Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio Review: Stunningly Realized Stop-Motion Animation

Feb 2, 2023

In a year of multiple Pinocchio movies, it may have been necessary to officially call this one Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, but it is also apt – the Mexican auteur’s signature is all over it. From the story’s fantasy elements to the protagonist’s similarity to Frankenstein’s monster, it’s obvious what drew him to the material, and the stunning craftwork of the stop-motion animation makes clear why he would want to tell it in this way. He’s a natural fit for both subject and medium, and it’s possible to focus solely on the artistry and come out enamored. But this retelling also makes a few key adaptational choices that fundamentally change how the story works; what once held a lesson for children, namely boys, now addresses their parents, namely fathers. Pinocchio is bound to make an impact by sheer force of filmmaking, but whether the emotion of it fully lands might depend in part on whether the viewer identifies more as parent or child.

Narrated by the soothing tones of Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), Pinocchio opens with a prologue destined for tragedy. In WWI-era Italy, Gepetto (David Bradley) is happy, respected, and devoted to his perfectly lovely son, Carlo (Gregory Mann). Then, in a war-related stroke of bad luck, the boy is killed, and the poor woodcarver breaks. Years pass, until one night, in a drunken fury, Geppetto determines to bring him back. He fells the pine tree planted in Carlo’s honor (where the cricket narrator had just taken up residence) and begins to fashion it into a marionette facsimile of his lost child. Muttering that he’ll finish the puppet in the morning, he passes out, and as he sleeps, the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) appears. Having watched the grieving man and taken pity on him, she conjures life into Geppetto’s creation, and charges Sebastian (self-identified as “homeowner”) with guiding him on the path to goodness. This last part is the one that everyone knows, but the differences in how it comes to pass are important.

Related: Wendell & Wild Review: Ambitious Stop-Motion Movie Is Creepy Family Fun

Sebastian J. Cricket in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

In this adaptation, no one but the Wood Sprite really wanted Pinocchio (Mann) to live – Geppetto awakens to find his puppet has become a gleeful, destructive whirlwind, and is terrified. Cricket agrees to be his conscience only after he is promised a wish for his troubles. Pinocchio himself is visibly crude, displaying his otherness in a way that establishes him as part of del Toro’s canon of monsters, and the townspeople react to him with fear and rejection. When the shock fades, however, all who encounter him see Pinocchio as what he could be, rather than who he is: a cash cow for the conniving carnie Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz); an unkillable soldier for the town’s fascist Podestà (Ron Perlman); and, for Geppetto, Carlo’s second coming. But even when he tries to adopt those guises, always a short-lived endeavor, the puppet cannot be anything but who he is. What he yearns for most of all, even more than becoming a “real boy,” is to be loved and accepted.

The journey of moral growth, then, is really Geppetto’s, and just as the original story exemplified bad behavior in boys, del Toro sets his sights on bad fathers. Volpe and the Podestà are two examples, and not only through their relationships with Pinocchio. The showman has adopted a monkey named Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett – yes, really), which, tellingly, is the Italian word for garbage. He abuses Spazzatura, both physically and verbally, while sprinkling in just enough praise to turn his approval into an addiction. Podestà has a son of his own, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard), whose name also becomes an expression of parental cruelty. The fascist prefect is exacting in his attempt to mold his son in his own image, an ideal Candlewick could never measure up to even if it suited him. Both Spazzatura and Candlewick regard Pinocchio, the apple of their fathers’ eyes, with intense jealousy, and the scars of their parental relationships threaten to consume them.

Pinocchio and Count Volpe in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

The milieu becomes crucial to this reading. Fascism as an ideology is presented as a warped form of paternalism, with Italy the “Fatherland” and its male citizens its “sons.” As the Podestà (a former blacksmith) hammers Candlewick into shape, so Benito Mussolini warps his country. Religion is a key presence here as well – Geppetto and Carlo were working on the town church’s massive crucifix when the boy died, and, until Pinocchio came into the picture, it was left unfinished. The unruly puppet is deployed for some quality social critique in both the political and religious arenas, but Jesus as a symbol is important in a more sincere way. Unlike the priest (how does one address priests, again?), he is a son that people look to for guidance, and this is ultimately what del Toro’s film teaches its audience. A good father sees his son not as something to be changed according to their wishes or desires, but as someone to learn from and, inevitably, change for.

This, of course, is a fraction of what there is to say about del Toro’s new film. It rewards rewatches and further thought, and will likely take some time to tease out fully from its deceptively simple narrative. But, one’s experience in the moment is dependent in part on how strongly one identifies with Geppetto, and with the movie’s explorations of death and grief. Some will classify Pinocchio a deeply moving masterwork; others an interesting, supremely made, and ultimately sweet take on a well-known classic. Either way, it is a lovely piece of work from one of cinema’s pre-eminent artists, and that is always something to be thankful for.

More: My Father’s Dragon Review: Gorgeous Animated Movie Runs On Empathy

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio debuts on Netflix Friday, December 9 after a limited theatrical run. The film is 117 minutes long and is rated PG for dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor and brief smoking.

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