Breathing life into an intellectual property (IP) that has had countless iterations is no easy feat, yet Guillermo del Toro has done exactly that with his unique and heartfelt take on Disney’s iconic wooden boy, Pinocchio. In fact, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022) —or just Pinocchio— might be the best entry in this fabled story, and it’s easily one of del Toro’s best.
Like the careful craftwork of Geppetto, the woodcarver that creates Pinocchio, del Toro masterfully creates a heartfelt story of grief and loss through the lens of a fascist-set Italy. Unlike the year’s other Pinocchio film which felt like a sanded-down, stringless remake of the celebrated original, this one is coated in all the gloss that epitomises del Toro’s career: otherworldly creatures, a looming air of gloominess, a darker palette, religious commentary and evocative imagery. It’s in the un-del Toro-ness of the visual component —stop motion animation— that all of those ingredients shine, and where the film separates itself from the director’s past films.
Pinocchio has some of the best stop motion work, period; unsurprising given that del Toro co-directed the film with Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Animation Director, Mark Gustafson. The world has an air of freshness and almost appears like a series of dioramas that have been stuck together. The details of the world are sharp and striking, right from the spaces the characters inhibit like a church and foresty area earlier on, to the underworld and Monstro scenes in later stages. It’s an enticing vista that sucks you in the more the film unfolds, and it’s clear that animators were given ample time to carefully workshop the look and feel that del Toro was going for. When coupled with Alexandre Desplat’s spine-tingling score that is in the vein of his score for The Shape of Water (2017), there is an added layer of enchantment that emerges.
In terms of the story itself, it hits all of the key beats from Carlo Colldi’s original book —the circus scenes, the water monster Monstro in the later stages, etc.— but del Toro works around these moments to add his own flourishes and feel. Whether that be the aforementioned fascist leanings, where he explores the loss of innocence from children in the face of conscription and nationalism, right through to those underworld moments where he asks questions pertaining to mortality and the significance of life and death.
They’re heavy themes and leanings for a story that has always been depicted as light and fluffy, and has mainly covered ideas relating to growing up and fitting in. It helps that del Toro immediately jumps into a moment of anguish, as Geppetto (voiced with a gut wrenching croakiness by David Bradley) mourns the loss of his son, Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann who also voices the titular character), after a bomb is dropped on the town church by unsuspecting war planes above. This whole opening sequence that explores the prelude to Geppetto’s grief and prolonged mourning, establishes the sort of grimness that will persist.
It also introduces the running commentary on religion that has underpinned most of del Toro’s oeuvre from and since The Devil’s Backbone (2001). For instance, the destruction of the church and its subsequent rebuilding goes on to symbolise Geppetto’s own rebuilding of his son. This is especially true as Pinocchio (after he has been magically brought into being) assumes the role of Carlo by helping Geppetto build out a wooden Jesus in the church (the last task the father and son shared). He goes on to raise one of the film’s most significant lines relating to why everyone likes the wooden Jesus but not him. This undercuts the road to self-discovery that Pinocchio ultimately takes as he faces death and rebirth numerous times, before enacting a moment of selflessness in the film’s final act that would bring him as close to ‘being a real boy’ as he can come.
In order to get to that point though, he has to face various hurdles including a money-hungry circus ringmaster, Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz); a fascist government official from the town, who is set on sending the puppet with immortality to war (del Toro’s frequent go-to, Ron Perlman); the prospect of living forever and seeing those around him die; and his own desire to experience the fullness of the world.
Along the journey he is also accompanied by the talking cricket Sebastian (formerly, Jiminy) voiced by a comforting Ewan McGregor who injects the film with some of the comedic relief (e.g. being squashed countless times, being interrupted just as he’s about to break-away into song). Tilda Swinton also has a subtle role as an angelic spirit of life that brings Pinocchio into the world, and she also plays the sphinx-looking, death alter-ego that meets him every time he dies. Each of these characters have a distinct look that is both familiar and different in the ethereal way that del Toro’s creatures tend to be.
While finding one’s purpose and identity comes with its challenges, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio helps the wooden puppet get there, and at the same time creates an experience with a unique identity of its own.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is in select cinemas and will be streaming on Netflix from December 9.