"KEEP BUSTIN'."

Pinocchio (2022) (the Guillermo del Toro one)

Well, would you look at that? Guillermo del Toro (BLADE II) finally finished his stop motion version of Pinocchio! Looks like it was first announced 15 years ago. Like with his Frankenstein and his In the Mountains of Madness I’d kind of given up on it ever happening. Then when it clearly really was happening it was stop motion so it took some years.

After all that it’s kind of a bummer that it’s a Netflix production with too limited a theatrical release for me to see it on the big screen. But they do seem to be promoting it more than most of their movies, and maybe more people will watch it at home than would’ve if a real movie company put it out. I don’t know. The point is he finally got to make it (co-directing with Mark Gustafson, a Will Vinton claymation veteran and animation director for THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX). And even better, I think it’s really good.

I wasn’t sure I would love it. I was a little put off in the opening, because this Geppetto has a young son named Carlo who is… dare I say, pretty annoying? Something bothered me about this boy (Alfie Tempest) who seems to have no friends, life or interests outside of spending the day with his strangely-old-to-have-a-young-son father. Mrs. Vern said I hated Carlo because he was an obedient little boy, which made me realize why he had to be that way: he’s what Pinocchio will think he has to live up to. But I don’t know, man. Of course it’s incredibly sad for this elderly man to lose his young son and only friend, but it would move me even more if the kid wasn’t so damn cloying.

No matter. That’s over quick, and it’s a good opening otherwise. Although Geppetto (voice of David Bradley – the one from the HARRY POTTER movies, not the one from the AMERICAN NINJA movies) has a cuckoo clock or two he doesn’t specialize in the fun novelties that the Disney one does – his woodcarving skills are so revered that he’s greeted as “Master Geppetto” as he walks through town. The square-jawed Podesta (Ron Perlman, POLICE ACADEMY: MISSION TO MOSCOW) praises him as “a model Italian citizen.” He brings Carlo with him when he works on the almost-finished crucifix that hangs at the front of the church. But Carlo becomes a casualty in a random act of World War I inhumanity when Austrian bombers dump their payloads to keep from being weighed down, not even specifically targeting the village.

Geppetto spends years grieving and drinking, as Carlo’s favorite pinecone (long story) grows into a tree right next to his grave. And that’s where our narrator, Sebastian Cricket (Ewan McGregor, ROBOTS) comes in.

I don’t know the book, but I’ve read that the cricket is only in it briefly and then Pinocchio kills him with a hammer, later to be judged again by his ghost. Del Toro’s approach is closer to Walt Disney’s Jiminy Cricket, but I like his spin on it. Sebastian is a traveler who has just settled down in a hole inside the pine tree to write his memoirs when drunken, grieving Geppetto chops it down and carves it into Pinocchio. After Geppetto falls down some stairs and passes out (the puppet’s crude look is due to being unfinished), a Wood Sprite takes pity and brings his puppet to life to comfort him. When Sebastian speaks up for his rights as a homeowner, the Sprite placates him by suggesting he act as Pinocchio’s heart, since he already lives in a hole in his chest. (Flattering him into compliance by telling him he has an important job.)

The Wood Sprite is bright blue and has glorious wings covered in eyes, and I was so swept up in the pure del Toro of it all that it didn’t even occur to me for a while that this is his take on The Blue Fairy. Duh.

The existence of Pinocchio freaks people out – even Geppetto at first. He locks him in a closet to prevent him from going to church, but he goes anyway and scares the shit out of everybody. It’s the same church from years ago, still bomb damaged, and he wonders why everybody seems to like that other wooden guy (Geppetto’s unfinished Jesus) but not him.

As in most versions of the story, Pinocchio is sent to school, but gets abducted to perform in a marionette show. Del Toro (being classy now, I guess) ditches the animal-people, so there’s no fox, but instead the sharp-nosed, giant-haired human Count Volpe (Christophe Waltz, THE GREEN HORNET).

I had no problem separating this in my mind from Disney’s PINOCCHIO, except when Pinocchio comes out on stage and starts to sing, because it can’t help but live in the shadow of “I’ve Got No Strings.” This is also a musical, and the songs (by Alexandre Desplat, FANTASTIC MR. FOX) are fine, but not my favorite part. Maybe it’s worth having them just for the joke that every time Sebastian tries to start up a musical number he gets interrupted. (He finally gets to perform it from beyond the grave during the end credits.)

The movie really gets cooking when Pinocchio falls in the street and gets hit by a car. He finds himself in some sort of afterlife or purgatory, inside a pine coffin with his likeness carved into the lid, carried by black rabbit skeleton pallbearers (Tim Blake Nelson, JOE’S APARTMENT). But Pinocchio gets out of the coffin and interrupts the rabbits’ card game, saying he’s bored.

They send him to talk to Death, who confirms that he’s technically immortal, but when he dies he has to wait for her hourglass to run out before he can return. She’s the Wood Sprite’s sister and is a similar but even cooler design, with eyes on enormous horns, and feline hindquarters but with two tails that stand up like cobras. Both characters are voiced by Tilda Swinton in her second stop motion movie (after ISLE OF DOGS).

After he comes back to life he willingly rejoins Count Volpe’s puppet troupe to get money for supporting his old man… and to avoid the draft! (That’s my del Toro!)

So get this. Count Volpe decides to turn his show into nationalistic propaganda, and manages to get grunty li’l Benito Mussolini (Tom Kenny, the voice of Spongebob Squarepants) to attend a performance. But by this time Pinocchio has grown utterly bored with the material and decides to revamp it to be more about poop and farts. I don’t think he has any understanding of who or what he’s subverting, but I still think he deserves a few antifa points. Mussolini is not a fan, and has Pinocchio shot and the theater burned down. (Whatever happened to freedom of speech?)

Pinocchio comes back to life of course, and Count Volpe survives, to later seek revenge. One thing I like is that Volpe’s monkey assistant Spazzatura (who doesn’t speak, but his grunts and wheezes are provided by Academy Award winner Cate Blanchett, THE GIFT) ends up siding with Pinocchio. It’s a trope I always enjoy, but what makes this extra sweet is that even as a good guy Spazzatura looks like a fuckin asshole. In his first scene I thought he was a gremlin. But he can’t help it, he was born looking like that (and given the Italian word for garbage as his name). He can still learn to be nice. Good for him.

With del Toro’s established appreciation for carnivals, I’d expect him to go hog wild on the Pleasure Island part. To my surprise he has no Pleasure Island (or Toyland, as it’s apparently called in the book). Del Toro’s substitution is Very Serious but I think pretty brilliant – Pinocchio gets sent to a military training camp. Instead of kids being lured in by the freedom to misbehave, they’re being forced to follow commands, and instead of being turned into donkeys to work in salt mines they’re being turned into cannon fodder for a fascist dictator. Same shit, different assholes.

The character called Lampwick in the Disney version retains the original name, Candlewick. Here he’s the Podesta’s son, and he’s voiced by Finn Wolfhard (IT). He takes after his dad and bullies Pinocchio at first, but eventually they become friends and Pinocchio teaches him not to be such spazzatura.

We do get the traditional climax of rescuing Geppetto from the belly of a whale (I guess it’s a giant dogfish), combined with the famous nose-growing-from-lying idea. So the structure we’re familiar with is still there, just reinvented at every other stage.

Looking strictly at the character design, I think Henry Selick’s WENDELL & WILD is a more appealing 2022 stop motion Netflix release. Del Toro based the look on an edition of the book illustrated by Gus Grimley, and I really don’t like those drawings. (I feel like an asshole writing that, but I figure Grimley shouldn’t give a fuck what I think after Guillermo del Toro liked it so much he made a movie out of it!) I’m glad they released concept art in that style years ago, because it made me less anxious for the movie to come out.

In the end, only enormously nosed and haired Lord Volpe (who looks and moves like one of the more annoying Jim Carrey characters) bugs me. Overall it’s a gorgeous movie to look at, as sophisticated in its craft (including the cinematography of Frank Passingham [CHICKEN RUN, KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS]) as the best modern stop motion productions, if not as stylized, being based in something closer to a natural world. It still has beautiful sights to show you. Look at these buildings:


The type of location that would be great if it was real, but becomes astounding when you know somebody sculpted and painted its every detail just for that shot. And I shouldn’t play down how wonderful the more fantastical elements are, especially the blue characters. Look at this guy!


And this gal!


Those are my two favorite characters. The heart and the reaper. Love and death.

And this PINOCCHIO’s greatest feature (very much in contrast to the aforementioned Selick movie) is its script, which is credited as story by del Toro and his long time collaborator Matthew Robbins (director of THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN and BINGO), and script by del Toro and Patrick McHale, an Adventure Time staff writer who created the great 2014 animated mini-series Over the Garden Wall. (I finally caught up with that one this year, and I highly recommend it. Very cute and funny but also kinda creepy, with a very good autumn atmosphere.)

Their adaptation reworks and retells this classic story in a way that seems timeless and traditional, yet completely fresh and del Toro. It is clearly very personal – not so much “I’d like to do a cartoon!” as “I have something I want to say in this medium.” Like THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE and PAN’S LABYRINTH it contrasts the innocence of childhood and fairy tales against the terrors of war and death, but I think this one is actually made to work for kids and adults both. They’ll get different things out of it, but that’s what movies are best at.

(warning to parents: Liam O’Donnell said on Action For Everyone that it made his kids cry, and not in a good way)

I’m thankful that I have this compulsion to write about movies, because the process helps some of the stuff that breezes past me while viewing sink in. While watching it, I found the epilogue (in which, MAJOR SPOILER MAJOR SPOILER MAJOR SPOILER, Pinocchio outlives and mourns Geppetto, Sebastian and even god damn Spazzatura – that’s the one that got me) profoundly moving. Del Toro lost his father several years ago and his mother right before the premiere (and the movie is dedicated to them), and I recognize that feeling of being forced to wrestle with mortality, grief and acceptance. But maybe the sudden UP-montage-level heaviness coming at the very end of the movie threw me off, because it felt like it kind of came out of nowhere.

As I write about it I realize the obvious – that this whole story is about Geppetto being so unable to handle the loss that humanity threw at him that nature itself reached out and created Pinocchio to soothe him. So Pinocchio’s later years represents progress. When it’s his turn to lose everyone that’s important to him he doesn’t become an angry drunk. He learns to keep their memories with him (represented by literally keeping Sebastian’s body in his heart!), appreciate the time he had with them, and continue for however much time he’s been allotted. It’s all you can do, really.

I know we’re not supposed to speak of Robert Zemeckis’s CG remake of PINOCCHIO from earlier this year, but I’m a critic who plays by my own rules, so I’m doing it. I think it’s interesting that Zemeckis and del Toro both added something that’s not from the book or the 1940 Disney masterpiece – that Pinocchio is sort of Geppetto’s replacement for a dead son. In a way that’s closer to A.I.: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE, Spielberg and Kubrick’s riff on PINOCCHIO. In the Zemeckis version it’s possible to interpret him as a reincarnation, but Geppetto recognizes him as an individual (and at the end as a “real boy” whether or not his wood magically turns to flesh). Del Toro’s conclusion is similar, but even better. Geppetto apologizes for “trying to make you someone you were not” and tells him “Don’t be Carlo. Or anyone else. Be exactly who you are.” The possibility of literally becoming “a real boy” is not a concern in this telling, and the change is so natural I didn’t even think about it.

With those nitpicks I expressed earlier about Carlo and some of the designs, I may sound more negative about this than many of the reviews you’ve seen. But the more I sit with it the more I think it’s truly a great movie, a new animated classic, and definitely somewhere in the top half of del Toro’s filmography. Imagine that – his first animated movie is a retelling of a story we all know from one of the best and most famous animated movies ever made, and yet it truly stands on its own and feels like an entirely different thing. An individual. A real movie. I love it just how it is.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 28th, 2022 at 1:09 pm and is filed under Reviews, Cartoons and Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

6 Responses to “Pinocchio (2022) (the Guillermo del Toro one)”

  1. “I think it’s interesting that Zemeckis and del Toro both added something that’s not from the book or the 1940 Disney masterpiece – that Pinocchio is sort of Geppetto’s replacement for a dead son.”

    The cynic in me wonders if they weren’t worried about Geppetto coming off as a pedo for wanting to be a father without a ‘he misses his dead son!’ justification. Which is odd, given I’ve heard of quite a few movies about single women wanting to have kids.

  2. This is a damn good movie. Beautiful and thoughtful- I don’t think it’s quite as good as DEVIL’S BACKBONE or PAN’S LABYRINTH (the script is a little too shaggy in comparison) but it’s definitely of a piece thematically.
    I haven’t read the original book, but I knew going in that Pinnocchio (unwillingly) kills the cricket with a hammer. That actually happens on this adaptation, but the cricket survives. I dunno… I like the book version, where the cricket comes back to haunt Pinocchio and act as his conscience; it’s such a beautiful illustration of how we incorporate our screw-ups, and how guilt over them helps us shape for the better. I wish they could have kept that.
    I thought it was interesting that [spoilers!] in this version all the bad guys get their comeuppance, I thought that was the weakest part here, at least when Mangiafuoco appears out of nowhere just so he can have his ass handed to him. It’s not your story, dude, you didn’t deserve a resolution. Though I guess at least it gives Spazzatura some peace.

    The whole final sequence is gorgeous. Interesting you mention AI, because that also had a similar epilogue- in that case I feel they failed because the movie had already said what it needed to say. Here it’s a very moving summation of some secondary themes which were not necessarily very clear while you were watching the movie… they blindsided me, at least, and made me choke up a little.

    Glad you mentioned Over the Garden Wall, because that’s a wonderful blast of spooky americana that needs to be seen more. What a great series.

    Aesthetically I liked it a lot more than Wendell and Wild, but technically… Sellick barely cheats or cuts corners (I think they use computers to clear out wires and armatures), while Pinocchio has several CGI assists. In… W&W every scene is a showpiece – it even had a scene of a truck rolling over a frozen puddle that blew my mind.
    And I did like the design for this Pinocchio; it’s very expressive, funny, and cool-looking, and I loved how he starts out moving like a creepy marionette thing and learns how to move like a human.

  3. I haven’t seen this yet; I do want to. But I have to say, and I heard this was an element in this before I learned it’s apparently also in the Zemeckis version (which I’m in no hurry to see, but not ruling out *forever*), I kind of hate the idea of Geppetto creating and/or being blessed with Pinocchio to make up for the death of a son. I fully admit I could well be won over by the way it’s executed, but when I heard about it, it just reminded me of all that stuff about Willy Wonka’s dad everyone hated in the Burton CHOCOLATE FACTORY or the fatherhood stuff in his ALICE IN WONDERLAND; adding some Psychology and Motivations in Screenwriting 101 elements to stories that are far more interesting and appealing without it. I think if we’d had TIM BURTON’S PINOCCHIO in 2012 or so and it had this element, it would have been a “there he goes again” moment. Also, “what if Geppetto created Pinocchio in lieu of his dead son” has been the basis for ASTRO BOY for some 60 years, so it’s not particularly fresh either.

    Like I said, could well work beautifully in the actual film, just giving my own ignorant take. If you want to read more of my drivel, here is an essay I wrote a couple of years ago for University about pre-2022 versions of PINOCCHIO. Any diehard Pacmaniacs who want to read more of my drivel on the subject can find a blog link at the very bottom.

  4. Pacman – Zemeckis’s version is of course officially a remake of the Disney classic. In that one, I saw the dead son element as an answer to the question “How do we have live action Tom Hanks wishing to a star for a puppet to come to life without it being ridiculous?” Make him sad and lonely and it doesn’t seem quite as laughable. But in del Toro’s version it’s more directly a story about dealing with loss, and about both Geppetto and Pinocchio having to come to terms with the fact that Pinocchio can’t replace his son and deserves the chance to be himself.

  5. I watched this NYE and thought it was very good. Like Vern I was a bit put off by the carnival guy’s design, he is just way too over the top ugly and evil looking. I liked Pinocchio’s design very much though, and all the other characters, though how 60 year old Gepetto had a 6 year old boy was a bit of a mystery. Why didn’t they give him a younger look when he was with Carlo?? And if Carlo was killed by a WW1 bomb, and Mussolini shows up later, then that’s 20 years between Carlo dying and Pinocchio being created. I think this is even mentioned in the film. This seems like a missed opportunity, having a younger man who lost his wife somehow get stuck in a giant rut after his only remaining family is killed seems like a no-brainer. Instead we have old Gepetto losing his son, and the same old Gepetto still devastated much later on. A noticeable decline would have been more understandable and sad.

    I think the kid who voiced Pinocchio was fantastic. Both the dialog and the songs were so pure and innocent in that guileless and yet grating way that kids can be. Sweet, but also slightly cloying and annoying. Perfect for the role.

  6. Re: Gepetto’s age: yeah, it bothered me a little too. For most of the movie I thought the ‘afterwards’ was maybe set in the 20s, when Mussolini was already in power… but by the end it’s pretty clear WW2 is on. Too lazy to check, but I don’t even think Italy proper was bombed until pretty late in the war, too. It’s a pretty impressionistic take on history.
    Maybe that whole bit is within Gepetto’s memories? That’d explain why he’s the same and everything is so damn perfect in those scenes, it’s an idealization.

    The making of on Netflix is worth a watch. Like on all of these there’s a bit too much fluff, but when they get a bit more technical or dig a little it’s outstanding. They show a few of the sets, and the amount of thought and care that went into crafting them is staggering.

    If you like the songs and the voice in this I’ll re-repeat the recommendation for Over the Garden Wall. The kid’s voice and the tone of the songs (which are a bit sillier in OtGW) are very similar.

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