Review: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ (the boy with the borrowed soul)

Cricket lodge, sideshow star, and fascist fighter.

Known for dark fairy tale fare like The Shape of Water and Hellboy, writer/director/producer Guillermo del Toro takes on a classic: the little wooden boy who came to life. Besides the best-known Disney animated feature, there have been numerous other takes, including a Disney+ live-action remake of its own film staring Tom Hanks as Geppetto. Along with co-director Mark Gustafson and gathering a world-class team of designers, creators, and animators, del Toro shoots for the moon with another story about children during war ala Pan’s Labyrinth. With so many moving parts and significant departures from the known fable, how does this Pinocchio tale stack up?

Toward the end of The Great War during the rise of Mussolini in a Fascist Italy, a needless tragedy takes the life of a young boy, the only son of woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley). After mourning for longer than he could remember, Geppetto cuts down a tree he’d planted and fashions a wooden puppet in the image of his lost son before succumbing to his drink. Hidden in a knothole of the aforementioned tree, a lone cricket (Ewan McGregor) is still reeling from his home being struck down… just before a tree sprite (Tilda Swinton) appears having heard Geppetto’s lament. The sprite breaks a sacred rule, instilling the puppet with a life and a soul, tasking Cricket to guide the artificial child in his new life. When Geppetto awakens the next morning, he is greeted by his own enchanted creation: Pinocchio (Gregory Mann).

Like his predecessors, Pinocchio is an innocent, new to life and imparted intelligence without experience. He does as he pleases, lacking the empathy of his actions toward others but equally unconditioned to blindly obey. It’s this factor that del Toro champions during a fascist time, but the idea is hampered because the resistance is incidental: Pinocchio isn’t fighting fascism so much as living his best life consequence-free thanks to his unique circumstances. Instead of a complete departure from the source material, the script makes small departures before swerving back onto a familiar track, as if no one would recognize the story without those bullet points. The fascist setting ultimately distracts from the life lesson being taught to the title character since it has little bearing other than a reason Geppetto lost his only son. Surprise: war sucks.

While the reinterpreted story elements are a bit out there in addition to making it a musical, one can’t deny the heart and soul that went into the production. With character designs credited to a 2002 book illustrated by artist Gris Grimly and supervised by Laika Studio alumni Georgina Hayns, del Toro aimed for nothing less than pushing the boundaries of stop-motion animation. Standouts include Christoph Waltz as carnival owner Count Volpe and Cate Blanchett as — this is true — Spazzatura the monkey. Tilda Swinton voices both the wood sprite and of course Death herself… because what del Toro production would be complete without another interpretation of Death?

The best thing this new Pinocchio will hopefully do is renew interest in the stop-motion medium, from Coraline to Paranorman and all the other overlooked Laika Studios productions still carrying the torch for this form of storytelling. It’s on Netflix as of this writing, so check it out. Still, one can’t help but wonder what kind alternative history could happen if Pinocchio later joined the Inglourious Basterds.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is rated PG for dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor, brief smoking, and holy crap, when did the whale become a kaiju?!

Three skull recommendation out of four

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