This review was published in conjunction with the film’s premiere at the 2022 BFI London Film Festival. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio will be released on Netflix in December.
From the opening frames of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, you know this is a del Toro movie – and not just because of its possessive title. He’s a filmmaker with a visual signature as strong as Tim Burton or Wes Anderson, albeit one who hasn’t gotten that hard formally yet, yet has the ability to adapt and surprise. Of PinocchioDel Toro, like both directors, transitions to stop-motion animation, which allows him to preserve the texture of his live-action work while determining the look of each individual element in the frame.
But the film’s success is about more than looks. What’s surprising about it? Pinocchio is how personal it feels for del Toro, despite sharing the director’s credit with Mark Gustafson, despite the shoot overlapping with that of nightmare alley, despite the fact that the work of its creation is done by teams of craftsmen spread over three continents. This Netflix animated film might just be the most del Toro movie since The Labyrinth of Pan; it’s certainly one of the best since then, and just as distinctive as his English-language work.
what it is not is something like the timeless 1940 Walt Disney film, or its recent, lifeless remake, or one of Roberto Benigni’s two live-action Italian takes, or any of the dozens of other attempts at adapting Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book. Extraordinarily, it is the first to be done in stop motion, and thus the first in which Pinocchio, the wooden doll boy who comes to life, is played by a real doll. In addition, Del Toro (who co-wrote the script and lyrics for a handful of songs) takes some key passages and themes from Collodi, throws out even more than Disney did, and moves the story to the mid-20th century. century. He expands it to take many of his own main motifs, especially from the horrific fairy tales The Devil’s Backbone and The Labyrinth of Pan: Europe between the wars, the specter of fascism, the horror of childhood, the land of the dead and the meeting point of the monstrous, the human and the sublime.
In this narration, Geppetto, the humble woodcarver (David Bradley) has a beloved human son, Carlo, who dies during a bombing raid in World War I. Years later, he creates Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), not out of whimsy, but in a rather wild and terrifying fit of drunken sadness with more than a whiff of Frankenstein towards it. Pinocchio is hewn from a pine tree grown from a cone that Carlo had collected, and where Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a pompous insect storyteller, had settled. Cricket witnesses a sober, angelic Wood Sprite (played by Tilda Swinton, who else) who brings Pinocchio to life. But he still crawls back into his house in the wooden boy heart to live.
This Pinocchio is questioning, brash and impulsive – a far cry from the dutiful Carlo. Hours after coming to life, he spins around Geppetto’s workshop on a frenzied merry-go-round, jerking and spinning his spindly limbs, destroying everything he touches. It’s delicious and also a little threatening. Pinocchio is raw and unfinished, with nails and twigs still sticking out of him, clumsy movements and chaotic behavior. But unlike most of the narrators of this story, Del Toro has no interest in fixing these imperfections.
Pinocchio challenges every symbol and situation del Toro throws at him. “Why do people love him and not me?” he asks of a wooden Christ in the local church. Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), a greedy circus director, and the Podestà (Ron Perlman), a fascist official, both try to trick the gullible puppet into serving their interests. But where the wooden boy goes, anarchy tends to follow: in the presence of Il Duce himself, Mussolini, or in the belly of a gigantic, monstrous dogfish, or in a grave afterlife where rabbits with exposed rib cage play cards. .
There’s a lot going on here. It’s a messy, episodic schedule for a movie, and the filmmakers don’t hit every target they’re aiming for. This isn’t a children’s movie, though it sometimes has the mannerisms of one (and adventurous kids can get as much out of it as anyone else, if not more). In the later stages, elements of satire, parable, creature, dark fairytale and sweet sentimentality rub against each other, not always harmoniously. But many of his threads are pure pleasure, such as the rivalry between Pinocchio and Sprezzatura, Count Volpe’s monkey puppeteer. There’s more to this cunning, grotesque animal than meets the eye (and that’s before you realize his wordless screeches and moans were delivered by none other than an actor than Cate Blanchett).
Pinocchio is also a feast for the senses, even by del Toro’s voracious standards. There is a rich, melodic, romantic score by Alexandre Desplat (The shape of water). There is excellent vocals, especially from Bradley (the veteran Game of Thrones and Harry Potter character actor) as the irascible Geppetto, and of McGregor, who nails the biggest laugh lines and whose voiceover does so much to ferment and tie this sometimes awkward film together.
And there’s the animation, produced by ShadowMachine in studios in the US, UK and Mexico. It’s an incredible spectacle of a sort that CG and even hand-drawn animation can’t hope to achieve: rich, tactile, somehow intimate, even in the greatest moments. The dolls, as you would expect from the maker of The Labyrinth of Pan‘s Pale Man, are alternately creepy, creepy, grotesque, cute and sad creations, and always memorable. The screen is always saturated with light, color and detail, and the animators stage amazing action and scale combinations. But what sticks with you are the softest gestures: the way Geppetto drags his long, worn fingers across a blanket, or the way Pinocchio’s expression changes in the grain of wood around his eyes.
There is no doubt that this is, technically and artistically, one of the great works of stop motion, a tenuous and quixotic art form. Within his tenacious practical world of rubber and clay, paper and paint, connections and wires and levers, this is as ambitious an undertaking as Avatar. But del Toro’s greatest achievement is not to let all the artistry overwhelm the art. It is an unruly, wild and tender film that gets lost at times, but finds its way towards a very moving state of grace towards the end.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio debuts on Netflix on December 9 and in theaters in November.