In the realm of fairy tales, there’s a phenomenon called Disneyfication. It’s just what it sounds like; the public perception of a fairy tale or folk story becomes attached to the Disney film adaptation to the point that the Disney version is believed to be the definitive telling. For instance, most people know Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid, but fewer know the much sadder and darker version that was Hans Christian Andersen’s original. This is compounded by Disney’s unrelenting addiction to remaking their own movies. Such is the case with the story of Pinocchio, which has had two major adaptations this year. The first is Disney’s live-action retelling of its animated film, while the other is the far superior and far more honest (at least in spirit) Pinocchio with Guillermo del Toro’s name attached.
In this version, set in Italy in the 1930s, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) is a wooden boy carved by the grieving Geppetto (David Bradley), made from a tree that grew near the grave of Geppetto’s son Carlo. The boy is brought to life by the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), who charges Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) with being Pinocchio’s conscience. However, the innocent Pinocchio ends up being exploited by Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) as a carnival attraction and sought after by the town’s podestà (Ron Perlman) who wants to turn the boy into a soldier.
If some of that sounds unfamiliar to you, that’s very likely due to the Disneyfication of Pinocchio’s story mixed with del Toro’s own specific take on the material. (Although Disney’s original animated film also took significant liberties with the original novel.) Del Toro’s version leans harder into the horror aspects of Pinocchio’s tale, especially in regards to his origins, in a way that’s uniquely his own. While Disney’s animated film had its moments of terror, they seem blunted compared to what del Toro offers up.
A perfect example is in the scenes of Pinocchio’s creation. Here, Geppetto creates the boy out of grief and rage while drunkenly mourning Carlo’s death. While Alexandre Desplat’s score suggests the strings of the opening theme from Psycho, Geppetto angrily hacks down the tree over Carlo’s grave. The camera focuses not on Geppetto himself but his shadow, with the construction framed as if he was building Frankenstein’s monster. The next morning, Pinocchio — who looks only vaguely human and flips and crawls on spindly legs like a J-horror ghost — ends up terrifying Geppetto, who initially reacts by locking the boy in a closet.
This sequence is enhanced by the remarkably tactile textures of the film’s stop-motion animation which gives everything a much needed foundation of slightly fantastical realism. While magical things happen in the film, it all seems very down-to-earth thanks to the animation’s style. While character proportions might be cartoonish and the settings exaggerated, it never feels unrealistic, making it extremely easy to get drawn into the film’s story and idiosyncratic energy.
Del Toro, who co-directed with Mark Gustafson and co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick McHale, offers up a Pinoccho that is both emotional and dramatic, a mix of fantasy and horror that never feels incongruous. The naivete of Pinocchio himself is staged against the backdrop of fascism, anchoring the story and staying true to its message even if it seems on paper that it shouldn’t work. Here, there is no Pleasure Island where kids turn into donkeys. Instead, we have a training camp for fascist youth that turns innocent boys into murderous soldiers. It’s a very different loss of humanity, and one that is frankly much more challenging, even confrontational.
The film also takes a much different approach to the idea of Pinocchio’s wish to be a real boy. Here, it isn’t having flesh and blood that makes someone real but their actions and outlook. How do they treat their loved ones? How do they honor the life they’ve been given? It isn’t Pinocchio obeying the rules and “being good” that helps him become real but an embracing of himself, his uniqueness, and a harmonious place in the emotional ecosystem. His soul isn’t conditional on following the rules. Indeed, the rules in this setting are often oppressive and destructive. Here, humanity is an intangible concept that must be discovered and isn’t granted or inherited.
A lot of the appeal of Pinocchio himself lies in Gregory Mann’s voice work. Mann’s portrayal of Pinocchio is vibrant and sweet while never being saccharine or cloying. Mann rarely goes to emotional extremes, instead giving his performance subtleties and delicate shading that belies his young age. Pinocchio’s appearance can be off-putting, even creepy; he looks like a log with limbs much more than he looks like a human boy. But Mann’s voice work transforms this into a distinctive kind of magnetism, giving the wooden boy a tremendous amount of heart and soul.
The rest of the cast is remarkably well chosen, each actor easily fitting into their roles. David Bradley’s Geppetto is gruff but warm, reflecting how his spirit is damaged but also how he holds hope for the future. Ewan McGregor’s Cricket is easily the most energetic and comedic performance, while Tilda Swinton’s dual role as the Wood Sprite and the spirit of Death is ideally suited to the soothing but shadowy timbre of her voice. Christoph Waltz is a perfect villain here, as is Ron Perlman, each one embodying different threats to Pinocchio’s quest to discover what humanity means.
There are a few things that occasionally weigh the movie down, however. While making it a musical isn’t inherently a bad idea, and Alexandre Desplat’s music is exquisite, the lyrics sometimes stumble, especially in the more upbeat numbers. The songs are also oddly spread out, and it occasionally threatens to hamper the film’s pacing. None of them last very long, though, so it’s a temporary bit of narrative instability. However, they do also contribute to the feeling that the film is about 15 minutes too long, and the third act especially feels overdone, something not helped by an extreme tonal shift that injects a sudden dose of extra darkness and drama.
There’s also a curious amount of Abrahamic religious symbolism and allegory in the story that usually works but can hit the brain a bit oddly. The Wood Sprite’s design is highly suggestive of the biblical description of seraphim, and Volpe convinces Pinocchio to join his carnival in a scene that seems very much indebted to the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. It’s something that’s never fully explored or made completely explicit, which makes it something of an oddity, but it does end up helping to establish the film in our own reality in a subconscious kind of way through its use of communal symbology.
When you examine the narrative completely on its own, del Toro’s Pinocchio isn’t necessarily any more or less faithful to the original novel than Disney’s versions are. However, del Toro’s version hews much closer to the spirit of the original while also forging its own identity and message. By mixing a specific kind of magical realism with a very recognizable historical backdrop, del Toro gives his Pinocchio a kind of immediacy that’s as attractive as it is subtly terrifying. It helps to solidify Pinocchio’s story in a way that helps drive home the film’s thesis and causes the audience itself to question our own idea of what it means to be real.
FBOTU Score: 8 out of 10 / B