There’s a beautiful complexity to Guillermo del Toro’s new version of Pinocchio that few other filmmakers could have reasonably pulled off. I think it’s because there isn’t one direct element of this latest adaptation that commands attention as being the thing that sets it apart from all the others. It isn’t just the high quality of the stop-motion animation. It isn’t just the superb voice cast. It isn’t just the ambition of the movie’s time setting. There are so many superlative points that all work in tandem to create a grand whole, which winds up serving as the overarching theme of the entire project. In an age where many parts of our world and culture are seen in rigid dichotomies, for good reasons and bad, this effort embraces the idiosyncrasies of an individual by ensuring that his existence is informed from as many angles as possible, and in doing so, creates one of the most unique films of the year despite its well-worn source material.
In a feat of directorial focus rarely seen these days, del Toro deftly blends moods and genres into the overall story without ever confusing its tone. At times the movie is an adventure, a musical, a treatise on grief and trauma, a comedy, a cautionary tale, and a deep exploration of empathy, all while delivering the dazzling macabre visuals that have made del Toro a beloved auteur for decades. But through it all, the central idea of a full life experience remains paramount, with del Toro steadfastly refusing to whiplash the viewer for the sake of the scene. Every moment of darkness is welcomed as a prelude to light, and each instance of levity is a primer for disaster, a reminder of the fleeting nature of our existence. Under different circumstances, I might be resentful of having to think so cerebrally about a Pinocchio movie, but damn if I wasn’t enchanted and entranced the whole way through. This is a Bong Joon-ho level of narrative discipline.
Set in the early 20th century, a good 30-40 years after Carlo Collodi’s original novel, this is a much more thoughtful take on the little wooden head than probably any film has ever tried. Rather than being a series of mischievous vignettes and morality mishaps for a living puppet, this Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) is one constantly trying to find the right way to go about things, eager for every opportunity to learn, and struggling to understand his place in the world.
Part of this is due to the nature of his birth, as Geppetto (an excellent vocal performance from David Bradley) was once a happy woodworker raising a son called Carlo (presumably named after the author), also voiced by Mann. However, when Carlo is tragically killed towards the end of the first World War, Geppetto spirals into despair for many years. After a pinecone grows into a tree at Carlo’s grave, a despondent, drunken Geppetto hacks it down and hastily carves the marionette, who is then brought to life by a sympathetic wood sprite (Tilda Swinton). As such, from the moment he’s brought into existence, Pinocchio is filled with the wonder of the world and the pressure of being a substitute. A cricket named Sebastian (Ewan McGregor, possibly risking his Star Wars future by appearing in this film rather than Disney’s redundant remake), who had taken up residence in Pinocchio’s tree to write his memoirs, is tasked with guiding him through his day-to-day life.
By this point, Italy itself is in the midst of a tumultuous transition, as fascism has taken hold. In place of artistic murals and signs of vitality around Geppetto’s town, there are now only images of Mussolini (Tom Kenny), and constant patrols from military officials, including a podestà voiced by Ron Perlman, who wishes to conscript Pinocchio into a youth army alongside his son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard).
This is an extremely bold choice, but it’s an ingenious way to illustrate the prevailing ideas at play here. This Pinocchio is not meant to be some easily led, well, puppet, but rather someone thrust into the middle of another life that was cut short. Because of this, he constantly has to sort out the motivations of everyone around him and the implications of their actions, even though he can barely comprehend. This in turn puts a spotlight on him as he processes things through the lens of love and empathy, because that’s all he knows.
Setting the film in the period between wars is an excellent way of furthering this artistic and thematic line, because Pinocchio gets to see the nuances of the world first-hand, figuratively caught in the middle of everyone’s personal turmoil while literally caught in the middle of the calm between two historical storms. His father is taken aback by his creation, but still faces the dilemma of wanting to love him without feeling like he’s replacing Carlo. The local church chastises Geppetto for not repairing a crucifix that was damaged when Carlo was killed, revealing a more performative aspect of religious institutions, especially when the priest (Burn Gorman) declares Pinocchio to be a demon rather than a miracle. The podestà represents order while at the same time grooming his own son to die for his leader, making Candlewick just as much of a puppet as the literal piece of wood trying to befriend him.
And this is before we even get to the circus master, Count Volpe, voiced by Christoph Waltz. Once an aristocratic ringmaster, he is now nearly destitute, and sees Pinocchio as his ticket back to the top, both through the novelty of a stringless marionette and his own usurious business practices. He’s accompanied by a monkey called Spazzatura, voiced by Cate Blanchett, but only when the monkey is operating other puppets. Essentially, he throws his voice so that he can alternately confide in Pinocchio and reveal his own jealousy.
In just about every case, Pinocchio, created to bring happiness back to a broken man, becomes the instrument for everyone’s possible redemption. Geppetto can be a father again. The podestà thinks he’s found the perfect soldier. Volpe hopes to gain Il Duce’s favor and return to the upper echelons of society. Meanwhile, Pinocchio himself is just a boy, seeing life for the first time. It’s equal parts inspiring and tragic how easily everyone projects their insecurities onto a literal blank slate of a child.
This is because, in yet another near-perfect creative decision, Pinocchio’s design is that of a walking, talking, work in progress. In the depths of his devastated stupor, Geppetto builds his wooden son in a very slapdash manner. A twig sticks out of his “hair,” which is intentionally disheveled in the form of peeled bark from the sawed off head that’s flat in the back and rounded in the front. He only has one ear. When his original feet burn off in the fireplace, the replacements are simply tied on to the charred stumps, ensuring that he has almost no balance to carry his rather flimsy frame. Sebastian, having found lodging in a fully grown tree, now lives inside Pinocchio’s hollow torso, accessible from a hole where a human’s heart would normally be. He’s ill-formed, which in itself stands as a constant visual metaphor, as Pinocchio’s approach to everything comes with a curiosity and confusion that provides the crucial nuance as he goes forward. In one of the film’s best moments, even his iconic nose becomes an unexpected grey area, as his ability to come up with useful lies aids in his salvation rather than sabotaging it, a shocking yet effective lesson for young viewers that even dishonesty can be used for a greater good if it’s done for the right reasons.
All of these seemingly disparate elements come together to form what could become a new standard of quality for telling this story. And then for good measure we get to add in some really fun bits, like Alexandre Desplat’s playful score, original songs that rival those of Disney’s 1940 original animated film, and the extremely delightful use of stop-motion, which is oddly appropriate considering that Pinocchio begins life as an inanimate object. It’s also worth mentioning that just when you think the proceedings might get a little too heavy for kids, there are both lighthearted jokes (cricket-based slapstick and a song about Mussolini shitting) and cleverly dark ones (death rabbits playing poker) to ease the tension, including a sneakily profound runner about the importance of mortality that adults will appreciate while the children giggle at the silliness going around it.
Like all Pinocchio stories, at its very core this is a tale about life. Most versions tackle it from the perspective of the wooden boy chasing it in his attempts to become real. Guillermo del Toro, on the other hand, offers a rich, lyrical journey about what it truly means to be alive, with all the joy, sorrow, love, and loss that comes with it. For him, it’s about showing the puppet all sides of life, and giving him the choice of whether or not to accept it, to sacrifice for it, and to appreciate the experiences of others in that grand pursuit. In short, this Pinocchio isn’t about trying to become a real boy, but learning what it’s like to be a real person. And that makes this one of the year’s best.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What other takes would you like to see on classic tales? Can we get someone to make a poo song about some current world leaders? Let me know!