For all its longevity, the story of Pinocchio can be a tough sell. It basically exists to give children moral instruction on how to live their lives, and its most well-known trademarks revolve around the consequences of straying from that assigned path, from the body horrors of Pleasure Island to imprisonment by a greedy showbiz manager, the immediate consequences of telling a lie that is reflected on a body, and one of the character’s main function being that of a living, breathing conscience.
Disney rebooted its own version of Pinocchio in a film so soulless it could barely manage to make any kind of impression, but Guillermo del Toro has arrived with his version of the classic tale. And his filmography has long proved that even in the cases when he misses the mark, he can’t help but leave his own singular imprint. Even if the House of Mouse will inevitably be mentioned in the same breath in this case.
Like many versions of Pinocchio before his (including the company whose will remain unrepeated for now) del Toro sets the tale in Italy from whence it sprung, but his determination to keep the moral stakes high includes placing his characters in a quaint little town whose idyllic remove nevertheless isn’t enough to isolate it from the rising tide of fascism.
But there’s tragedy in the air long before that, with stop motion legend Mark Gustafson stepping in as co-director to lend an air of inescapable beauty to a tale we know must eventually become mired in darkness. During the first world war, model citizen and father Geppetto (David Bradley) loses his angelic 10-year-old son in an air raid, sparking years of drunken, pain-fueled rage.
It is in this spirit that he carves Pinocchio, with Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) as an aspiring writer and accidental participant, having taken up residence in the would-be puppet’s literal heart to write about his own life. When the blue Wood Sprite, an inscrutable, Sphinx-adjacent being with eyes that gaze from its wings – and owes more to medieval legends than any contemporary interpretation of kid-friendly, helpful fairies – brings Pinocchio to life, the insect becomes his caretaker because he spots an opportunity for himself. Later on, we will also become acquainted with the Sprite’s sister Death (both voiced by Tilda Swinton because who else), due to the titular character’s status as an immortal.
If the Cricket is hardly the picture of benevolence he’s typically portrayed as Geppetto has a few things to learn too. When Pinocchio comes to life, he has the ungainly awkwardness of a horror monster, and one of his first actions is to trash his new home. He’s all id, with such a voracious need for instant gratification that Geppetto can’t even accept him as his son at first, much less regard him with any kind of love.
When this makeshift family does bond, it’s more due to a common threat, from the local fascist official who wants to make use of Pinocchio’s indestructibility by moulding him into a perfect soldier alongside his son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), and the exploitative carnival owner Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz at his most diabolical since Inglourious Basterds) who sees in the living puppet a chance to make an easy fortune, gleefully putting on shows that act as tributes to Mussolini himself.
When the consequences to yourself and your family are so dire, a little moral growth is both a natural result and a necessity. As war looms, even a child immortal who will remain forever youthful and outlast both totalitarianism and his loved ones can’t help but awaken to the destruction around him, even if he’s kept apart from those he’s closest to for much of the story’s middle.
Del Toro spent over a decade trying to get Pinocchio made, and it almost seems worth it in a tale where each character feels so individually alive, where both creation and creator are so imperfect yet manage to find their way to loving each other, and being a real boy isn’t a goal as much as a series of choices. True to the bones of the original story, his growth is the result of a great deal of pain, death and sorrow.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is also a film families can watch together.”
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is also a film families can watch together. Much as a war correspondent’s camera can act as a shield from the cruelty of man’s inhumanity to man, childhood can be a salve, the kind that can transform a youth camp into a quasi-playground. Through the eyes of children, war games for child soldiers become actual games, as boys giggle and bond through their shared fear of the adults who are attempting to mould them to their own image.
It feels like the culmination of del Toro’s best work, both new and old, with some much-need comic relief thrown in, mostly via the running gag of Cricket being constantly crushed, which is funny every single time. For a cast of such distinctive talent, it’s amazing how much they seem to not just disappear, but become melded to their characters, boosted by a damn near perfect score by Alexandre Desplat.
The female characters ironically suffer from too much distinction though, with everyone of note more of an unearthly creature than human, and some plot threads being left as frustratingly unresolved as the 1940 version. This one stands a good chance of eclipsing it, or at least effortlessly and proudly holding its own, with its own distinct love of fairy tale magic and awareness of the unrelenting darkness that awaits us all, masterfully transforming it into a tribute to hope and love itself.
This Pinocchio recognizes that these aren’t opposing forces as the complementary other half of life’s coin.