One of the hallmarks of a ‘classic’ tale is that it has an endless capacity to be retold. The 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi has had the movie treatment several times, not least with a 2022 live-action Disney adaptation of the 1940 Disney animation.
This time around, the person grasping the directorial cross brace is Guillermo del Toro, a man who, it seems, has no strings to hold him down.
Along with co-director Mark Gustafson, del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, The Shape of Water, Nightmare Alley, Cabinet of Curiosities) has opted for stop-motion animation as the medium in which to tell this over 100 year old fable.
Exorcising a fairy tale setting for instead the rise of fascist Italy in the 1930s, del Toro’s journey for the little wooden boy is one in which the puppets should always question the puppeteers.
What Is Pinocchio About?
As ever, stop motion is a gloriously tactile medium in which to tell a tale. del Toro’s titular marionette has a solid wooden texture and disjointed cadence that is brought uniquely to life by way of such physical animation.
Young voice actor Gregory Mann infuses the character with an exuberance that is matched by his high energy movements. This Pinocchio is delighted to be alive and there is never a thought of needing to change and become a ‘real boy’.
Indeed, thematically del Toro discards the concept of seeking validation by change as if blowing wood shavings off of Geppetto’s work bench.
After the tragic loss of his own son, Geppetto (a powerful emotive performance by David Bradley) chops down the tree that grew out of his grave and carves the disproportionate puppet in a drunken rage, repulsed by what he has done come the morning.
Gothic style underpins this creation where deals are brokered with magical creatures (Tilda Swinton), Death is an irritant (also Swinton), and learning how to find your own moral code is more important than being crammed into someone else’s.
Sadly Ewan McGregor’s Sebastian J. Cricket is a casualty of this; fun narrator duties notwithstanding, it’s hard to be a conscience when Cricket spends most of the movie separated from his ward.
Pinocchio Official Trailer
Is Pinocchio Worth Watching?
As for other parts of this well known tale? Much of the later middle is out, although the key ‘swallowed by a whale’ scenes remain (with added wartime whizz and bang).
Filling the central runtime is a reimagined Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) within a war training camp. Christoph Waltz’s performance as ringmaster Count Volpe snips out the famous capitalistic ‘I’ve got no strings to hold me down’ routine for instead an angle of power by abuse, in service of an obsequious deference to a comically squat Benito Mussolini.
Despite the change of scenarios, the central journey of Pinocchio remains that of the wooden boy himself, seeking validation first externally and then internally. As the tone veers into darker territory you could ask yourself who is the target demographic here?
Yet once you realise that del Toro has left out the famously horrific Land of Toys sequence, then you could say at least his version doesn’t contain such unexpected descents into nightmares.
Del Toro’s Pinocchio gives agency to the wooden boy himself and is all the better for it. Driven by love, and learning to recognise and reject hate, this Pinocchio takes the old story and finds a modern morality tale that moves away from the need to change oneself in order to be accepted.
It may be animators who are painstakingly moving what you see millimetre by millimetre, but we can all bask in the results that such incremental progress achieves.
Words by Mike Record