This review originally ran Oct. 15, 2022, after the film’s world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” may have premiered hot on the wooden heels of Robert Zemeckis’s live-action/CGI remake of the 1940 Disney cartoon, but no one is likely to get the two muddled up.
Partly that’s because Zemeckis’ film was a depressing waste of time, whereas del Toro’s is a soulful stop-motion masterpiece. But it’s partly because, as the title suggests, the latest version is so unmistakably a del Toro passion project.
However much he has borrowed from Disney, as well as from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, his film (co-directed by Mark Gustafson) is obviously carved from the same pine tree as “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Shape Of Water”: a dark but sweet horror fantasy about death, grief, and a misunderstood monster being persecuted by authoritarian forces.
Just take the opening minutes. Like Zemeckis, del Toro runs with the idea (which isn’t in the novel) that Pinocchio is a replacement for Geppetto’s dead flesh-and-blood son. The difference is that del Toro’s film includes an idyllic sequence in which the happy carpenter and his 10-year-old boy relish life in their beautifully realized Tuscan mountain village during World War I — and then little Carlo (named after the novel’s author) is blown up by a bomb while he’s in a church, gazing up at a crucifix. That definitely didn’t happen in the Disney cartoon.
The reimagining of Pinocchio’s birth is almost as radical. By this time, it’s the 1930s, and the town’s walls are plastered with Mussolini posters. Geppetto (voiced with gruff warmth by David Bradley) is a grief-crazed drunk. One dark night, he nails together a crude, one-eared mannequin, while thunder crashes and lightning fills his workshop with Expressionist shadows. His creation is brought to life by a blue fairy (Tilda Swinton) with a tail, four wings, and blinking eyeballs all over her body except where eyeballs should be.
But Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) isn’t a bumbling lad in shorts and a bow tie. He’s a creaking, gangly scarecrow who trashes Geppetto’s cottage while the terrified old man howls, “You’re not my son!” The episode is a stunning combination of Frankenstein’s Monster and The Monkey’s Paw — and you can sort of understand why the villagers aren’t too pleased about the “abomination” that Geppetto has wrought.
This jaw-dropping opening section is followed by the standard “Pinocchio” plot, but every element has a del Toro twist. Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) is a pompous would-be author who keeps being splattered on the ground; Christoph Waltz at his slimiest voices a hard-up circus impresario, Count Volpe, an amalgam of the Fox and Mangiafuoco/Stromboli from other tellings of the story; Fox’s sidekick, Cat, has become a spiteful monkey voiced by Cate Blanchett. And then there are the ingredients which have no equivalents in the Disney cartoon, including several deaths and trips to the afterlife, and a fascist thug (Ron Perlman) of the kind that keeps cropping up in del Toro’s work.
It’s intense, creepy, often harrowing stuff, so you can see why del Toro has said in interviews that his “Pinocchio” isn’t a children’s film. But that doesn’t mean that brave children, and brave adults, won’t adore it. Del Toro and his co-writers, Patrick McHale (“Adventure Time”) and Matthew Robbins (“Crimson Peak”), balance the more hellish misadventures with chirpy humor, Alexandre Desplat’s songs are sprightly fun, and the Ray Harryhausen–worthy models have a folksy, old-world charm and a limber grace. Stop-motion movement has rarely, if ever, looked as natural.
But the key reason why the film is so enjoyable, despite all the trauma and despair, is that del Toro is so clearly on the side of his guileless central character. Once Pinocchio has stopped staggering around like a zombie, he becomes a lovably exuberant and generous hero, whose insistence on questioning the world’s conventions is both endearing and boldly satirical. (Why do the villagers sing hymns to a wooden Jesus, he asks, while despising a wooden puppet?)
Traditionally, “Pinocchio” is a fable about a disobedient boy who has to learn to be well-behaved. In this film, with its fascist backdrop, his disobedience is a virtue that has to be learned by everyone else. This rebellious spirit ensures that, for all of its seriousness, the film ends up as a life-affirming pleasure.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” opens in U.S. theaters in November before premiering globally Dec. 9 on Netflix.