I’ve always loved the story of Pinocchio. But since becoming a father, it has taken on a much different meaning. These days it resonates with me on a much deeper level than before. Earlier this year, Richard Zemeckis revisited “Pinocchio” through his well-made (and fashionably throttled) live-action remake of Disney’s 1940 animated classic. But leave it to filmmaking visionary Guillermo del Toro to truly energize this beloved story by shaking it up visually, narratively, and in some cases thematically. What we get is something truly special.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is brimming with heart and features its creator’s signature on nearly every frame. Del Toro, along with his co-director Mark Gustafson and his co-writer Patrick McHale, retell the 1883 Carlo Collodi fairytale with unshakable passion. Nothing about their film feels rehashed or half-hearted. In fact, it has a fresh energy all its own while still maintaining the emotional weight that made Collodi’s tale so impactful. It’s an incredible achievement from its exquisite stop-motion animation to its thoroughly affecting storytelling.
The story is set in 1930’s Italy where fascism was widespread, even reaching the small hillside hometown of a woodcarver name Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley). In a moving flashback we see the love Geppetto had for his beloved son Carlo. But when a passing warplane mistakenly dropped a bomb on their quiet little village, young Carlo was killed. Geppetto was devastated. As years passed, the world moved on but Geppetto did not. Overwhelmed with sorrow, he sank deeper into despair and the bottle.
During a particular difficult day and in a fit of mournful anger, a drunken Geppetto haphazardly builds a wooden boy out of pine. Being a product of his creator’s grief, the boy looks nothing like the cute, polished, toy-like creation from the Disney films. He has lanky, out of proportion limbs. His gnarly head is highlighted by a sharp spiked nose. He’s held together by jagged nails which protrude from his body. It’s an abrasive sight but a fitting representation of Geppetto’s frame of mind.
You probably know where the story goes next. While Geppetto sleeps it off, a glowing benevolent Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) appears. She brings the wooden boy to life and names him Pinocchio (who’s wonderfully voiced by the earnest and lively Gregory Mann). The newly animated lad turns out to be a ball of endless curiosity and rambunctious energy which rattles a stunned, confounded Geppetto.
Pinocchio also catches the attention and sparks the concerns of the once amiable townsfolk who are now quick to criticize and judge their neighbor and his peculiar and very much alive wooden handiwork. Among them is the hypocritical (and slyly funny) local priest (Burn Gorman) and the town magistrate Podestà (Ron Perlman), a Mussolini fascist preparing to ship his son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) and other area kids off to military youth camp.
Observing it all is Sebastian J. Cricket, voiced with a near regal sophistication and charm by Ewan McGregor. Sebastian took up residence in a hollow tree trunk where he was preparing to write his memoirs. Unfortunately for him, he chose the very tree the drunken Geppetto chopped down to build his wooden boy. Now Sebastian has been tasked by the Wood Sprite with watching over Pinocchio. If he does so, he will be granted one wish – anything his heart desires. Through McGregor, Sebastian makes for a memorable sidekick, and he has a couple of great running gags that earn laughs every time.
Adding another dramatic layer is Count Volpe (a slithery Christoph Waltz), an interesting fusion of the classic characters Mangiafuoco, the Fox, and the Cat. Volpe is a down on his luck and shamelessly unscrupulous puppet-master working for a ramshackle traveling carnival. He too gets wind of the wooden boy without strings and sees him as his golden goose. We’re also treated to the voices of John Turturro, Time Blake Nelson, and Cate Blanchett (sorta) along the way.
Regardless of how familiar things may seem, nothing about the movie feels old hat. Del Toro brings something unique to the table at every turn. He adds his own spins to the story, his own twists to the characters, and his own imagination to the world-building. You can’t miss his deep reverence for the source material, yet he never seems shackled to it or handcuffed by expectations.
Guillermo del Toro has called “Pinocchio” his passion project, and after seeing it you can tell. He has poured his heart and soul into this beautiful vibrant experience, sticking firm to his original stop-motion vision despite the rejections of unwilling studios. It’s enchanting and heartfelt but also darkly funny and with a touch of the macabre. It’s voiced to perfection, immaculately scored by Alexandre Desplat, and animated with painstaking detail and incredible artistry. And it all flows from del Toro, who has turned this age-old tale into something undeniably his own. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” hits Netflix December 9th.