Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio has been in development since 2008 and was even cancelled at one point before being resurrected by Netflix. The stop-motion animated musical fantasy film combines many of del Toro’s trademarks like Alexandre Desplat’s carefree and wondrous musical score that is reminiscent of The Shape of Water while the Wood Sprite and Death have these ghoulishly beautiful character designs that are spiritually synonymous with the faun and the Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth or any of the ghosts from Crimson Peak.
Co-directed by Mark Gustafson (the animation director for Fantastic Mr Fox and a claymator on Return to Oz) and co-written by Patrick McHale (Adventure Time, Over the Garden Wall), Guillermo del Toro’s version of Pinocchio is based on Gris Grimly’s design of the character.
Grimly illustrated a 2002 edition of the 1883 Italian novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi.
This version also takes place in Fascist Italy. Like Carlo Collodi’s original novel, most versions of Pinocchio take place in the 1800s, but del Toro time jumps to 1930 when Italy was ruled by Benito Mussolini and the National Fascist Party.
The main story is similar to what you’ve grown accustomed to when it comes to a Pinocchio film. Disney’s live-action version of their 1940 animated Pinocchio basically shoehorned in the fact that Geppetto had a son before Pinocchio. It didn’t work; mostly because it seemed to be thrown in for no particular reason.
Del Toro and Patrick McHale allow us to spend some time with Geppetto’s ten year old son Carlo. His death and the inability to move past his absence in Geppetto’s life is what triggers the creation of Pinocchio. It’s also intriguing that while Carlo lives and dies like the average human Pinocchio dies over and over again throughout the film since he is essentially immortal. Geppetto not only loses a son he loses another over and over again.
Boys learn how to be soldiers in the film along with the hardship of war and just what victory entails. Pinocchio’s inability to die is seen as a perfect soldier trait by the town’s Podesta (voiced by Ron Perlman). All of this replaces the likes of the Land of Toys and boys transforming into donkeys. Where boys misbehaved to transform into animals in other versions of Pinocchio, here they’re told exactly what to do to kill their enemy and become soldiers for the regime.
Foregoing the presence of the likes of Honest John, Gideon, and Stromboli, del Toro introduces a culmination of all three into one character; the nefarious Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz). Volpe is a master wordsmith as he utilizes a linguistic backlog of lesser known multi-syllable words when he speaks.
Count Volpe is also ridiculously greedy and perhaps one of the only characters more money hungry than Mr. Krabs from Spongebob. Volpe runs the traveling circus with a bumbling monkey named Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett) as his main lackey. Seen as forgotten and secondary at first, Spazzatura is detrimental to Volpe’s success and a character that is much more useful than he lets on.
Pinocchio’s introduction in the film is a full on horror movie sequence. His limbs and head rotate unnaturally as he scrambles on the ground on all fours. His joints snap suddenly since he’s made of pine and tree branches typically don’t move or get up and walk around regularly.
Pinocchio’s interactions with the crucifix in church are also intriguing. He mocks Jesus’ pose on the cross when he first sees him. Through a conversation with Geppetto later on in the film, Pinocchio reveals that he doesn’t understand why people love Jesus and not him. They’re both made of wood, but what does Jesus have that Pinocchio doesn’t? Something seemingly blasphemous evolves into envy and ignorance.
Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) is beaten to a pulp throughout del Toro’s Pinocchio and there’s a reason for that. In the 1883 novel, Pinocchio kills the cricket with a hammer after it annoys him with some unwanted advice. The cricket then spends the rest of the book as a ghost.
In the film, Sebastian just wants to find a nice chunk of wood to live in so he can write his memoirs. Geppetto plants a pine cone by Carlo’s grave, which grows into the pine tree Sebastian now lives in. Geppetto drunkenly chops that tree down in the rain and carves and whittles that hunk of wood into Pinocchio. The hole Sebastian resides in becomes Pinocchio’s heart.
Sebastian’s torture throughout the film becomes a running gag. He’s pummeled by a cuckoo clock, smacked by the front door mid-song, back handed by Count Volpe, crushed by Spazzatura with Carlo’s schoolbook, stepped on by Geppetto, smashed by the handle of a hammer, squished in a hug, and thrown up by Spazzatura after nearly drowning in the ocean. The Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) tricks Sebastian into watching over Pinocchio by offering him one wish if he can watch over the boy so he can eventually be naturally good.
What is perhaps so special about this version of Pinocchio is that although he initially tries to act like a human boy, he comes to terms with and eventually enjoys being a wooden boy. Geppetto goes through a similar evolution in the film as Pinocchio is a replacement for Carlo at first, but fills the hole in his heart left by Carlo’s death and then some by the end of the film.
Guillermo del Toro has crafted a darker yet equally more emotional version of Pinocchio. It is exquisitely and intricately animated with rich textures, gorgeous lighting, and mostly welcome character reinventions. The transition to Fascist Italy fits del Toro’s vision well, but the changes remove and alter enjoyable story elements that are surely missed. Pinocchio is absolutely a contender for this year’s best animated film, but it is a film that I hoped to adore and yet only deeply appreciate.
- Gorgeous, eye-popping animation.
- One of the best musical scores of the year
- The ending is an emotional wallop
- No Land of Toys or donkey transformations
- Is successfully more adult animation while erasing beloved nostalgic aspects of other Pinocchio adaptations