There have been more than a couple of versions of Pinocchio released in recent years. In fact, there have now been two in 2022 alone. The first was a typical Disney live action remake. Typical in that it takes a story they have done before, makes it slightly longer, and then goes for as close to the animated as possible in what purports to be live action. None of the examples of this type of approach has yet truly worked. In fact, all have been watchable, but none have really given a strong reason for existing beyond profitability. They are pale shadows of that we have already seen.
Guillermo del Toro grew up a fan of Disney’s original 1940 film, as well as Carlo Collodi’s book. As is unsurprising, given what we know of his interests, he has spoken of how he always saw a horror sensibility in the work, drawing parallels to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where both lead characters are, essentially, children thrown into a world they don’t understand, with no knowledge of good or bad or anything that makes a human… human. As such, he had in his mind a much darker take on the core story, his version of which borrows both from book and the prior Disney films.
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Rather than take place in a fairy tale world, del Toro has moved the story to Fascist Italy. In some versions of the story Geppetto is referenced obliquely as having lost a son. Here, we are shown that story. David Bradley’s Geppetto is father to Carlo (Gregory Mann). They are shown to have a wonderful relationship, sharing books and time together, as Carlo is shown to be a dutiful, obedient boy. As World War I breaks out, the ageing, single parent is working on restoration of a church, as Carlo comes to meet him at the end of the day.
As they go to leave, Carlo goes back into the church to retrieve a pinecone (he has been looking for the perfect cone for his father), just as a German bomb is dropped from the sky, hitting the church, and killing the boy. The cricket (Ewan McGregor) narrates all of this. Burying his son, Geppetto plants the pinecone by the grave, and spends the next twenty years developing a drinking disorder, and doing little in the way of work, while the pinecone grows into a sizable tree. This is a deeply emotional opening, evoking memories of Pixar’s Up, and presented in a gorgeously stylised stop-motion world.
On the verge of the second World War, and living under the rule of fascism and Benito Mussolini, an inebriated Geppetto cuts down the tree to make himself another son. Unlike the creepy undertones of the Disney remake, this is presented as nothing more than irrationality born of grief. From there we get the similar beats of the Fairy (Tilda Swinton) bringing Pinocchio to life, and the cricket acting as his conscience (having lived in the tree, he now lives inside Pinocchio). This version of the title character is a free spirit, and the film is far less about him becoming a ‘real boy’ than it is about him finding a way in the world that is right for him. As the characters are living under oppression, the setting is very much right for this theme.
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There are points of similarity and difference to previous takes. Instead of Honest John (as per the film) or the fox and the cat (as per the book) we have Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) as the shadowy figure trying to lure Pinocchio into a life of servitude on the stage. Where the film had the coachman and Pinocchio’s turning into a donkey, here we have Podesta (Ron Perlman), an officious local officer trying to force the boy into the military. All are changes that fit this version of the character and the story del Toro is telling. There are songs in this film, but too few for us to think of it as a musical – perhaps the one jarring decision, as full on, regular music, or no music at all would both have been better decisions.
In short though, del Toro has created a version based closely on the aesthetics imagined by the original author, managed to keep some of the elements of the Disney version that he so loves, and then built it into a work that both enchants and disturbs without ever being anything else than family friendly. Carlo and Pinocchio are voiced by the same actor, yet Carlo plays as warm, calm, and kind, whilst Pinocchio plays as a little irritating in truth. This, though, is not an issue, as it fits with the idea that he is not there to be controlled, he is there to learn who he is, and live as freely as he can. Were it not for the ubiquity in pop-culture of the 1940 version, this would, without doubt, stand as the definitive cinematic take on the character; as it has heart, soul, and a purpose behind all of its decisions. Magnificent.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is out now on Netflix.