Directed by Matteo Garrone.
Starring Federico Ielapi, Roberto Benigni, Marine Vacth, Massimo Ceccherini, Rocco Papaleo and Gigi Proietti.
The timeless, and constantly retold, story of a sentient wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy.
Everybody knows the story of Pinocchio. Thanks mostly to the magical 1940 Disney adaptation, Carlo Collodi’s 19th century novel is one of the most popular and adapted stories in history. Almost 150 years after it was first published, it’s the most widely translated non-religious book in the world. There are currently two English-language movie adaptations in the works, with Robert Zemeckis helming a live-action take for Disney and Guillermo del Toro crafting a darker, stop-motion version over at Netflix. In the hands of Italian director Matteo Garrone, though, the carved kiddywink is heading back to his roots.
This take on the story is a faithful adaptation of Collodi’s text, refusing to shy away from the sharp edges and the brittle strangeness of the source material. Life is Beautiful Oscar winner Roberto Benigni plays the down-on-his-luck Geppetto, who fashions a log of enchanted wood into a child – proudly declaring himself a father when the puppet becomes sentient. Pinocchio, played with charming effervescence by eight-year-old Federico Ielapi, is a mischievous sort, though, and a sequence of calamities finds him marooned far away from his father.
The story is inherently episodic, as Pinocchio rubs wooden shoulders with a variety of colourful characters and creatures. Lovers of the Disney animation might be surprised by the strangeness of the Cricket – much less immediately charming than Jiminy – and the genuinely shocking scene in which Pinocchio is hanged from a tree by the delectably devious Fox (Massimo Ceccherini) and Cat (Rocco Papaleo). When a talking tuna fish and an ape-led court room aren’t even the weirdest things in a movie, you know there’s something truly unusual afoot.
But Garrone wears the bizarre lightly and with an admirable comic touch. Family-friendly frivolity is perhaps not what anyone would expect from the man behind Gomorrah and, most recently, Dogman, but this has long been a passion project for the Italian filmmaker – he drew the first storyboard as a six-year-old – and the affection shines through. Pinocchio is unafraid to be dark and unusual, precisely because the man at the helm loves and understands the material more than most. It’s a movie that has a heart and is not concerned about wearing it on its sleeve.
This Pinocchio also has an awareness of previous adaptations – Geppetto actor Benigni had a go himself back in 2002 – and therefore knows which banana skins to avoid. The memorable moments are there, from the fib-induced nose extension to the horrifying donkey metamorphosis, but Garrone also gives plenty of spotlight to other elements of the narrative, from which Disney perhaps shied away. This is an affectionate movie – and one that obviously boasts a moral subtext about what it means to explore the darker side of humanity – but it’s also a sinister one, which prickles with the sense of macabre terror.
It’s helped by the genuinely stunning prosthetics work used to create the title character and many of his allies and enemies throughout the story. The endlessly lovable Ielapi remains visible through his woodified visage, while there’s a pleasant grotesqueness to characters like Fox and Maria Pia Timo’s motherly Snail – as well as the decidedly irritable Cricket. The use of CGI occasionally threatens to tip over into a rather cheap feel, but when the focus is on the spectacular work of make-up experts Mark Coulier and Nick Dudman, this Pinocchio is spell-binding in its attention to detail.
There are bumps along the way, of course. At just over two hours, this is an overlong and rather meandering tale, with barely a morsel of connective tissue between some of the various episodes along the protagonist’s adventure. However, such is the charm and invention placed into these stories that the result is an epic journey of comic energy and propulsive fun, even when the coherence is occasionally lacking. There’s a reason that this peculiar novel has fascinated audiences for more than a century and, thanks to the loving eyes and skilful camera of Garrone, Disney now has a run for its money.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.