Genre: Fairy Tale Running Time: 1 hr. 57 min.
Release Date: December 9th, 2022 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson Actors: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton
fter having lost a son, Carlo, during World War I, elderly Geppetto (David Bradley) feels empty and alone. When Carlo was alive, the two were inseparable and entirely content; Geppetto was a model Italian citizen (and a master woodcarver) and a good father, while Carlo was a faithful assistant and high-spirited boy. A fateful, supposedly unintentional bombing snatches life from the child, putting the father into a considerable, lengthy depression.
This is where the narrator, a writer – and insect – called Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), enters the picture, finally finding a perfect tree sanctuary in which to pen his memoir. But when Geppetto chops down that very pine haven to carve himself a wooden replacement for Carlo, Sebastian witnesses both the tortured creation of the entity and the interference of old spirits living in the mountains and forests, which work their uncommon magic to bring the puppet, named Pinocchio (Gregory Mann, who does exceptional voice work, managing the right levels of impertinence and tenderness), to life. “You’re not my son!”
This is instantly a darker take on “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” though that is exactly to be expected with del Toro at the helm. From Geppetto’s belligerent drinking to the blue fairy’s (or wood sprite’s) eeriness to the setup revolving around the Great War, details are uglier and more morbid. Even Pinocchio’s movements resemble that of a demon-possessed youth or a twitching zombie, while his strength is uncanny, his appearance is almost grotesque (with nails protruding from his back and a jagged hole in his chest; his head also swivels around like Regan in “The Exorcist”), and his disobedience persistent. Other human characters and supporting critters are also designed to be monstrous, while sets include the unexpected afterlife, populated by skeletal black rabbit corpses. “It’s an abomination!” “Take that unholy thing away!”
Plus, the rise of fascism plays in the background as Pinocchio ponders loss and death and what it means to be alive. Existential thoughts were always a part of this tale, but with the popularity of Disney’s 1940 version, it’s quite the twist to include severer notions; here, religion is also scrutinized, alongside the evils of Nazi persuasions, which seek to stifle dissidents. Singing is retained, but the songs aren’t all that memorable or important, nor do they brighten the mood too much; a certain type of realism is injected into the proceedings, including harsh proclamations, Pinocchio’s legally-binding contract with murderous carnival leader Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), and the insistence that Pinocchio’s perceived immortality will make him the perfect soldier for combat. “Life is such hideous pain!”
Major, familiar components of the story remain (though no adaptation closely follows the 1883 book, which is more like “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Wind in the Willows” than Disney’s most famous take), but new additions are typically bizarre and serious – from the war imagery (such as the appearance of Mussolini, repeated Sieg Heil salutes, and gas masks) to a miserable little monkey toady (comically, Cate Blanchett as Spazzatura, saying no words, uttering only high-pitched animal squeals and shrieks) to the continual disapproval from father figures. The film may have notes of a traditional Pinocchio retelling (such as the gargantuan whale, which was actually a dogfish in the source material), but the overall aura is of a far more original, striking, stringent interpretation; it’s Pinocchio in a war zone and immersed in gothic horror. “Eternal life can bring eternal suffering.”
As for the look of the picture, the stop-motion animation is sharply done; movements and environmental effects are spectacular. Character designs are also engaging, though they’re not of the humorously weird sorts seen in “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Corpse Bride,” or “Rango.” Fortunately, the heightened heroism and sacrifice here are powerful; with its soberer, maturer presentation, this is a unique, moving, potent vision of a timeless classic.
– Mike Massie