Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
Guillermo del Toro makes movies that are consistently full of the wonder of filmmaking. Whether he is working in fantasy (The Shape of Water), noir (Nightmare Alley) or monster fighting (Pacific Rim), his joy of creation is always on display. This is definitely a man who was born to direct. That makes everything he attaches his name to exciting to watch, regardless of how successful the final product turns out to be (his batting average is pretty good). His latest effort, a stop-motion animated adaptation of Pinocchio (now streaming on Netflix), comfortably fits into the top half of his filmography.
His first foray into animation is just as beautiful, creative and odd as you would expect. While he uses the medium for incredible images, some funny, some haunting, he also takes the time to tell a lovely, moving story about fathers and sons, as well as what it means to be true to oneself. Though thematically darker than the famous Disney version, it is an inspiring family adventure that del Toro has certainly made his own. Since they are both loosely based on the same source material (the 1883 Carlo Collodi novel The Adventures of Pinocchio), several of the story beats and the general character arc will be familiar. Yet it is very clear that this is del Toro’s vision.
The story begins by establishing its themes. It takes place in 1900s Italy, sometime during the fascist reign of Benito Mussolini. Geppetto is a woodcarver who dotes on his beloved son, Carlo. When Carlo is tragically killed, Geppetto gets desperate and drunkenly carves a new son. Feeling pity for him, the Wood Sprite gives the puppet life, names him Pinocchio and entrusts a wandering cricket named Sebastian with being his guide. Geppetto is startled at first, then decides to raise this wooden boy as his son and protect him from the outside horrors that took Carlo so young.
Of course, Pinocchio is irresponsible, ignoring Geppetto’s instructions and Sebastian’s warnings and getting himself into trouble. Everyone Pinocchio comes across wants to use him for their own gain. Geppetto wants his son back, carnival owner Count Volpe wants a star attraction and the town’s Podesta sees the potential for a deadly soldier (early on it is revealed that Pinocchio cannot die). Like in all versions of this story, the world can be a harsh place. What helps him survive is love, kindness and honesty.
Stop-motion animation has an unreal quality to it that can be distractingly grotesque if done wrong. del Toro and his co-director, Mark Gustafson, use the format for its beauty and offbeat fairy-tale creepiness. The wooden title character is sort of cute, yet the fact that he looks/moves like a wooden puppet makes it easier to understand the way he is treated. The magical creatures, such as the Wood Sprite and her sister, have a captivating otherworldliness to them. Then there is the giant fish, which looks suitably monstrous. The animation is always fitting and occasionally breathtaking.
The screenplay, by del Toro and Patrick McHale, isn’t quite its match. The middle portion sags a bit and the songs are fine for advancing the plot, but largely feel disappointingly unnecessary. However, the things that work more than make up for that. Besides the animation, the emotions are very strong, the ending is surprisingly touching and the voice cast is excellent (Ewen McGregor and Christoph Waltz are the standouts as Sebastian and Count Volpe, respectively).
It is a decidedly different take on the material, leaning into the father/son dynamic (with echoes of Frankenstein) and how it can be corrupted by things like money and war. There is so much to marvel at here that the flaws can be excused. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a worthy addition to this wonderful director’s cannon.
3¾ out of 5
Gregory Mann as Pinocchio
Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket
David Bradley as Geppetto
Cristoph Waltz as Count Volpe
Cate Blanchett as Spazzatura
Tilda Swinton as Wood Sprite
Ron Perlman as Podesta
Finn Wolfhard as Candlewick
Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale