Release Date – 25th November 2022, Cert – PG, Run-time – 1 hour 57 minutes, Directors – Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
After the death of his own son (Gregory Mann), carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) carves a wooden boy (Mann) who is miraculously brought to life in an immortal wooden body.
It goes without saying that Guillermo del Toro was going to bring something different to the much-adapted Pinocchio story. Yet, there’s still a sense of surprise within the opening stages of his take (co-written with Patrick McHale and co-directed with Mark Gustafson) as we see an elderly yet joy-filled Geppetto (David Bradley) spending a life with two loves. That for carpentry, he’s renowned in the town and is working on a new statue of Jesus on the cross for the church, which is only surpassed by that for his young son, Carlo (Gregory Mann). He sings about his love for his son and we see the pair gleefully spending time together amongst getting on with various pieces of work.
However, all of this is brought to a sudden halt during a pre-World War II bombing of the church which takes away the sparks of Geppetto’s life. He becomes isolated and turns away from everything around him as we see him carve a wooden boy not out of tearful emotion, but a drunken, rage-filled grief. The scene plays out like a creation of Frankenstein’s monster as the bereaved father’s intense anger fuels the moment with a sense of colliding loss and desperation. All leading to a brought-to-life pine child (also Mann) not learning to be honest, pure and true (although that’s certainly on the agenda when it comes to his not-as-present-as-you-may-think cricket conscience Sebastian (Ewan McGregor – seeming to relish the chance to (almost) belt out another musical number)) but instead navigating the course of lessons in mortality.
When Pinocchio ‘passes away’ he finds himself confronted by a Wood Sprite played by Tilda Swinton before being returned to the world of the living. Each time his desperation to return appears to increase as lessons of life and death increase. Each time the character also nears becoming slightly less annoying. Certainly as we’re first introduced to him and he’s exploring everything around him in Geppetto’s workshop for the first time there’s a very excitable and chaotic nature to the character – adding to Geppetto’s Frankenstein-like response when being greeted by the impossible ‘creature’ first thing in the morning. One which may prove a bit much for some viewers. However, there’s still plenty to enjoy the film.
It’s far from an overall hyperactive affair as, as you would expect, del Toro and co lean into the darker elements of a story such as this. It may come as a surprise that he doesn’t tackle Pleasure Island (a sequence which many may have been looking forward to seeing being tackled through his lens) but the film is set against the backdrop of rising fascism in Italy. Mussolini (Tom Kenny) appears not just on an increasing amount of walls and posters in the background of scenes but as a very short – and therefore consistently amusing when on screen – figure who claims to strongly “like-a puppets”. However, the threat of his rising regime is shown more and more throughout the film alongside Pinocchio’s exploration of the world and ways of life around him.
There’s an undeniable darkness to the film, again, you’d expect it with del Toro’s influence amongst the helm. He’s stated that while it’s not for kids they can watch it as long as adults are prepared to have certain conversations, particularly surrounding ideas of death, afterwards. It’s a point which has been particularly thought about within the course of the film and the directions that it goes. Perhaps such themes are perfectly summed up in the screenplay’s own words, “what happens happens and then we are gone”. The film’s overall treatment leaning towards its characters trying to make what happens reach the side of good through the likes of dedication towards family, friends and those around them.
It makes for something interesting and undeniably unique for a Pinocchio film, all enhanced through the strong visuals of the excellent stop-motion animation (del Toro has made sure to point out how the animators are credited equal to the starry voice acting cast of the film, alongside taking some of the puppets, particularly Pinocchio, on the festival and premier circuit). Increasing the fantastical elements such as Pinocchio’s interactions with the Wood Sprite and the towering darkness which begins to sprawl during certain sequences displaying the fascist threat confronting Italy at the time the film is set. It simply allows for further detail and establishing of tone in regards to some of the scenes and themes which run throughout the film. All while still allowing for the theatricality of some of the musical numbers, largely in terms of sound, to come through. Amongst all the stylings of themes and tones throughout the film there’s plenty to be engaged by and enjoy in this darker take of Pinocchio which is successfully influenced by the classic story.
It may take a bit of time to get used to the character of Pinocchio himself, but there’s still plenty to enjoy within the visual and tonal styles of this particular interpretation, which gets philosophically darker alongside the rising threat of the settings.