Like humanity’s search for the missing link or the cure for cancer, filmmakers have endlessly pursued to adapt Italian author Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. Of course, Disney practically cornered the market with their 1940 animated musical version, which still haunts children to this day thanks to the Pleasure Island sequence.
Decades would pass, with Robert Benigni - hot off the immense international success of Life is Beautiful - writing, directing, and starring in a 2002 live-action adaptation. The film would be a colossal critical and financial failure, practically locking Benigni in filmmaker jail for the rest of his career. But it didn’t stop him from appearing in another version later in 2019, this time solely in the role of Geppetto for writer/director Matteo Garrone’s version (which received two surprise Oscar nominations for its costumes and makeup).
We also can’t forget the adjacent stories such as Stanley Kubrick/Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, or the projects that never got off the ground such as ones from Sam Mendes and Paul Thomas Anderson/Robert Downey Jr.
Now in 2022, we have two more adaptations, with Robert Zemeckis’ live-action Disney+ version following the same disastrous fate as Benigni’s, and Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion animated Netflix sticking closer to the original text.
All this is to say: After so many Pinocchio adaptations, how much can del Toro’s version reinvent the wheel and stick out from the crowd? Well, for starters, this version of Pinocchio might look appealing to children on the outside, but inside it harbors themes of loss, regret, fascism (a del Toro specialty), and mortality. Of course, it still carries a PG rating, so things never cross the line where you have to shield the eyes of the younger ones. But everybody has at least one or two memories of an animated film scaring the hell out of them, so why not let this be one of those times for today’s children?
We are first introduced to Geppetto at the foot of his son Carlo’s grave. Through some flashbacks, we understand why he loved his son so much, and how he feels betrayed by God for taking him away. In a drunken stupor, he makes a wooden puppet, which is then granted life by the Wood Sprite, a terrifying version of the Blue Fairy. Pinocchio has a never-ending thirst for knowledge, which leads him to often disobey his papa’s commands. He soon gets conned into joining the circus by an evil carny and his pet monkey (with Cate Blanchett providing the primate noises), and also is recruited into the Italian army by a Nazi leader after it's discovered he’s incapable of dying.
Already experienced at guiding live-action directors into the world of animation after doing so with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr. Fox, co-director Mark Gustafson aids del Toro in blending the macabre with the cheerful. The attention to detail is immaculate, with the painstakingly crafted sets and character movements given their time to shine. Also crammed into this slightly overstretched 120-minute version is a handful of songs, which often beg the question of whether or not this is a musical. None of the musical moments deserve to be remembered, even though they are delivered capably by the talented voice cast.
Del Toro’s love for the material is always present, and so are the influences he has taken throughout his filmography, particularly Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. That adoration can sometimes be infectious, even if this is well-worn material that probably didn’t need another retelling.
*Pinocchio will be released on Netflix on December 09*