Perhaps the most interesting thing that's happened cinematically this year is that two Oscar-winning directors made new versions of Pinocchio, and the results could not have been more different. Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis's version, made for Disney+, is a bombastic mess that obnoxiously self-references Disney at every turn. The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro's version, on the other hand, is rated PG, yet clearly aimed at adults, not children. I mean, what kid is going to appreciate all the Mussolini references? Neither version is a masterpiece, but del Toro's at least succeeds at being distinct and entertaining, making it the clear champion in this face-off.
You can tell it's a del Toro picture because of the Catholic imagery and anti-fascism themes that are common in his work. The filmmaker, who co-directed with Mark Gustafson, achieves his vision via stop-motion animation. What could be more perfect? Pinocchio is made of wood, so a style that relies upon hand-made figures makes total sense. For a while, at least, the story hews pretty closely to what we all know. The major difference in the early section is that Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) doesn't have the human-like appearance commonly associated with the character, thanks to Disney's original 1940 version. He looks cobbled together out of various pieces of wood, with a head seemingly made from part of a tree. It's a nice touch that feels more honest than previous iterations of the puppet. Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) also benefits from an upgrade, looking more authentically bug-like.
The major change comes in the middle. Gone is the whole Pleasure Island sequence where the character joins other boys in a hedonistic playland. Instead, Pinocchio is – and I promise you I'm not making this up – drafted into Mussolini's army. Together with Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), the son of fascist officer Podesta (Ron Perlman), he is put through weapons training to become a child soldier. Later, Il Duce himself makes an appearance, getting mocked by Pinocchio for his alleged flatulence. Maybe this is del Toro's way of saying fascism stinks?
Pinocchio works better when viewed as an artistic vision rather than as a traditional movie. That is to say, the joy in watching it comes from seeing how Guillermo del Toro adapts, interprets, and modifies a well-known, beloved story. Not every creative choice works, but all of them are provocative. At times, I wasn't sure how I felt about certain aspects. (This might not have been the best classic tale to pick in order to explore fascism.) Nevertheless, witnessing what del Toro is trying to do and basking in his ambition has its rewards. Certain other liberties undeniably work well. Pinocchio's encounters with a winged deity (Tilda Swinton) who warns him about wasting precious time with Geppetto (David Bradley) proves a potent way to address ideas pertaining to love and death.
The last half-hour, during which the characters are swallowed by a sea monster, is the very best section. It allows del Toro to do what he does best, namely indulge in fantasy elements involving weird creatures. When everyone attempts to escape through the monster's blow hole, the suspense is real. You can feel the movie fully springing to life here. Pinocchio is perpetually mind-blowing to look at. The stop-motion techniques are more advanced than any I've seen previously, helping to pull out all the stops for the finale, in particular.
Younger kids are unlikely to gel to this interpretation of the character and his journey. Teenagers and adults with an appreciation for Guillermo del Toro's body of work will find enough to leave them reasonably satisfied. Even if the whole thing doesn't come together flawlessly, seeing one of our best filmmakers put a fresh spin on a classic piece of fiction provides sufficient enjoyment.
out of four
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is rated PG for dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor, and brief smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.