Review: Stunning Effects Buoy the Dark and Enchanting “Pinocchio”

Though not as bright and cheery as previous adaptations, Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s Pinocchio provides a fresh update to the classic story.  Utilizing the best of stop-motion animation and a spot-on voice cast, the film is sure to be entertaining and thought-provoking for children and adults alike.

Master Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) lives happily in a small Italian village with his son Carlo (Gregory Mann).  Geppetto works as a woodcarver, with Carlo as his apprentice.  Following Carlo’s unfortunate death, Geppetto falls into depression.  In his despair, he drunkenly chops down a tree with Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) inside.  Geppetto creates a wooden boy and falls asleep.

The Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) wishes to pull Geppetto out of his despair and grants the wooden boy, named Pinocchio (also Mann), new life.  Rowdy and naïve, Pinocchio wishes to love his father but is tempted away to a carnival life by ringmaster Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his monkey assistant Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett). As Pinocchio becomes the main attraction in Count Volpe’s show, Geppetto and Cricket attempt to get him back while also fighting off the attention of the Podesta (Ron Perlman), a fascist government official who demands Pinocchio to join the military.

The big question: why do this film? Originally, the book was published in 1883 and has been adapted dozens of times since. The original Disney feature debuted in 1940, and further adaptations continue to come out. Actor/Director Roberto Benigni created his version in 2002.. A live-action Italian remake (starring Benigni as Gepetto), which maintained a bulk of the darkness released in 2019, and garnered a pair of technical Oscar nominations. Earlier this year, Disney tapped Robert Zemeckis to direct a live-action hybrid of the same story.

del Toro has called Pinocchio his passion project. The director has been working on bringing his version of the story to the screen since 2008. Much like his previous entries, this film plays heavily into themes of mid-20th century Fascism, romantic notions of childhood, and extreme imagination. The big differentiator between this version and previous incarnations is the stop-motion animation.

Headed by Gustafson, the animation is flawlessly executed. Each character moves with their own grace and rhythms, while maintaining a distinct visual style. Pinocchio is more clumsy and (no pun intended) wooden, while Geppetto is smoother, but still keeps an older man’s speed. Cricket is more manic, but absorbs hits like an actual cartoon. Each human is clearly defined as a character, while the more fantastical creatures are stunning in their own right.

Previous incarnations of Pinocchio have had some…questionable aspects included in the story. This version is able to maintain a level of darkness without including the more problematic elements. This version tackles the idea of an immortal wooden boy and implants it into a modern and twisted reality of the world. In addition, the film tackles different interpretations of what a father’s love means to different people in different circumstances.

No member of the voice cast misses a step. Mann is exuberant and lively as Pinocchio, while staying away from the more annoying aspects of a naïve child. McGregor lends the Cricket a familiar tone, while varying his delivery a bit as the narrator of the story. Bradley’s exasperation and desperation is a perfect voice performance. Geppetto is a well-worn character, and Bradley lives that character through his delivery.

Waltz and Perlman both deliver what is expected of them, while Blanchett hisses and howls monkey sounds. It is easy to laugh imagining the two-time Oscar winner making monkey sounds. Swinton leans into her own aura as a pair of magical fairies, while Tim Blake Nelson gets some solid laughs as a flock of annoyed rabbits who work for Swinton’s death fairy.

With first-class effects and a dark, but hopeful story, Pinocchio is sure to be a winner for all ages. It’s one of the most visually beautiful films of the year.

Pinocchio is now playing in select theaters and streams on Netflix on December 9th
Score: 4.0/5.0

Oscar Blindspots: Spirited Away
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