Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (LFF Review) – By Far The Year’s Best Pinocchio Movie

DIRECTORS: Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

CAST: Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Burn Gorman, John Turturro

RUNNING TIME: 114 mins

CERTIFICATE: PG TBC

BASICALLY…: A wooden puppet comes to life in 1930s Fascist Italy…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

After not one but two Pinocchio movies so far this year (Disney’s live-action remake of its animated classic, and the now infamous Pauly Shore-voiced animated one), both of pretty dire quality, one would almost be forgiven for being trepidatious about a third one. However, this one has something that those other ones did not: the visionary genius of a certain Guillermo del Toro.

It’s not a secret that I really do love this filmmaker’s work, and nearly every time I find myself blown away in some capacity by the sheer beauty and imagination on the screen, but even I found myself completely shocked by how breath-takingly beautiful his first animated feature is (although it must be stated that, despite the title Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, he shares directing credit with Mark Gustafson, making his own directorial debut after serving as animation director on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox). His and Gustafson’s take on the classic story is certainly dark, as one might expect from the Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water filmmaker, but also filled with enough joy, humour, originality, and even music – yes, it’s also a musical, which came as a huge surprise to me when characters would suddenly start singing out of nowhere – to proudly push the year’s other Pinocchio movies through the wood-chipper.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio brings the story forward slightly to 1930s Italy, when the country is undergoing the transition towards fascism. In a small town within the mountains, a heart-broken carpenter named Geppetto (David Bradley) – grieving the loss of his young son in an air raid bombing during the First World War – assembles wood from a pine tree during a drunken rage, and crafts a wooden puppet to symbolically bring his son back. Of course, said puppet comes to life by the magic of a blue spirit (Tilda Swinton), who names the newly-alive wooden boy Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), and assigns a cricket named Sebastian (Ewan McGregor) – who had initially settled down in the pine tree to write his memoirs – to guide him on the right path. As both Geppetto and Sebastian struggle to make the unruly Pinocchio more obedient to the rules and restrictions within the increasingly fascist society, the wooden boy is tempted into showbusiness by exploitative carnival owner Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his monkey assistant Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett), sending him on a grand adventure through the country, and possibly beyond the realm of the living, as he slowly learns what it is to be a real boy in this particular time period.

Even if you feel as though you know the story of Pinocchio inside and out, this version constantly finds ways to subvert expectations, while still staying faithful in tone to the original tale (though del Toro clearly takes after the 1940 Disney one in a lot of areas too, making it by far the superior remake to Robert Zemeckis’ one). The decision to set the film during Italy’s fascist phase is an extraordinarily clever one, and honestly befuddles me that I have not yet seen this done in any other Pinocchio adaptation prior; the traditional themes of being obedient and following the rules ring very differently within this context, especially as the young and curious wooden boy continuously upsets the established order by simply asking questions or rebelling against authority figures such as his own father. Furthermore, there will be familiar sequences that will be reshaped to fit the drastically disturbing turmoil, including Volpe’s puppet show being transformed into propaganda for Mussolini’s war efforts, and a twist on both the Land of Toys concept from the original story and Pleasure Island from both Disney versions where, instead of Pinocchio and the other young boys being turned into donkeys, they’re being trained to become young soldiers before being sent straight out to the battlefield (it’s up to you to decide which is the worse punishment for the boys). Del Toro, who also co-wrote the script with Patrick McHale and Matthew Robbins, weaves the historical context in wonderfully to this timeless story, and gives it new meaning and purpose in ways that will have viewers both young and old become re-enamoured with the tale once more.

The movie is much darker than a lot of other recent adaptations, but not so much that children can’t get into it as much as older audiences. It’s a film that respects just about everyone of any age, tackling heavy themes and concepts without dumbing any of it down or making it too confusing to follow, and touching upon elements that one might not have previously considered with the story of Pinocchio (for instance, since he is technically not human, can he actually die? That answer is revealed in surprisingly existential fashion). At the same time, it remembers to give its characters all the dimensions they need to be interesting and fun to be around, from David Bradley’s incredibly layered Geppetto to Cate Blanchett who, as the monkey sidekick of Christoph Waltz’s delightfully boo-hiss villain, gets incredible mileage out of dialogue that is mostly just screeches and grunts, and manages to be one of the best characters of the entire film as a result. Their voice acting is so excellent composed that you feel as though they really are delivering awards-worthy performances in the recording booth, and when it comes time for them to break out into song, not only do the numbers not upset the tone but they’re performed with infectious enthusiasm by just about everyone.

Needless to say, the stop-motion animation itself is marvellous. Each character has their own unique design, movement, and eccentric little quirk to make them truly pop as physical beings in this universe, and the sets are meticulously designed to where, at times, you forget that they’re even technically miniature locations in a studio. You can truly feel del Toro’s love for the artform shine in the near seamless frame-by-frame composition, while also in other areas leaning into his affection for Harryhausen-style effects work on the more monstrous characters, complete with cinematography that lights and shoots scenes like it were a major live-action production. As with pretty much every other film he’s made, the filmmaker – who has been developing this movie for over a decade, with studios reluctant to fund his darker, less consumer-friendly vision until Netflix finally swooped in – puts everything he’s got into telling exactly the kind of story he wants to tell, and successfully does so with all the artistic merit and bittersweet emotion that he could possibly give to this story.

It really is just a fantastic piece of both filmmaking and storytelling (animated or otherwise), and is easily one of the year’s best films – making the year’s other two, significantly inferior versions of the same story feel like a steep but fair price to pay before finally getting the one true Pinocchio movies of 2022.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an unmissable rendition of the classic story that updates the action to Fascist Italy with stunning results, accompanied by excellent stop-motion animation, fun and lovable characters, complex themes, bittersweet emotion, and a real love for both its craft and its multi-aged audience. It’s by far the year’s best Pinocchio film, and one of the year’s best too.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio will be released on Netflix from Friday 9th December 2022.

It will also be released in cinemas in November (exact date TBC).

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