The story of Pinocchio has often been mistreated in the world of film adaptions. From ill-fated animations to the recent offering from Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks, and Disney+ that fared poorly with critics and audiences, it’s fair to say that the story has been bandied between less-than-capable hands. But now, Guillermo Del Toro is back with his penchant for fairytales and fantasy, and in this highly-anticipated release, he remedies years of underwhelming adaptations.
In many ways, we’re lucky that this almost-abandoned project has made it through production. It’s been through a 15-year process to bring it to this stage, with false starts and cancellations aplenty. Now, following a very special world premiere, I’m happy to say that the film is a triumph, audiences young and old loved it, and it’ll be an instant hit when it’s distributed by Netflix later in the year. But of course, we wouldn’t expect anything less from the master behind the subversive and compelling The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth: his signature is apparent in playful poking at the fringes of the genre.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio
Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Release date: October 15, 2022 (LFF World Premiere)
Rating: Not yet rated
GDT’s Pinocchio boasts a star-studded cast, with Ewan McGregor, Cate Blanchett, Gregory Mann, Tilda Swinton, Christoph Waltz, and Finn Wolfhard among others. The marketing has always emphasized that it takes a darker, more mysterious tone which sets it apart from other adaptation counterparts, and it certainly delivers on these fronts: at times it has to be seen to be believed.
At the London Film Festival 2022, I was lucky to attend the world premiere of this film with the director and stars in the same room. Del Toro prefaced the presentation by stating how important it was not just to obey orders blindly, and to act in a human way, even when authority figures would prefer us to act like puppets rather than free-thinking people.
He also made an affectionate tribute to his late mother, suggesting that she was the reason he was so fond of the story of Pinocchio and that she would be watching the film even though she’s no longer here. Throughout the film, a story of “imperfect fathers and imperfect sons”, it’s clear that family is a central part of del Toro’s life and work, and that he wanted to create an animation that’s not only visually stunning and gorgeous to watch, but which teaches the value of family and the importance of showing each other unconditional love in a brief lifetime.
We begin the story in 1918 when carpenter Gepetto (David Bradley) is living a seemingly idyllic life with his 10-year-old son, Carlo. Admired throughout the neighbourhood in their small Italian village, they’re inseparable and well-loved by everyone. That is until the threat of war hangs overhead and tragedy strikes. Heartbroken at the loss of his son, Gepetto whiles away the following years drinking and reminiscing about the past. One night in a drunken stupor, he decides to try to fashion a new Carlo out of wood in his basement, and – with a chirpy cricket named Sebastian (McGregor) and a kindly spirit (Tilda Swinton) watching on – the character of Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) comes to life.
Now, this adaptation takes a heavy artistic license with its source material, and pretty much every twist and turn that comes our way is unique to this film, unlikely to even have been anticipated in other animations or adaptations. It’s often more like del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in its themes – darker, more brooding than any Disney animation – but it also feels like a fable, a fairytale, and a Biblical myth all wrapped up into one film.
Thrilled to be alive and experiencing everything for the first time, Pinocchio initially lacks discipline and runs amok in the village. Soon he’s enticed by the offer of evil Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his sidekick monkey Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett) who cook up a scheme to install Pinocchio in their travelling show and capitalise on his unique talents.
After a few performances, Pinocchio finally realises the machinations of the corrupt circus manager and plots a scheme to escape. This involves his capacity to never die (he’s not a real boy, therefore he’s immortal); and a certain Fascist youth gang with whom our hero unwittingly takes up to flee Count Volpe. Yes – he becomes part of the dictatorship under Mussolini and is used for training practice for the other youths preparing to go to war. After that particularly ominous episode wraps up, he finds himself lost at sea, and there are allusions to everything from Jason and the Argonauts to the Odyssey, the story of Jonah to talking rabbits. It’s all here and del Toro isn’t afraid to serve up a whole host of dark and mysterious images to his young audience.
No matter your view of the material, you’ll adore the animation – it’s impossible not to be enchanted by the carefully-constructed characters, and marvel at how real the carpentry looks even though it’s been 3D animated. Drawing on the likes of Coraline and Tim Burton fare, it’s a visual feast. Care has gone into every aspect of this production, from the beautifully-drawn characters (helmed by cinematographer Frank Passingham and a whole crew of artistic directors) to the warm and soaring score by Alexandre Desplat. The hijinks are at times dark and not especially kid-friendly, though they’re undercut by silly songs and humorous moments which adults and children alike will appreciate when this hits Netflix for its streaming release in December.