Call me crazy, but is there any reason that the tale of Pinocchio should be used as a parable by parents when teaching their kids about lying? I’ve always thought that the whole fable was a bit odd and the fear of my nose growing longer never outweighed the temptation to tell a white lie. Anyways, Disney has had this nasty little habit of “re-imagining” their classic animated features into live-action. Full disclosure, I wasn’t a “Disney kid” growing up — so this doesn’t bother me nearly as much as some. I thought Beauty and the Beast was fine, Cruella was cool, The Jungle Book had some awesome visuals and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland gave me nightmares as a kid. But one common thread I’ve noticed is that because of the fact that these Disney animated classics are based upon various literary classics, there’s always the potential for a version of these stories with a bit of an edge to them. Remember that adaptation from a few years back that was nominated for two Academy Awards in 2021? And later this year, Guillermo del Toro is sharing his adaptation of the tale that’ll be distributed on Netflix. Point is, as we’ve seen with Winnie the Pooh, the story of Pinocchio is public domain and anyone can try their hand at adapting this story — even if Disney’s animated adaptation is the most prominent one that comes to mind. In Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio, Disney does what they do best: a harmless, safe adaptation of one of its most classic works. The end result? A film that’s simply fine.
You likely already know the gist of Pinocchio’s story, so I’ll spare you the nitty-gritty details. Geppetto (Tom Hanks) is a lonely woodcarver and owns the true house with clocks on its walls. One day, Geppetto builds a wooden puppet named Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) who is brought to life after being wished upon a star. Pinocchio then sets out to be a real boy by going to school but is stopped by Honest John (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key); a fox looking for his geek to his carney. Surprisingly, all of this occurs over the course of a day, something Geppetto acknowledges in one of the lone funny lines in the film.
Tom Hanks has gone from Kentucky Fried moron in Elvis to a chic, House of Gucci-like accent (I’m being very generous here). It’s admirable and perfectly fine of Hanks to ham it up for his young audience, but somehow Hanks has gone from one unbearable role to the next. Luckily, Pinocchio doesn’t open up with a voiceover where Geppetto warns the audience that he’s the antagonist of this story (though it’s ironic that he plays a puppet master in both roles). But to not completely pick on Hanks, there is one performer that seems to have a good time in the film: Keegan-Michael Key.
And I get it; Pinocchio was a pandemic film, so there were always going to be limitations. But part of the reason Pinocchio is as soulless as a wooden doll is the lack of imagination in the sets and character designs. Geppetto’s shop and Pleasure Island — a place that sounds a lot weirder to say out loud the older you get — are the only two sets that have any personality at all. But don’t think you’re getting del Toro’s Nightmare Alley with the circus in this film. A big part of the reason why the sets feel so small is that they’re obviously soundstages. This is nothing new for these Disney live-action remakes; in fact, I actually like them in some cases like the live-action Beauty and the Beast. For one reason or another, they create a childlike whimsy that I miss as a cynical adult. There’s a fine line between the films that use sound stages but still create a believable world, and films that just look like they were filmed in Atlanta.
All of this begs the question of why Zemeckis wanted to take the reins of this film in the first place. Perhaps he wanted to reunite with Hanks — a perfectly understandable thing to do — but the story of Pinocchio is no walk in the park, or box of chocolates in this case. He even brought along frequent collaborator Alan Silvestri — one of the most iconic composers in the world — to compose the score, yet the score feels like bland wallpaper. There’s nothing distinguishable about it that would make it stand out from any other Golden Age Disney film. You could tell me that they copy and pasted the original score from the 1940 film and I’d have no choice but to believe you. Furthermore, the only song that does stand out is “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which is essentially the “Oprah shot” of musical numbers in this film. It’s a guaranteed banger so long as you don’t change the formula too much, and we all know how talented Cynthia Erivo is (who’s far better than her role as the Blue Fairy would suggest).
Ultimately, what’s important to bear in mind while discussing Pinocchio is that I am far from the target audience. I also have no kids so I can’t give any litmus test as to whether this works for the audience Disney is attempting to appeal to. I say that to forgive the film’s antagonists for a lack of any sort of intimidation or threat — though that sentiment doesn’t carry over to every performance. Will your four-year-olds enjoy it? I guess so. Would I recommend it? Not necessarily.
Again, I don’t really mind Disney going out and remaking films they’ve tackled in animated form. Their animated Pinocchio film came out over 80 years ago; I think it’s due for a remake. But the larger issue is that within the Disney sandbox, there’s only so much creativity that can stretch across a 100-minute film and if you want to make these films mean anything, you have to take more chances and do original things within this age-old fable. And I don’t mean just recklessly changing character designs à la the original 2020 Sonic the Hedgehog design — after all, Disney’s animated version is the most iconic version of Pinocchio — but it will forever puzzle me how Disney is able to take some risks with their original animated films and Pixar films but not their live-action remakes.
In 1990, we had two films about Henry Hill: Martin Scorsese’s iconic Goodfellas and a film you’ve likely never heard of and written by Nora Ephron, My Blue Heaven. In 2022, we have Zemeckis’ and del Toro’s takes on the tale of Pinocchio, and time will tell if Zemeckis’ adaptation ends up being the Goodfellas or My Blue Heaven. If you made me guess, I’d pick the latter.
A Disney+ Day premiere, Pinocchio will launch on September 8, 2022, exclusively on Disney+.