‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’: An Anti-Fascist Fantasy for the Whole Family
What is it about Pinocchio? It’d merely be a funny coincidence if Guillermo del Toro’s dark new take on this classic tale were only the second adaptation in recent memory, after Robert Zemeckis’s Disney version from earlier this year, which starred Tom Hanks as Geppetto. But both were beaten to the punch by Pauly Shore’s that went viral back in March. And that version was relatively fast on the heels of a live-action version from a few years ago directed by Matteo Garrone, an Italian director most famous for his slim, brutal gangster movie Gomorrah. Movie history is littered with Pinocchios. Jonathan Taylor Thomas has played Pinocchio. Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, about a robot doll who tries and fails to adequately replace a family’s dead child, is only more powerful for our recognizing the Pinocchio of it all, down to that movie’s dreamlike climax involving a blue fairy.
Even some of the loosest takes on this story manage to stick closely enough to the basics to feel like they’re playing it straight. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, co-directed with Mark Gustafson, is different in form from the others — it’s stop-motion animation — and has a buffer of additional context, being set in the fascist Italy of the 1930s. It’s trying to do things a little differently. This Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) gets shot at the behest of none other than Mussolini. This Pinocchio dies over and over as if he’s mistaken himself for Tom Cruise.
Somehow, though, he’s still basically just Pinocchio. Del Toro’s love of the weird, his affinity for ugly-cute beasties and unimpeachable respect for craftspeople (animators, in particular) make it forgivable that his Pinocchio (which is now streaming on Netflix) doesn’t totally live up to its initial promise of savoring the darker riches of this story. The material would seem like a comfortable fit for a director known to admire the dark magic of fairy tales: In some ways, he makes fairy tales for adults, entertaining attempts to merge dreams with nightmares, fantasies with fears. Pinocchio is a kid-friendly movie, which may explain the dissonance. The movie leans into small flashes of humor and silly-goose antics, like a running bit involving one Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who, rather than getting to be the story’s guide and voice of reason like usual, is altogether blown off, cut off, smooshed, and comically ignored — kids’ stuff.
The movie’s heart feels like it’s more invested in other stuff — in the way that Pinocchio, after being called a demon by the townspeople, points at Jesus on the cross and wonders why that guy, who’s also made of wood, is treated like a god instead of, like Pinocchio, being called the devil. Or in the way that Pinocchio’s nearly-anarchic impulses — set himself on fire, skip school, you name it — brush up against the local fascist authority’s desire to rein him in, keep him controlled, and turn him into a good soldier. There’s a storm brewing in this Pinocchio. The movie opens, not with Geppetto’s son dying any old way, but with a specific tragedy befitting the movie’s setting: the boy gets blown up by a stray bomb. It simply falls from the sky, and he’s finished.
It’s this darker world that del Toro’s movie excels at creating for us, the one where a local Podestà (voiced by Ron Perlman) is initially put off by this wooden boy and his odd, gangly antics before realizing that he’s a potential war machine that might do wonders for fascism. Del Toro’s script (co-written with Adventure Time’s Patrick McHale) sticks closely enough to the familiar that these new details feel less like interventions than slight reinventions. We get the exploitative carnival master luring Pinocchio away from school (Count Volpe, voiced by Christoph Waltz) and the encounter at sea with a monstrous brute (in this case, a ridiculously well-designed, oversized dogfish). But we also get mostly-interesting side notes and supplements: conversations with Death (Tilda Swinton, who also voices the wish-granting Wood Sprite), skeletal bunnies as pallbearers, that abrupt, fatal encounter with Il Duce. The movie is moving — the source material has been hanging around since 1883 for good reason — but del Toro’s better at the violence and the dark irony, better at revealing the ways in which this story was already sort of twisted. Surprisingly, the moment that he dives furthest into this richer material, taking us directly to war, is the weakest stretch of the movie. He’s more effective at letting certain forms of violence hover over everything as an omnipresent threat, where some things can still be left to the imagination. His movies are good at stoking our imaginations, nudging us to follow them wherever they take us.
It’s the animation that makes even the dull stretches worth it. The movie is beautiful. This take on the Pinocchio puppet reminds us, among other things, that he’s made of wood. He looks and moves and creaks and breaks like wood. He’s got knots for eyes and an entire personality carved into his body by benefit of the fractal patterns in the pine wood used to make him. He’s got the kind of thin awkwardness befitting a puppet, the kind where the head looks too heavy for the body. And yet there’s a real boyishness to him, somehow — here and throughout, with every character, the animators clearly took care to master the expressiveness of the eyes, the natural flow of movement. The visual details overwhelm the movie’s flaws. The gunky innards of the dogfish, the chimera-like Death’s crystal-sharp features, the painstaking texture of a mere pine cone — this is the stuff that makes Pinocchio sing. The story’s detours don’t entirely pan out. If you’re watching the movie for its vision, you won’t need them to.