding environment that makes this world feel realistic. In del Toro’s words, stop-animation was a way to “bring the world into our puppets – to animate to make them live and feel.” I can definitely see that each character, each unique in design and personality, was wonderfully crafted by these artists to not only help progress the story’s flow, but to bring each character out into their own light.
Speaking about these characters, each one has their own set of characteristics and morals that helps shape this movie’s core idea. Pinocchio’s naivety and curiosity about the world allows the character to fully express the concept of self-worth and what a child wants to be in an unforgiving world. Geppetto’s self-denial and slow acceptance helps personify the development of understanding in the face of new things. Other characters like Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and the Podestà (Ron Perlman) reflect society’s influence to create a pre-destined path for someone discovering their potential. Even Sebastian, who’s my favorite character as the comic relief for most of the movie, tries to push Pinocchio on the path Geppetto wants for him. However, in the case of the Wood Sprite and Death (both played by Tilda Swinton), both of them don’t necessarily guide Pinocchio to what they want, rather wanting Pinocchio to make his own. Each and every character in this film slowly builds this core idea of self-worth and identification that del Toro wants to make clear and the voice acting shines through here.
On the topic of the story, it does follow some parts of the original tale, but with del Toro, the story takes a different path that I wasn’t used to at first. However, I can say that the setting of Mussolini’s fascist Italy helped propel the story in a way that didn’t need to look back on its predecessors. Pinocchio is trying to find his true place in the world with things and people like Geppetto, the circus, and the Podesta’s child training facility (which replaces Pleasure Island) impacting who he is. I honestly believe that replacing Pleasure Island with the Podesta made for a refreshing change that subtly highlights sociological blindless through a historical perspective rather than the overtly bright utopia for kids.
The human world wants to transform him into something that benefits them, whether it be being an old son, in Geppetto’s case, a living attraction, or an immortal soldier. However, Pinocchio wants to break free from everything because that’s not what he is and the movie plays it out through both heart-warming and pain-staking ways. This basic idea is what makes the story of Pinocchio intriguing in the first place: it’s about the journey to self-actualization in the face of ignorance and blindness.
Humanity, self-identification, and self-worth play a big role in Pinocchio’s story and del Toro’s thematic decisions lifts this story to a new level. Every time Pinocchio is brought into these new situations, the movie slowly differentiates the good from the bad between each set piece and the characters affiliated with each location. Every human character seeks to influence Pinocchio in a way that isn’t true to himself and the script by del Toro and Patrick McHale creates an unwavering charisma and realism that provides more depth to an already well-analyzed story. If there had to be a problem with this movie, it’d have to be that the pacing felt a bit slower at the beginning of the movie and the end of the rising action, which felt like they needed to drop the immoral human characters. Nonetheless, this Pinocchio is a resounding success that needs to be celebrated.
Overall, del Toro’s Pinocchio is an astounding step forward in understanding how we could truly understand ourselves through this school of thought. Stop-animation has provided this wonderful team with a big opportunity to showcase a more complex world through a new perspective and it has successfully paid off. With the invigoration of life shared between the characters and their world, del Toro’s interpretation of this iconic story is a remarkable and noteworthy rendition to remember.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is playing in select theaters and releases on December 9 on Netflix.