It takes sheer audacity to tackle the most popular story in Western literature. It’s borderline insanity to do so when there’s already an incredibly famous version in existence. This is the uphill climb that Guillermo del Toro faces in retelling Pinocchio, the book that has, by unscientific accounts, sold the second-most copies in history, behind only The Bible.
Had del Toro simply accepted he couldn’t beat the 1940 Disney classic, odds are he could have still made a good movie. But here’s the thing: del Toro did make a film that is, at the very least, worthy of Disney’s classic. In fact, he made a film so powerful, so moving, and so innovative, it’s one of the greatest accomplishments of the animated medium in the modern era of filmmaking.
During the First World War, carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) lost his beloved son to a stray bomb. Driven mad with grief and alcohol, the mourning carpenter decides, one night, to craft a new son out of a tree the boy had planted. That night, the spirits of the forest (Tilda Swinton), taking pity on the man, decide to bring the wooden boy to life, naming him Pinocchio (Gregory Mann).
Confused and horrified by his creation, Geppetto must teach his son about right, wrong, and all that’s in between – an act made harder by Pinocchio’s mischievous nature, a group of greedy former aristocrats led by Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) who wish to profit off the boy, and the ever-present threat of the Fascist Party, which sees Pinocchio as the ultimate weapon in the impending war.
It is impossible to overstate how revolutionary del Toro’s vision is with his Pinocchio. He has taken a story whose moral was “always follow orders or you will die” and deconstructed its direct correlation to fascism. Some of these changes are mild, like the “school” Pinocchio famously heads off to attend transforming into a reeducation camp, or Pleasure Island (the land of teen boys’ fantasies) becoming a military child army boot camp. But most of the rewrites involve the film’s core morals. This is a film that explores weighty concepts like fatherhood, authoritarianism, mortality, and the meaning of life’s beautiful, fleeting nature.
This fairy tale is deeply interested in the cyclical nature of life – of beauty, destruction, and rebirth. No longer is Geppetto simply a kindly old man who likes toys. He is now an embittered man whose son was killed at the same time his idyllic, innocent Italy was destroyed, creating a world where his well-meaning neighbors are now monstrous fascists, from a kindly butcher to a priest who cow-towed to his Sieg Heiling-constituents at the earliest convenience. Yet just as Italy was eventually reborn out of its horrific foray into tyranny, so too does Geppetto receive a second chance with Pinocchio – a puppet who cannot die, despite the universe’s best efforts, forcing him to continuously be reborn as he learns to become a better person.
All of this is executed with that magic touch that only del Toro possesses; a wicked sense of humor that feels childish and mature at the same time. The Oscar-winning auteur imbibes Pinocchio’s birth with that monster-movie magic that’s always captured his imagination; his big reveal is staged like a horror film, with disjointed limbs and an eerie score, as though the boy were a terrifying monstrosity.
And the humor only gets weirder from there. There’s a monkey voiced by Cate Blanchett who can only talk through marionettes. A running gag involves the film’s resident cricket – a writer named Sebastian, voiced by Ewan McGregor – getting horribly maimed and performing overwritten monologues about the pain of existence. And I cannot think of a better parody of fascism and brutes like Mussolini than characters accepting Pinocchio because he’s “good Italian pine” while Il Duce himself speaks only in Mario-esque accented asides (“I like-a da puppets”).
Yet Pinocchio’s greatest triumph is its animation. Del Toro has invoked the spirits of the greatest animators of all time in crafting his Pinocchio. The film has the structure of a classic Walt Disney feature, right down to the use of earworm-inducing songs; yet at its core, it is far more akin to Hayao Miyazaki, who utilizes animation to tackle weighty themes like death and morality. Hell, throw in the whimsical innovation of Jim Henson for good measure – the famous puppeteer’s company is credited as advising the production on its remarkable creations.
Never before has the screen beheld stop motion so lively, so creative, so real. Yes, this includes Nightmare Before Christmas, Kubo and the Two Strings, and Wallace and Gromit. Every detail felt alive in a way the medium has never felt before. The settings were sumptuous, be they a dense forest, a quaint little town, the belly of a whale, or the cavernous afterworld (complete with a giant chimera). Meanwhile, the figures moved fluidly, leaping and climbing with an ease often restricted by the form.
Characters’ faces express every emotion under the sun – joy, depression, anger, hope, innocence, and beyond – while the camera swoops and zooms and cuts with the ease of a live-action feature. I hesitate using such a declarative in a review, but it must be said: this might be the greatest feat of stop motion I’ve ever witnessed.
As for the acting, every performer brings their A-game. It cannot be overstated how brilliant Gregory Mann is as the titular puppet – he manages that difficult balance between mischievousness and lovability with great ease, and has a terrific singing voice to boot. Meanwhile, David Bradley’s Geppetto is heartbreakingly open and vulnerable, with a gruff voice that reflects love and loss. Pinocchio’s other major influence, Sebastian J. Cricket, witnesses the most fun Ewan McGregor’s had since Star Wars – maybe since his wonderful, goofy, heartbreaking stint in Moulin Rouge!
As for the villains and side characters, anyone not giving their A-game at least understands the assignment. For example, whereas Ron Perlman brings real menace and pathos to the town Podestà, Christoph Waltz settles for goofy lunacy as the villainous former aristocrat Count Volpe. Tilda Swinton pulls double duty as the Wood Sprite (the original Blue Fairy) and Death, delivering poignant monologues on life’s fleeting nature, while Tim Blake Nelson plays a group of bemused Black Rabbits that carry your soul to the underworld. Finn Wolfhard isn’t a knockout as Lampwick (he’s doing a weird accent that I don’t fully understand), but he’s far from a hindrance to the film. Oh, and Tom Kenny voices the excessively Italian Mussolini, which…brilliant. No notes.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an astonishing accomplishment. It’s a miracle of different groups, companies, and artists working together at the top of their game. It’s the best work The Jim Henson Company has put out in years. It’s the best film Netflix has ever produced. And it may even be the best film del Toro’s ever made. This is a special film designed to move audiences, to challenge and delight them, filled with magic and whimsy and horror and wonder and hope. And thank God for Guillermo del Toro in making it possible.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is now playing on Netflix