As you might expect from the billing, At Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival today – is a very different beast from the 1940 Disney animation, and equally cavalier with the picaresque elements of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel. three is that the main character – a wooden puppet blessed with life – yearns to be a real human boy, but it’s not a spoiler to reveal that del Toro, champion of monsters and misfits, doesn’t see the call that.
Instead, this sophisticated animated fantasy – co-directed by Mark Gustafson, made in collaboration with The Jim Henson Company and pushing the art of stop-motion to a whole new artistic level – takes a macabre approach that even Collodi might have found a little too much. . The result is a very grown-up children’s film that’s not suitable for the very young (it’s rated 12 on Netflix) and has little to offer little girls with its constant affirmation of the unabashedly sentimental father. -son relationship that anchors it.
It begins with this very subject, sketching in the backstory of Gepetto (David Bradley), a carpenter and “model Italian citizen” whose masterpiece – a crucified Christ commissioned by the local priest – is left unfinished after his young son Carlo was killed in church by a bomb explosion in 1916.
Years pass and Gepetto, having become an unfortunate drunk, decides to drop a surrogate son from a piece of pine. This totally unexpected origin scene is perhaps the film’s most intriguing idea, shot with James Whale’s 1930s gothic flavor. Frankenstein movies. Gepetto is a master craftsman, but Pinocchio is a rush job with nails sticking out of his back, and while the old man sleeps the spirits of the forest visit and give his work the gift of life.
It’s all narrated by Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a talking insect who spends most of the film imparting wisdom, getting run over (repeatedly), and, after making a deal with a wooden leprechaun (one of only two female characters, both voiced by Tilda Swinton), trying to keep Pinocchio on the straight and narrow. From the start, however, Pinocchio is unruly and mischievous (“But I won’t obey,” he shouts), and on the first day of school he runs off to join a circus run by Count Volpe. After Gepetto comes to save him, Pinocchio is seemingly killed in a traffic accident – only to find, in an afterlife ruled by skeletal bunnies and overseen by an eyeless blue griffin who symbolizes death, that he can never really die and will keep coming back for eternity.
So far it’s not a million miles from the sourcebook, but by shifting the frame to Mussolini’s reign, del Toro is making his boldest and perhaps weakest bet, forcing a connection to The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth it doesn’t feel particularly organic. Back at the circus, Pinocchio – “The Stringless Wonder” – is forced to perform for Il Duce, inexplicably singing a song about poo which understandably raises the dictator’s hairs. But then, the puppet’s immortality was duly noted by a sinister local fascist who believes Pinocchio can be groomed to become the ultimate fighting machine. Gepetto and Sebastian go in search of it, and the three are reunited in the belly of a monster fish – just in time for the emotional finale.
Throughout, the script juggled a slew of morals, mostly along the lines of, “In this world, you get what you give.” But in the final round, del Toro decides to go much, much darker, and as soon as Death notes that “you never know how long you have with someone until they’re gone”, he is clear where things are heading (like the end of Quiet operation before that, del Toro’s movie might leave parents with some explaining to do).
Despite all his heartfelt homilies, however, Pinocchio is an eerily still experience, and the intermittent musical numbers are nowhere near as memorable as the animation. Fans of del Toro’s bright, effortless visual style won’t be disappointed, but like last year alley of nightmares there may be too much surface detail and flourishes when what it really needs is a bit more charm and wonder.