Film Review – Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) is a mesmerizing stop motion animated film. No stranger to fantasy and horror, del Toro – along with co-director Mark Gustafson – have taken a timeless story and breathed new life into it. This is not the same Pinocchio of the 1940 Disney classic, nor is it the shameless IP retelling we saw earlier this year. Del Toro and Gustafson harken back a little closer to Carlo Collodi’s original book, adapting many of the same elements while inserting their own unique spin on the material. The result is a burst of imagination – a tale of fathers and sons, spirits, and the underworld – coalescing in a time of social and political upheaval. That’s a lot to take in, and yet it all works in captivating fashion.
The great accomplishment is that the writing (del Toro, Patrick McHale) does not play down to the audience. Themes are taken seriously and with care, even when things turn dark or bizarre. Geppetto (David Bradley) is not just the sweet and lovable woodcarver, but a fully dimensional man suffering from the effects of a personal tragedy. An extended opening sequence details his time before creating the boy puppet, and the events that led him so far astray. The scene of Geppetto chopping down the tree to create Pinocchio is handled like a monster movie. In a drunken stupor, he slaps the pieces together not too unlike Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster. Life has not treated Geppetto well when we first meet him. He starts off cynical and jaded, but it’s that very element that makes his journey all the moving.
The same can be said about Pinocchio (Gregory Mann). Instead of the cute and colorful wooden boy of past iterations, this version is styled with a rugged appearance. With arms and legs made of twigs, a small torso, a head missing an ear, and nails protruding from his back, Pinocchio is more puppet than human. When the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) gives him life, the effect is ghostly and haunting. We see Pinocchio initially walking on all fours like a spider, not exactly the most welcoming of sights. The writing doesn’t hesitate on establishing Pinocchio with an opposing personality. He openly defies authority, including Geppetto. The cricket Sebastian’s (Ewan McGregor) attempts to be Pinocchio’s conscience fail miserably. Pinocchio’s naivety gives him a toddler-like fascination, where his main interest is in having fun and going on adventures.
Just as he did with The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), del Toro wraps the narrative in heavy political allegory. This time, the setting is Mussolini’s Italy at the height of his fascist regime. The effects of war have ravaged the country and its people. This is especially true of Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), whose Nazi-saluting father (Ron Perlman) is the podesta of their small town. Kids are expected to give their lives to their country as loyal citizens. Even Pinocchio is unable to escape the shadow of war. Knowing that he is wooden and not affected by battle like a human, Pinocchio is sought after to be the ultimate soldier. Granted, these scenes have a strange, absurdist quality, but that is intentional. The main character of The Devil’s Backbone stared at a missile that didn’t go off, hinting at the thin line between life and death. So too are our protagonists effected by political violence here. Innocence and youth are disregarded in favor of evil dictators.
At its heart, the film is about the relationship between fathers and sons. The joys and sadness of past generations filter down to the next, causing a rippling effect. Not only is this in the relationship between Candlewick and his father, but also between the carnival ringleader Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). He takes advantage of Pinocchio, tricking him into doing a stage show night after night while he collects all the profit for himself. Volpe becomes a toxic father figure to Pinocchio, as well as to the monkey Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett). Although Spazzatura shows loyalty, Volpe’s parenting skills are cruel and abusive. He forces Pinocchio and Spazzatura to obey through violent means. Of course, the central thread is that of Geppetto and Pinocchio. The hardships that Geppetto endured could have easily swayed him in the direction of the Podesta and of Volpe, but he still has the chance to make things right. It’s only when we see the error of our ways that we can find the hope of fixing them. That is what makes Geppetto’s relationship with Pinocchio so special. Both develop the intelligence and maturity to overcome their mistakes.
Even if we were to take this on a purely visual basis, Pinocchio is one of the most creative and ingenious endeavors of the year. Not only is the stop motion impressive in how it combines real world and fantasy elements, but the cinematography (Frank Passingham) is also exceptional. The camera doesn’t just sit back and watch the action, it dives headfirst as an active participant. It glides along environments, bobbing and weaving through and around objects. When Spazzatura runs and jumps around crates and wagons, the camera follows in hot pursuit. The textures have such detail that everything we see feels tangible. When the narrative gets truly weird – such as a group of card playing rabbits in the afterlife – nothing felt out of place. The craftsmanship on display causes us to willfully buy into this world, regardless of what dreamlike places we visit.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio has a sense of wonder and discovery but isn’t afraid to tackle subjects reflective of the modern world. Characters learn that being perfect is relative, and that kindness and love is what gives life meaning. Our time is short, but that is what makes it so special. Better to spend it with charity and goodwill as opposed to greed and hate. That’s something anyone of any age can relate to. While Pinocchio might be the boy at the center of the story, it’s never too late for any of us to grow up.