Walt Disney teams with Robert Zemeckis in the latest iteration of Pinocchio, the classic children’s tale taken from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Italian book “The Adventures of Pinocchio”. More directly, it’s based on Disney’s 1940 animated feature film and follows their recent string of live-action adaptations that has included “Dumbo”, “The Lion King”, and “Aladdin”. (“The Little Mermaid” is next in line).
You could say Disney overplayed their hand, dropping four of these live-action adaptations in 2019 alone. Mixed box office results led to “Lady and the Tramp” and now “Pinocchio” skipping theaters altogether and going straight to their Disney+ streaming platform. It’s a shame because “Pinocchio” is a visual delight which would have sparkled on the big screen. And while many of us have seen and heard this story countless times, Zemeckis offers a heart-filled, semi-fresh, and reasonably sanitized take that maintains the charm of the original.
In a small Italian village, a woodcarver and clock-maker named Geppetto (an unsurprisingly great Tom Hanks) runs a quaint little shop along the town square. He enjoys spending his time with his computer-animated kitty Figaro and goldfish Cleo, making toys out of blocks of wood and building cuckoo clocks that he can’t bring himself to sell. Yet deep down, the kindly Geppetto’s heart is heavy as he still mourns the recent loss of his young son.
In what seems like an act of therapy, Geppetto builds a marionette boy made out of pine wood who he (of course) names Pinocchio. After an especially tender wish upon a star, Geppetto retires for the night. As he sleeps, The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) grants Geppetto’s wish and brings Pinocchio to life, telling him that if he proves himself to be brave, truthful, and unselfish, he’ll become a real little boy. The fairy appoints Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a lost soul and the movie’s infrequent narrator, to be Pinocchio‘s temporary conscience which proves to be a tougher job than he bargained for.
Voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, the sweet and playful Pinocchio fills Geppetto with a happiness he hasn’t felt in while. But that joy is interrupted after Geppetto sends his wooden boy off to school. And so begins a day-long storybook adventure that sees Pinocchio being duped by a conniving Fox named Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), sold to a cruel and abusive puppeteer Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), picked up by the mysterious Coachman (Luke Evans), and whisked away to Pleasure Island, an extravagant theme park for deliquent children that turns out to be something shockingly more sinister. Meanwhile, along with Figaro and Cleo, a worried Geppetto sets out to find his lost boy.
Thankfully, Zemeckis (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Chris Weitz) has more to offer than a simple rehash of the 1940 film. It’s certainly not as audacious as Netflix’s “Pinocchio”, the stop-motion passion project from Guillermo del Toro due out later this year. And you can see where it takes a few shortcuts in its storytelling. But Zemeckis captures the sweetness and pathos of the original while also wonderfully mixing computer animation with live-action to give the classic story a zesty new coat of paint.
It also doesn’t hurt to have Tom Hanks onboard. He and Zemeckis have previously worked together on “Forrest Gump”, “Cast Away”, and “The Polar Express”. Here Hanks falls into the role of Geppetto, bringing gentleness, sincerity, and a palpable sorrow. We also get good performances from Erivo, Evans, and Battiston. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a little shaky as Jiminy Cricket, but most of the voice-work, particularly from Ainsworth, is solid.
While it may not fully sell itself as necessary, “Pinocchio” has enough flavor of its own to stand on its own. There are some gorgeous visuals to go along with the heartfelt storytelling, and we get yet another fine performance from Tom Hanks who (unlike in “Elvis”) embodies every facet of his character. Mileage may vary depending on how ready you are for yet another “Pinocchio” adaptation. Personally, I wasn’t looking one. Yet I left Zemeckis’ film with a pretty big smile on my face. “Pinocchio” premieres this today (September 8th) on Disney+.