Screwing up Pinocchio is not an easy task, yet Robert Zemeckis has accomplished it. The Back to the Future director joins Roberto Benigni – whose 2002 version has a 0% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes – in finding a way to take classic, seemingly foolproof material and mangle it beyond belief. Thankfully, we have Guillermo del Toro's version coming up later this year to presumably wash the bad taste out of our collective mouths. Zemeckis can be a superb director, yet he gives in to his worst technology-driven impulses here, effectively sucking all meaning out of the tale.
There is no need to recap the plot. Everyone knows it. Tom Hanks plays Gepetto, Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices Jiminy Cricket, and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth handles the vocals for the title character. Cynthia Erivo gets a scene as the Blue Fairy, and of course she sings “When You Wish Upon a Star.” I probably don't need to tell you that is by far the high point of the film.
Zemeckis has always loved technology. He mastered the combination of live-action and traditional hand-drawn animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. He convincingly put Hanks into historical footage for Forrest Gump. He made important strides in CGI animation with The Polar Express and Beowulf. When operating from a good story, Zemeckis is able to use computer technology to maximize the drama and emotion in the tales he tells. Sometimes he gets carried away with the tech, to the point where it overshadows the plot, as happened with Welcome to Marwen. When you can feel a director playing with his toys rather than staying true to the material, it becomes a huge problem.
Pinocchio exemplifies this. Nothing is simple here. Nothing. There isn't a single moment that Zemeckis doesn't amplify via an excess of excess, so to speak. If a shot can be complicated, he complicates it. If an image needs only minimal CGI, he adds a ton of unnecessary flourishes. The visual razzle-dazzle is so extreme that it completely detracts from the heart of the story, which involves Pinocchio's quest to become a real boy. Any emotional value in that idea is lost amid the need to make everything as extravagant and flashy as possible.
Pinocchio doesn't just get swallowed by a whale here. It becomes an elaborate action sequence. Jiminy Cricket doesn't just move across a room, he leaps from object to object, the camera tracking with him. Worst of all is the story's detour into Pleasure Island. Instead of being a place where kids misbehave, Zemeckis turns it into a hedonistic wonderland – like Disney World in Hell. The place is filled with astonishing sights, including a river of candy the characters ride careening boats down. Knowing a place like this exists in the fictional universe, it's hard to believe anyone would blink an eye at a talking puppet.
Equally irritating is the insistence on including self-referential and “hip” pop culture humor. When the cuckoo clocks on Gepetto's wall go off simultaneously, we can see that one has Roger Rabbit, another has Woody from Toy Story, a third has Snow White, etc. In another scene, duplicitous fox Honest John (Keegan Michael-Key) tries to come up with a stage name for Pinocchio as he prepares to take part in a public performance. Acknowledging the puppet is made of wood, he helpfully suggests “Chris Pine.”
Pinocchio carries an implicit assumption that children won't sit still for a movie unless it's throwing crazy action or meta comedy at them every few seconds. Surely, kids are smarter than that. They understand the feelings of Pinocchio as he attempts to make sense of a complex adult world. Why anyone thought this simple, beautiful tale could be improved upon by cranking everything up to ten is a genuine mystery. Do your little ones a favor and show them (or re-show them) Disney's elegant, infinitely better 1940 version. That way, they can witness cinematic magic, not cynical junk.
out of four
Pinocchio is rated PG for peril/scary moments, rude material and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.