It does feel distinctly Grinch-ian to be feeling so down about a lovingly animated, reasonably mature adaptation of Pinocchio so close to Christmas, especially considering the nightmarish adaptations that have preceded it this year. There was the low-rent, endlessly meme-able Pinocchio: A True Story, a lovably janky, Z-grade version featuring a Pinocchio voiced by Pauly Shore, of all people. Then there was the godawful Disney live-action version, the latest in their depths-scraping efforts to mine older titles for all their worth, which was somehow directed by Robert Zemeckis (of all people). Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, then, is surely a more likely contender for genuine greatness. At the helm is Del Toro, whose gothic instincts are a good fit for this classically dark fairy tale, and the film is lovingly crafted in stop-motion animation. A fine voice cast has assembled, and Del Toro’s instincts were seemingly in the right place – he even drew parallels between his film and Frankenstein, a fascinating parallel I’d never considered.
So why doesn’t it work? Maybe I’m just a little joyless these days – it’s true I don’t watch a lot of children’s pictures in 2022 – there’s not enough time to watch films for adults as is, and there are plenty of children’s movies masquerading as adult films coming from the Mouse House (and elsewhere) regardless. I’m reminded of critic A.S. Hamrah’s hilarious takedown of animated films at large – ‘I spent too much time last year listening to otherwise normal adults describe the plots of animated movies. As someone with no children and no nieces or nephews, as a free man who does not have to take kids to matinees, I hereby declare my independence from cartoons. Are you an adult? Adopt my program! If the urge to see an animated feature creeps up on you, have a drink instead. A drink costs less than a movie.’ While I’m not necessarily as militant in my thinking as A. S. Hamrah (Apollo 10 ½ was a bright spot in the cinematic calendar this year, for example), I must admit, watching Pinocchio made me see his point of view.
Del Toro’s Pinocchio is his first foray into animation, which in some ways feels surprising. His work has been full of tinkering and intricate, fantastical designs, from the eldritch horrors of Pan’s Labyrinth to the shiny robots of Pacific Rim. He is in many ways incredibly suited to the telling of this story, which is a dark adaptation of the 1880s Italian novel, recently updated by Gus Grimly. The story is clearly of great personal significance to Del Toro, and the world of Pinocchio is truly lovingly rendered – even though this particular form of stop-motion ventures too regularly into the uncanny valley for my taste. You can feel the effort that has gone into the creation of these clay figurines, and the story is complex, dark and unafraid to introduce children to difficult concepts. Like Bambi before it, Pinocchio positions itself as a kind of introduction to the concept of death in a way that doesn’t flinch – a commendable intention.
The third film to bow this year focused on the legendary puppet that longs to be a real boy comes to us from the Oscar-winning mind of Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth). It’s the best of the three, but ultimately that isn’t saying much.
And yet the storytelling at hand feels curiously like coasting from the Mexican maestro, a mishmash of ideas he’s utilised before that combine to be both ponderous and lacking in good storytelling structure. The film is set in Mussolini’s fascist Italy, famously the setting of Del Toro’s breakout film, Pan’s Labyrinth. I never felt it was especially well-utilised there, and it doesn’t feel so here either. In fact it feels needlessly grafted on, a contextualising afterthought that adds little to the themes at play. There’s a parallel between the Gepetto-Pinocchio relationship and the relationship between a father and son in the village where they live, the father being a fascist commandant and the son being a gentle boy pulled into the war effort – but this aspect never goes anywhere, and is left entirely forgotten by the film’s denouement. The original story of course had political undertones, but in moving the time period to Del Toro’s favourite setting (the one with the easiest ideological nasties), he finds little of interest to add. The film knocks the nail on the head, having Jiminy Cricket (a bright spot in the film, voiced by a sprightly Ewen MacGregor) all but spell out the film’s themes – imperfect fathers and imperfect sons. It’s a concession to the younger viewers, certainly, but is also one whose intricacies are sure to go over the head of the average target market for a Pinocchio retelling.
At over two hours in length, the greatest sin of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is its plodding, exhausting pace. A film whose morals are of a simplistic nature that can be grasped by all audiences is spooled out ad nauseum, and more than once I found myself checking my watch, aware that we hadn’t even gotten to the whale bit yet. Del Toro has always been a filmmaker who builds Frankensteinian fables from his many influences – monster movies, gothic stories, classic silent films, and the like – but often struggles in creating something that feels new. For a story so dear to Del Toro’s heart, the film feels aimless, slouching from one overcooked allegory or reference to the next: and there’s a bundle, including Christian iconography, references to the horrors of war, and ruminations on found families. Throughout it all, there is Pinocchio, voiced by Gregory Mann. In creating a puppet that feels a few shades removed from something horrific, Del Toro has instead created something rather grating, and this Pinocchio is entirely charmless, particularly to spend this much time with.
I’m aware that at this point I’m not the correct audience necessarily for a new Pinocchio. And yet earlier this year I went to a big screen re-release of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, as close to the best animated film as I can recall, and was reminded that yes, you can make an engaging animation that reaches both children and adults. Yes, animation does have the staggering power to seep into the heart of even the most resistant viewers. And yes, stories ostensibly made for children can also teach adults something useful as well, even if it is something they already knew and needed to be reminded of. Del Toro has always struck me as more of a film lover, preserver, defender and aficionado than as a creator, necessarily, and his foray into animation lacks that spark, that magic that could even transform wood into flesh.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is in cinemas now and streaming on Netflix.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio
Movie title: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio (del Toro, Gustafson, 2022)
Movie description: The third film to bow this year focused on the legendary puppet that longs to be a real boy comes to us from the Oscar-winning mind of Guillermo Del Toro (The Shape of Water, Pan’s Labyrinth). It’s the best of the three, but ultimately that isn’t saying much.
Date published: December 8, 2022
Country: United States
Author: Guillermo Del Toro, Patrick McHale, Carlo Collodi
Director(s): Guillermo Del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Actor(s): Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Tom Kenny
Genre: Animation, Drama, Family