This story about “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” first appeared in a special animation section in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
It should come as no surprise that Guillermo del Toro has made an animated film using the stop-motion technique. The real surprise should be that it took him until 2022 to make “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” because the filmmaker has been fascinated with the art form to the point where he started his own small stop-motion company as a teenager in Mexico City. Since then, he’s been making acclaimed films like “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Nightmare Alley” and the Oscar-winning “The Shape of Water,” all the while dreaming of doing his own animated feature.
And for many of those years, he also had a pretty good idea of what story he wanted to tell. “I saw (Disney’s) ‘Pinocchio’ as a very young kid, and I loved it because I found it captured how scary childhood felt to me,” he said. “But I didn’t quite understand why he needed to be an obedient boy to be loved. And then in my 20s, I started thinking that it would be great to set him against a totalitarian government. Those were sort of floaty ideas.”
The floaty ideas took firmer shape when he saw illustrator Gris Grimly’s version of the character and when he enlisted stop-motion veteran Mark Gustafson (“The Fantastic Mr. Fox”) to co-direct. By the second incarnation of the screenplay, del Toro had introduced a dialogue between Pinocchio and Death, something he felt tied the film to the trials of another young protagonist.
“I thought we needed something that was a threshold for Pinocchio — something that made him a real boy not physically but spiritually,” he said. “The main character in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ had tests that were not physical tests, but they changed her and measured her soul.”
Making the Netflix film, del Toro felt at ease with the language of stop-motion, but unfamiliar with scheduling a movie the size of “Pinocchio.” Gustafson set up a facility in Portland, Oregon, with the animation company ShadowMachine. And then COVID hit.
“The movie came to a stop for a moment, and then it exploded,” Gustafson said. “It went out into these artists’ homes all over the city — people kept working at home using their own tools, sculpting and painting and prop building.” Eventually, they got back onto the set under stringent pandemic regulations, finishing after del Toro said was more than 960 days of shooting.
“So many puppets,” Gustafson said. “So many sets.”
They worked to maintain the film’s tone — to sustain what del Toro called “the religious aspects, the life-and-death discussions, the father-and-son story, the anti-fascist elements.” They also told the animators to not just move the puppets, but to throw in little moments, tiny glances and reactions along the way.
“We wanted to watch characters process information and not just use broad gestures to sell an idea,” Gustafson said.
Del Toro added, “We kept saying, ‘We don’t want motion, we want emotion.’ Anybody can make the puppet go from here to there, but we want to know what the puppet is thinking.”
Often, it seemed, the puppets were thinking of death, a theme that hangs over “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” from the extended opening sequence, in which the woodcarver Geppetto raises a son and then loses him in an accidental bombing during World War I. Asked if it was important to begin the movie with the specter of death, del Toro immediately restates the question.
“It was always important to start with the specter of life,” he said. “It was important to say, ‘This is what we have when we’re here and what we lose if we don’t take advantage of it.’ The movie is composed almost in rhyming elements — we repeat the father-and-son stories, we open with a father who cannot encompass the loss of a son and end with a son who cannot encompass the loss of a father. That is a very careful composition that took many years in animation. And it was important to say, ‘Life is such a beautiful gift, and then what happens, happens. And then we’re done.’”