Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on Fire!
It was always going to be a case of “when” when it came to Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. I will watch anything that del Toro does, and at the very least, I needed to keep my streak of seeing everything the man has written or directed alive. I also knew that this has been a passion project of del Toro for years, and if nothing else, that’s going to make it worth seeing.
On the surface, this version of Pinocchio would seem to be just another version of the story that everyone knows. That truth doesn’t go beyond the surface, though. This is a complete reimagining of the basic Pinocchio story. The basics are still the same—an old man carves a wooden puppet that, through some magical means, the puppet is granted life. Through a series of Cmisadventures, and guided in some respects by a cricket that acts as his conscience, the puppet learns life lessons on his way to becoming a real boy.
But that’s really where the similarities end. This version of Pinocchio starts not with Geppetto (David Bradley) building his puppet but with him and his son Carlo (Gregory Mann, who also voices Pinocchio ). Carlo is a happy and devoted son, but is killed in a random bombing during World War I. Geppetto is naturally despondent over this, and more or less gives up his life as a woodcarver, and spends his time drinking under a pine tree that he has planted on Carlo’s grave.
As I said above, much of the story here follows the broad strokes of the original tale. Pinocchio’s nose grows when he tells a lie, something that happens only a couple of times in the course of the film. He ditches school and joins a carnival. He and Geppetto are swallowed by a giant fish. But how we get to all of these places is going to be vastly different. It wouldn’t be del Toro if he didn’t have something more to say than just the story.
In this case, del Toro is going to tread the ground similar to that of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Both of those movies took place during the Spanish Civil War and used elements of that to help tell the story. Pinocchio doesn’t go there, but does take place in Italy during Mussolini’s reign. Fascism is going to be an element of this story as Pinocchio learns what it is to be a good and obedient boy.
A significant difference here is that Pinocchio is going to “die” several times in the course of the film. When he does, he discovers that, since he is not a real boy, he can’t really die. He’s taken to the other side by some skeletal rabbits (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) where he meets Death (Tilda Swinton, who also voices the fairy that gives Pinocchio life). He learns that each time he “dies,” he’ll have to spend longer in the afterlife before being sent back, and naturally this is going to come into play eventually.
Another significant difference is in the nature of our cricket. We don’t have Jiminy Cricket here, but Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), who is looking for a quiet place to write his memoirs. He just happens to choose a hole in the tree that becomes Pinocchio, leaving him essentially living in Pinocchio’s heart. When Pinocchio is granted life, Sebastian is told to look after him, and if he does a good enough job, he will be granted a wish by the fairy, so he naturally agrees, planning on using that wish to make himself famous with the publication of his book.
It's also worth noting that many of the events of the classic story are compressed here. Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) is the puppetmaster who takes Pinocchio away from his father. He’s a combination of the ringmaster and fox characters from the original movie. There’s no town for bad boys here nor a donkey transformation. Instead, Pinocchio is railroaded into an Italian camp to train boys how to be soldiers. It is here he eventually befriends Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), son of the camp leader (Ron Perlman). It’s also worth noting that Cate Blanchett begged to be in the film and was cast as Volpe’s monkey, the only role that was left uncast at that point.
I have to say I’m impressed all the way around. Yes, I’m prone to like del Toro’s work, but that is neither here nor there with this. The animation is spectacular—this is stop-motion animation, and there are times when it is easy to forget that. The look is beautiful, but rough. This is a real world that has been lived in. The people and things have rough edges, bags under their eyes, and wrinkles. Pinocchio himself isn’t smooth and polished, but rough and unfinished.
The music is also tremendous from start to finish. There are a few songs here, probably not quite enough to call this a musical, but enough to hearken back to the original Disney version of the film. I expect that at least one of them will be nominated come Oscar time.
This will almost certainly receive a pack of nominations in the upcoming months, and all of them will be deserved. I don’t know how many it will win—Oscar doesn’t love stop-motion that much—but if it doesn’t win a handful, a lot of people are going to be rightly upset about it. This is a smart movie, one that plays with the original story but shows it in a new way. It’s not completely new, but is new enough that there will be some surprises here, even for the most dedicated Pinocchio fan.
Why to watch Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: A very new look at a old story.
Why not to watch: This is something like the 24th version of Pinocchio since 1940.