As far as adaptations of a well-known source material go, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is certainly one of the more unique ones. This is the second Pinocchio movie of 2022, right after Disney’s somewhat rote but faithful live action/CGI animation adaptation of the 1940s animated classic. Every decade or so somebody takes a crack at Pinocchio, probably because it’s a way to push VFX and/or animation, and it has some interesting thematic notions about personhood. Guillermo del Toro’s attempt can’t use well known bits from the Disney movie, there’s no “When You Wish Upon a Star” or trademark Disney characters like Jiminy Cricket. This does however use stop motion animation to give it a distinctive look and takes a few interesting liberties with the story. Frankly, the few times it stumbles is when it compares to the Disney version as the songs here are decent but not the iconic Disney musical numbers. This is a darker version of Pinocchio and distinctly different from the widely known Disney take.
In 1930s Italy, Geppetto (David Bradley) is mourning for the loss of his son years ago, so he decides to cut down a tree and make a wooden boy. Watching this misshapen puppet being made is Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a small raconteur bug. Even more unexpected is the arrival of a Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), who brings the wooden boy Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) to life, much to the shock and horror of Geppetto. The local Podesta (Ron Pearlman) wants to send Pinocchio off to train for war with the Podesta’s son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard). But Pinocchio decides instead to run away and join a traveling circus led by Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and send the money back to his father. Things go wrong and soon Geppetto and Sebastian the Cricket are swallowed up by a giant sea beast known as the Dogfish.
Like the recent Disney adaptation, this version makes it explicit the reason that Geppetto made Pinocchio was that he lost his son. Although the most recent Disney version had Tom Hanks’ Geppetto make the puppet out of longing for his son, in del Toro’s Pinocchio Geppetto is drunkenly enraged. He starts hacking at the tree covering his son’s grave while Sebastian the Cricket cries in horror. This Pinocchio leans hard into the tragedy of Geppetto losing his son, as the movie opens in World War I as his son is soulfully looking at a crucifix and then is unexpectedly bombed by war planes flying above.
There are a couple of moments that subvert things from the Disney movie. Multiple times it seems like Sebastian will break out into song ala Jiminy Cricket and then Sebastian will get knocked off indignantly and moan “Oh, the pain!” He does eventually get to sing his song over the credits and McGregor busts it out with gusto. When the dastardly Count tells Pinocchio that he is under his control he says “You may have no strings” which seems like a direct nod to “There Are No Strings on Me” from the Disney film. When Pinocchio gets new legs his wooden legs sort of look like the recognizable knee socks that Pinocchio wears in the Disney film. Where Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio falters is in the musical numbers, aside from one genuinely heart wrenching song called “Ciao Pappa”, the songs can’t match what Disney did. At least the music numbers here are rather brief.
One big plot point missing from this Pinocchio is the lack of a Pleasure Island and the greedy kids turning into donkeys. It is basically side-stepped instead for Pinocchio and his friend Candlewick being drafted into the army. In both instances they’re being turned into something they don’t want to be. Sending the kids off to war works as a theme in the movie where Pinocchio often dies and comes back. The scenes in the afterlife are funny and creepy with some chatty bone-cats and a version of Death that flips an hourglass waiting for Pinocchio to come back to life.
The disorienting vibe is enhanced by the stop motion photography and intricate character designs. Pinocchio looks way more like a haphazard puppet chopped from a tree, not the clean and neat lines of the classic Disney version. Mann’s vocal performance as Pinocchio as an energetic kid makes the whole design weirder. The designs of the humans are outlandish and emote well, especially Count Volpe as Waltz puts extra nasty into his lines. The Podesta looks like a menacing military man as Pearlman has a gruff vocal delivery. The movie is not afraid to lean into the dark, with Pinocchio being at one point under threat of being crucified and set on fire. This darkness is offset by McGregor’s rambling performance as his talking cricket has a tendency for overly dramatic pronouncements. Bradley as Geppetto goes between loudly ticked off and softly emotional.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio gleefully bounces back and forth between farce, heavy drama, and fantastical images. It certainly is different enough from the iconic Disney version to stand out on its own. Of all the Pinocchio adaptations over the years, this embraces the story’s weird creepiness to make something distinct.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Director: Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
Starring: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Burn Gorman, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Christoph Waltz and Tilda Swinton