Filmmaking craft aside, I’ve never really had a fondness for Pinocchio. This is likely because the donkey scene scared the ever-loving fuck out of me as a child, and I generally struggle to find interest in animated films as a matter of personal taste. While I can credit the donkey sequence in Disney’s Pinocchio for being instrumental in planting the seeds for my current love of body horror, the utterly batshit insane tale of a puppet that wants to be a real boy just doesn’t do it for me, and given the widespread disinterest in the “live-action” Pinocchio from earlier this year, it seems that’s the case for many others.
But here’s the thing: I love Guillermo del Toro. Anything he touches is worth watching, even if it’s not always a home run, and after the one-two punch of The Shape of Water and Nightmare Alley, two of the best movies I have EVER seen, I wasn’t going to let my general distaste toward the little boy puppet with no strings keep me away. Catching Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio was a gamble of minimal loss, and boy oh boy did it pay off in droves. Gorgeously animated, cleverly updated, and voiced by a rogues gallery of incredible talent, this stop-motion reboot of little fanfare is one of the best movies of the year. Yes, it will be appearing on Netflix in a few short weeks, but if you have the opportunity to see it on the big screen, you absolutely should.
It’s called Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, but the Academy Award-winning filmmaker is not the sole auteur, sharing directorial billing with Mark Gustafson (Claymation Easter). Together they’ve created an image of the classic story that is a bit darker, a bit more adult, and almost always jaw-dropping in the visual department, even though I couldn’t help but laugh that both the puppet and the “real” people on screen are all puppets.
The script, by del Toro himself, occasional collaborator Matthew Robbins, and Adventure Time scribe Patrick McHale, utilizes elements from Collodi’s source novel that aren’t seen in the Disney classic, but not as much as it uses the general shell and plot beats of its animated forbear (it should be noted that no adaptation of the novel comes even close to the utter insanity of the source material — at least per the miles-long wikipedia plot description). What this adaptation imbues the story with is a stronger motivation for Geppetto to… build himself a little boy. This is based in a father/son dynamic that is vintage del Toro (notably, he did the same for Nightmare Alley, a source novel that was much more stuffed with mommy issues than anything paternal). Also added is a much more honest look at death and loss than you’re ever apt to get from a Disney flick. There are moments in GDT’s Pinocchio that will wrench your heart, but in a frank and mature way that shows a respect for the the intellect of young viewers. These dramatic turns are always evened out by wild humor and plenty of joy — it’s a stop-motion film, so there are requisite poop jokes, and damn good ones.
Normally, I find it a bit gauche to hire superstars as voice talent, rather than professional voice actors, since it’s typically employed as a way to boost a film’s profile rather than its quality. Fortunately, this cast is a mix of both types of performers, and all add to the film itself (notable that the press material respectably leans into none of their celebrity). The cast includes Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket, Gregory Mann as Pinocchio, Christoph Waltz as the evil Count Volpe, Cate Blanchett as Spazzaturo (a monkey who only ever makes monkey noises), and Tim Blake Nelson as a squadron of ghost rabbits that live in the afterlife (yep), but the stand out is David Bradley as Geppetto. His scraggly voice is perfect for this unique version of the legendary woodworker, and when he is tasked with singing one of the film’s more heartbreaking tunes, it’s pure magic.
The songs are all new, created by both del Toro and Alexandre Desplat, and while none are quite as catchy as I’ve Got No Strings, they all hit grand emotional beats, which are further milked by the inclusion of a repeating motif in the overall score.
Craft, story, and genuine heart combine to create a new, newly definitive take on a tale older than anyone living today. The level of maturity and honesty on display is exceedingly rare in films aimed at children. It’s refreshing to see a young audience being handled sans kid gloves, while the adults in the room are brought on a similar emotional journey without the need for the winking humor that often gets them through the door and into this world. This one truly is for the whole family.
Check out the film on Netflix.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Written by Guillermo del Toro, Patrick McHale, Matthew Robbins, Carlo Collodi
Starring Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, Ron Perlman, Burn Gorman
Rated PG, 117 minutes