Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, 2022.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Starring David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Gregory Mann, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Finn Wolfhard, Burn Gorman, Tim Blake Nelson and John Turturro
A darker version of the classic children’s fairy tale of a wooden puppet that transforms into a real living boy.
There have been so many versions of Carlo Collodi’s little wooden boy carved out for the big screen that even Disney, who’re responsible for what’s arguably the definitive take on the marionette, tasked Robert Zemeckis with chiselling a lifeless replica of their animated classic.
The very notion of sitting through yet another iteration of the story is enough to make you want to throw yourself inside the belly of a whale. That is until you look up and see that the puppet master is Guillermo Del Toro, a filmmaker with his own blend of dark magic, the kind to make even The Blue Fairy take a back seat and allow him to sprinkle it over this oft-told tale. The results are stupendous.
A passion project for years, Del Toro’s Pinocchio has been touted around the studios for what seems like forever, with Netflix finally granting the director’s wish. That amount of persistence should have eased any doubts about what the Academy Award winner had locked away inside his imagination, but from the moment we’re welcomed into this world by Ewan McGregor’s Sebastian J. Cricket, you are immediately struck by just how different this fairy-tale Italy is.
An Up style prologue grounds this story in a sadness that underpins the entire film. That’s not to say that this is a melancholy tale in which Del Toro delights solely in the darker elements, in fact it’s uproarious and infectiously joyous a lot of the time, it’s just that there are real high-stake emotions on show. Nothing about this Pinocchio is hollow.
Ensuring that things aren’t always deeply rooted in the shadows in which Del Toro excels is Ewan McGregor’s performance as our narrator. He’s simply doing the best he can and that’s all you can ask of him. From hilarious to heartfelt, McGregor delivers lines that’ll have you belly-laughing one minute, but wiping away tears the next.
Then there’s our titular puppet, who in all honesty is a bit of an annoying little prick, but that’s where so much of the fun of the character can be found. He’s so oblivious, loveable, and buoyed by a naïve innocence and wide-eyed enthusiasm for everything, that it quickly becomes easy to root for the fella as he crashes though this small-town community. Plus he gets a hell of good song to sing moments after he has come to life, which is one of a few welcome tunes written by Del Toro and his The Shape of Water collaborator Alexander Desplat.
Also helping bring the stop-motion brilliance to life are Tilda Swinton, here adding gravitas as derivations of what we know as the blue fairies, manifested as ethereal all-knowing deities, while Christoph Waltz has fun employing his recognisible flamboyance as Renard, the duplicitous Mussolini obsessed showman, with Cate Blanchett mainly grunting as his put-upon monkey sidekick Spazzatura. David Bradley is also worthy of a mention as Geppetto, the Harry Potter actor doing a lot of the emotional heavy lifting in a role driven by grief.
Of course none of this would work without the film’s own Gepetto, with Del Toro, directing alongside The Fantastic Mr Fox‘s Mark Gustafson, bringing to life what’s possibly his richest and most personal movie since Pan’s Labyrinth.
It’s that layered tapestry with which Pinocchio shares quite a few similarities; both are set against the backdrop of conflicts and the danger of the insidious ideologies they bring, with Del Toro’s wooden boy recruited by the junior Italian fascists, while his 2006 fantasy unfolded parallel to the Spanish Civil War; and both also deal with the notion of death as an unavoidable part of our journey, but in such a beautiful and life-affirming way.
Additionally Del Toro cannot help himself when it comes to stitching in some horror elements, imbuing the film with a duality that ensures it will strike a chord with the grown-ups, but not alienate or completely scare older kids. Case-in-point is the birth of Pinocchio, in which he assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster, before emerging from the darker recesses of Gepetto’s workshop as a kind of contorted J-horror nightmare. The youngsters will laugh as his head spins around, those who’ve danced through Del Toro’s imagination before will know exactly what he’s doing.
Existing in a world that feels as though it could be found within the pages of a book gathering dust on the shelves of the Crimson Peak mansion, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is a lived-in stop-motion fable that breathes new life into rotten wood, meditating on all that’s unique about the finite amount of time we’re given, of which two hours of yours is worth spending with this truly magnificent creation.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter