Over the years there have been a number of adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book The Adventures of Pinocchio. First adapted in 1940 by Walt Disney Studios, there have been a number of takes, including two involving Roberto Benigni – the latest of which was released in 2019. Even in 2022 there are two versions releasing, with Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio due to hit Netflix in December.
For all of this, the Disney version remains the best known, and most highly-regarded, and it is from this version – much as with their remake of The Lion King – that Disney have returned with this new, live-action (if heavily CG-augmented) interpretation.
Tom Hanks stars as Geppetto, an elderly woodcarver, who focuses on making clocks and toys. Having made a marionette puppet he christens Pinocchio, he spots a star in the sky and decides to wish upon it that Pinocchio be a real boy. Brought to life by the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), Pinocchio is treated as a son by an overjoyed Geppetto.
In the 1940 version, the boy is interrupted the next day on his first trip to school by Honest John, a fox looking to sell him on a life in theatre – then selling him to puppet master Stromboli. In this version, father and son have some time together first, and once sent to school, Pinocchio is refused entry on the grounds of not being a real boy, before John (Keegan-Michael Key) catches up with him again and convinces him, over the protests of Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the small creature appointed as his conscience by the Fairy.
The rest of the story is as per the 1940 version, with some changes that have mixed results. The songs are much the same (though with ‘Give a Little Whistle’ omitted), though, as with the 2009 Jim Carrey-starring A Christmas Carol, a number of padding action sequences have been added that bear little relation to any other interpretation. The ending has been changed and, whilst not wanting to spoil it here, it is almost as though director Robert Zemeckis was concerned not to offend any wooden children who might be watching!
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So, enough of the changes, lets focus on a few positives. Voice work is excellent, with Benjamin Evan Ainsworth as Pinocchio sounding almost identical to Dick Jones in the original animation, and Goodfellas‘ Lorraine Bracco having a distinctive turn as Sofia, a seagull friend to Jiminy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does not have the same slightly elderly warmth of Cliff Edwards’ version, but his Southern gentleman take on it is a fine piece of work. The CG – at its best – is very good, with Honest John looking terrific, and augmented environments such as Pleasure Island looking lavish and imaginative. Foley work is outstanding, with such sound effects giving real presence to the title character.
However, once we take out credits the latest version of Pinocchio is only really about seven-or-so minutes longer than the cartoon, but it feels significantly more bloated than this. The new action sequences feel like padding, and the changes to the film’s third act are all to the detriment of the story. Geppetto has now been given the background of a deceased wife and child, making the whole motivation behind Pinocchio’s creation (he drops in dialogue that the puppet has been made to look as much like his son as possible) creepy. Hanks is miscast with his accent wandering all over Europe and North America, and with the slack pacing his omission from large parts of the film really does stand out.
When the CG works, it really works, when it does not, it is abysmal. The digital cat, Figaro, falls right into the uncanny valley, as animators seemed unsure whether to go with a realistic animal or an anthropomorphised version – and ended up doing some of both, and very badly at that. Pinocchio himself looks very much like his 1940 counterpart, but this leaves him looking a little out of place, as although he looks made of real-world materials, simultaneously, he looks animated.
This is a critique that can be levelled at much of Robert Zemeckis’ career in recent years. It must be remembered he directed the aforementioned Scrooge animation, and is still much remembered for The Polar Express, another Tom Hanks-starring animated movie full of dead soulless eyes and techniques that just do not quite work. This is no longer the same filmmaker who produced the virtually perfect Back to the Future, where every scene advanced plot or character (okay, except the Johnny B. Goode sequence) and effects were only employed where they passed muster.
In short, this is unlike previous Disney live action adaptations of their own animations in that it takes excessive liberties with plot points that worked perfectly well the first time, and it has a lead character with an iconic look that they have not sufficiently adapted to work in live action. This has to go down as a huge disappointment, as those with a nostalgia for the original keen to see a new take will likely dislike the changes – as they are, largely, nonsensical – while those not familiar with the IP will see a bloated (even if short) mess of inconsistent digital work and poor pacing. An enormous disappointment, given the talents involved.
Pinocchio is now streaming on Disney+.