The name Pinocchio will always be synonymous with the 1940’s Disney animation – the second feature length film from the studio, after 1937’s Snow White. It is worth remembering, then, that the character and story originated in the 1883 book The Adventures of Pinocchio by Italian author Carlo Collodi, and has been subject to well over a dozen adaptations across TV, cinema and radio, with a stop-motion version, created by Guillermo del Toro, due in 2021.
Roberto Benigni, best known for 1997’s Oscar-winning Life is Beautiful, had already starred as the titular character in a 2002 adaptation – a film noted for the rare distinction of having 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Seeing his name attached here did lead to the momentary thought that this might be a re-release of that infamous version: something that would have – as could be evidenced by a quick Google image search – its own perverse pleasures.
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In the event Benigni is cast here as Geppetto, creator of Pinocchio (played by Federico Ielapi), in a 2019 adaptation from director Matteo Garrone. The basic beats of the story are, broadly, faithful to the original book, and are a reminder of how well Disney took the essence of that work and distilled it into a mere 88 minutes. At 125 minutes, we get a little more room to breathe here. Where the animation begins with Geppetto (bizarrely with an Austrian accent in that film) completing Pinocchio, before the puppet is brought to life overnight by the Blue Fairy; here we are introduced to him as a struggling craftsman, offering to fix everything wooden he encounters, with amusing results.
Seeing a puppet theatre in the village, he visits a friend to beg for some wood, in order that he can make his own creation and tour the country to earn a living from it. Having been frightened by a living, moving log of wood before Geppetto arrives this friend – Mister Cherry (Paolo Graziosi) – offers the wood to the unsuspecting carpenter. As he crafts his puppet – which he names Pinocchio – he notices that it is sentient, and decides to take him as his son.
From there we are taken through some beats missing from the Disney version, but present in the original novel: Pinocchio running outside, a talking cricket (represented somewhat by Jiminy Cricket, but here a bizarrely made-up boy) at which Pinocchio throws a hammer, and the puppet falling asleep and burning his feet. The general beats of temptation, with his joining the puppet theatre instead of attending school, the kidnapping, and the fox and the cat leading him astray are all represented in both the book and the famous animation.
In short, the first half of the film feels baggy. Pinocchio gets into capers that feel disjointed and give a sense that we are going nowhere. It is jarring – somewhat like watching a low-budget version of Cats – to see animals represented by humans in suits that range from vaguely indicating the animal, to fully anthropomorphised representations. For every well-designed ape, there is an animal that looks something like Mike Myers in The Cat in the Hat. This is somewhat offset by a wonderfully designed lead character. Utilising nothing but prosthetics, Pinocchio is convincing as a sentient puppet, with costume design striking, and not evoking its famous forebear.
The second half of the film comes into its own, as its playful, caper-like nature gives way to something darker, yet more poignant. As Pinocchio sees the Blue Fairy – a child when he first encounter her – reach adult form, he learns that he can never grow and change; he will live and die as a puppet child, unless he can prove himself worthy of adult form. Unlike the cartoon, Pinocchio is told that he about to be granted human form right before his final temptation.
That final temptation – leading to equine transformation – leads to a genuinely harrowing series of sequences, where the terrified boys turn into donkeys (sort of a PG-13 An American Werewolf in London), then humiliation ensues, as Pinocchio is forced into circus work – something glossed past in the 1940 film – leading eventually to injury and abandonment, before redemption and the original story’s happy ending.
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The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Nicolaj Brüel, and the score by Dario Marianelli – best known here for his collaborations with Joe Wright – is varied and lush, with a good mix of strings, piano and flute. Performances are strong, and despite some pacing and make-up issues, it is film that engages fully.
Served by a barebones release – and DVD only, not even a Blu -ray – there is a choice of Italian or dubbed English tracks, both in either stereo or 5.1. It must be said that the English dub is horrible. Engaging a fully Italian voice cast, in order to best maintain the spirit of the original language, performances are hammy, generally shouted, and the voice actor portraying Pinocchio really grates on the ears. The subtitle track does not reflect the words spoken either, suggesting some liberties have been taken with the translation.
A ‘so what?’ release in itself, the 2019 adaptation of Pinocchio is certainly worth a watch, however. For anyone with children, though, you mights want to stick with Disney.
Pinocchio is out on Digital on 7th December and DVD on 14th December from Vertigo Releasing.