Directed by Guillermo Del Toro and Mark Gustafson — Screenplay by Guillermo Del Toro and Patrick McHale – Story by Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins.
The story of Pinocchio has been told and retold over and over again since Carlo Collodi first wrote it in the 1880s. Nowadays it is mostly known for its classic 1940s Disney adaptation about a wooden boy who wants to be real and who sings the classic line about there being no strings on him. This year, Disney even tried to release a live-action remake which came and went without making much of an impression. Hopefully, fate will be kinder to Netflix’s stop-motion animation film that is directed by Guillermo Del Toro and Mark Gustafson, as it presents a more mature version of the story that updates the classic tale to a time of war.
In Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio (titled thusly, even though he is not the only credited director), Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) is heartbroken from the loss of his son Carlo decades ago in a bombing raid. On one of his nights out drinking, Geppetto screams angrily to the skies as lightning flashes above, and the woodcarver decides to cut down the pine tree that was planted in his son’s memory. Geppetto goes to work and carves the tree until he has created a wooden boy. When Geppetto passes out, Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) witnesses a spirit bringing the wooden boy to life as Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Adamant that Pinocchio must be exactly like Carlo and be kept away from real-world dangers, Geppetto soon finds out that he cannot control his new lively boy, who gradually becomes more and more interesting to a traveling circus and the Italian government.
There is a moment in Guillermo Del Toro’s stop-motion retelling of Pinocchio, which I was lucky enough to see with my father (with whom I share a love for Guillermo Del Toro’s filmography and personality), that reminded me of Bo Burnham’s INSIDE. In INSIDE, last year’s comedy special about social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a brief sketch and song wherein Burnham pretends to be a sock puppeteer who is trying to teach imaginary children about how the world works. The sock puppet, Socko, proceeds to sing about all the grim realities of the world before the puppeteer silences him for stepping out of line. Burnham used a medium often viewed as being explicitly for children — whether wrong or not — and emphasized cruelties of reality. Guillermo Del Toro’s film does the same thing. This Pinocchio reimagining is imbued with the unmistakable signature touch of its Mexican auteur. It is mostly the story of Pinocchio that we all grew up with (with key additions), but, through the powerful and underappreciated filmmaking medium that is stop-motion animation, Del Toro tells the story with a focus on the way fascism tries to suffocate individuality.
In my review of his masterpiece El Laberinto del Fauno, I noted that Del Toro has a tendency to tell stories about comforting monsters and cruel men. I wrote that in Del Toro’s films: “Bizarre and devilish oddities from fables are not nearly as dangerous as a gun in the bands of a man with power or an unruly system run amok.” With El Laberinto del Fauno and El Espinoza del Diablo, Del Toro took his fairy tale and gothic horror interests to the time of the Spanish Civil War. Similarly, The Shape of Water was a love story in the time of the Cold War with secretive spy warfare. In an ingenious move, Guillermo Del Toro has taken the story of a wooden boy trying to be free of strings — whether real strings or imagined social control — and taken him to Mussolini’s Italy around the time of the Second World War.
It is not just in line with the Del Toro formula, it is also a significant change that helps to do something quite novel to the story of Pinocchio. In Del Toro’s hands, this is now a Frankenstein story (the references in the creation of the wooden boy are obvious) about fathers and sons accepting what makes someone unique and coming to an understanding of mortality and grief, while Mussolini’s Italy surrounding Pinocchio is demanding that he must be a commodity, a puppet for propaganda, and boxed in as a ‘regular,’ ‘normal’ Italian boy soldier. There is a strong current of dark reality to this stop-motion animated musical and yet its lessons still feel somewhat like simple storybook lessons. It is an adult version of Pinocchio that emphasizes how animation is much more than just for children’s storytelling, but, in altering the original story made even more iconic by Disney’s adaptation, I think he has done a good job of balancing the new with the old so as to not tarnish the source material.
There are other ways in which Del Toro’s distinctive style and interests are clear for all to see. In making this story much more real and dark, he also uses the same kind of folkloric creatures that have populated his work previously, even though such creatures are used sparingly here. For example, the classic blue fairy now comes to life as a ‘wood sprite,’ which is this blueish ghostly angel figure whose lips don’t move. Much to my surprise, there is also a mysterious underworld that features a sphinx-like Death and skeletal hares. Though it’s not exactly the same, the detours into the afterlife really reminded me of Mike Johnson and Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride but with an El Laberinto del Fauno twist.
All of this, from the Frankenstein-esque awakening that Pinocchio has to depictions of war-torn locations is realized incredibly well in painstaking animation with detailed stop-motion. It is absolutely breathtaking enormous work. The animation team spent so long trying to perfect every action and every tiny movement down to the finest details, and it not only shows — they succeeded. It is a masterful stop-motion film that not only looks astoundingly good but which also has a massive beating heart to complement the startling imagery, the sweet music from Alexandre Desplat, and the aforementioned unbelievably good stop-motion.
As the film came to an end with a soft and simple but wise lesson about life from Ewan McGregor’s Sebastian J. Cricket, my father cried softly and said: “That was a good movie.” Sometimes I think that’s all that needs to be said. Sometimes you need a good movie to soften you up, and this story of fathers and sons touched him deeply. After the credits had stopped rolling, my father was still drying his eyes and so was I. A priceless moment created by a near-masterpiece of a film. It’s a moment I’ll never forget, and I am eternally grateful for it. I know that it is a tough ask for an animated film with as dark and real a backdrop as this one to be accepted by families, but this is one of the most impressive stop-motion animated films that I have ever seen and it packs an emotional and earned wallop that will sit with you. It’s a film that will make it so that you’ll never look at the story of Geppetto and Pinocchio the same way again.
10 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.