The Spool / Movies
Pinocchio is a fairy tale to break your heart
Guillermo del Toro directs a whimsical stop-motion version of the classic children’s story that packs an emotional punch.
SimilarFantasia (1940), Shrek (2001), Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek the Third (2007), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971),
MPAA RatingG,
StudioWalt Disney Productions,
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Guillermo del Toro directs a whimsical stop-motion version of the classic children’s story Pinocchio that packs an emotional punch.

Disney released a “live-action” remake of Pinocchio earlier in the fall, which was greeted with the same indifferent to negative critical response their “live-action” remakes always receive. I put “live-action” in quotes because referring to them as such is a bit generous. They’re predominantly CGI, with barely enough human actors appearing to qualify as a regular feature rather than animation. As with the remakes of The Lion King and Aladdin, beyond the fact that there was simply no reason for it to exist, Pinocchio smacked of cynicism, and sent a clear message to audiences: we can keep making the same thing over and over, and you rubes will pay to see it

The fact that it was unceremoniously dumped onto streaming with little promotion suggested that the primary interest was beating Guillermo del Toro’s long-awaited Pinocchio to the punch. Should del Toro’s version end up lost in the shuffle of endless content (and neglected by Netflix’s bafflingly asleep-at-the-wheel PR department), it would be a tragedy, because it’s quite simply one of the loveliest animated films released in years. Quirky but gentle, it concludes on a profoundly emotional note that will leave even the most stone-hearted viewer holding back tears.

Working off a script co-written with Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall and Adventure Time), del Toro (along with co-director Mark Gustafson) retains some aspects of the traditional story, while moving the setting up to pre-World War II Italy, during Mussolini’s rise to power. Such an unsettling time period is fitting for a story that goes to unexpectedly dark places – if you’re not ready to have a frank discussion with your children about death after watching it, maybe choose something else for family movie night.

Geppetto (David Bradley) is a woodcarver, wracked with grief after the accidental death of Carlo, his only child. During a particularly bad night, he gets drunk and chops down a tree growing over Carlo’s grave, carving it into a crude depiction of a little boy. A wood sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) bestows life on the puppet, tasking Sebastian (Ewan McGregor, in a delightful turn), a cricket who had made his home in the tree, with looking after him. The puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), is a spindly-legged nightmare, missing an ear, with bent nails sticking out of his torso, and a nose that doesn’t just grow when he tells lies, it sprouts branches and leaves. He’s also a bit of an unmanageable brat initially, but his zest for life and endless curiosity about the world is quickly endearing.

Pinocchio (Netflix)

Though initially horrified, Geppetto gradually becomes a surrogate parent for Pinocchio, but struggles to accept that, despite his intention in creating him, he’s not a replacement for Carlo. Meanwhile, Pinocchio draws the interest of the village Podesta (del Toro regular Ron Perlman), who plans to recruit all the boys in town (including his own son, Candlewick, voiced by Finn Wolfhard) to fight for the fascists in the Royal Italian Army. Since he’s not “real,” Pinocchio can’t really die (not exactly, at least), and so would make the perfect soldier for Mussolini, as opposed to Candlewick, who the Podesta dismisses as weak and cowardly. 

Pinocchio bristles under both men’s expectations, and runs off to join a traveling carnival, managed by the sinister Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his mangy pet monkey Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett, who mostly just speaks in primate screeches and grunts). Volpe is an even worse father figure, however, locking Pinocchio into an impossible performing contract and violently lashing out at him when he disobeys. Despite his insistence that he go to school and be a good boy. Pinocchio longs to return to Geppetto and live a normal life as his son. Meanwhile, Geppetto, regretful that his reluctance to accept Pinocchio for who he is drove him away, sets off to find him, with Sebastian in tow.

So far it sounds like a traditional children’s adventure story, with the usual lesson of “listen to your parents and you won’t get in trouble,” but I haven’t mentioned that there’s a scene in which an adult demands that a child shoot another child as a test of bravery, or the several trips Pinocchio takes to the afterlife, which appears to be operated by a group of skeleton rabbits (all voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) who sit around playing an endless game of poker. As it turns out, Pinocchio can die, sort of – as explained by Death, a Sphinx-like being who is the wood sprite’s sister, “dying” for Pinocchio means spending increasingly long times in the afterworld, after which he’ll get to return to the land of the living, where the minutes he’s spent being “dead” are years there. 

Quirky but gentle, it concludes on a profoundly emotional note that will leave even the most stone-hearted viewer holding back tears.

Nobody combines whimsy and darkness like Guillermo del Toro, and in Pinocchio it works to marvelous effect. Even at its most lighthearted moments, shadows seem to be creeping around the edges of everything. Pinocchio wasn’t created out of love, but rage, and Geppetto’s inability to accept the loss of his son. His creation repulses him at first, and the fact that Pinocchio is not like Carlo is an insult added to injury. It poses some hard questions about the nature of parenting: do we truly understand that we’re making a whole person with their own wants and needs, or do we merely want a lump of clay to sculpt into our ideal child? 

That’s heavy stuff, even without the specter of Death hanging over the whole affair (sometimes literally). Whether it’s the prospect of going to war, or the fact that Geppetto is already elderly when the story begins, Pinocchio quickly learns that to be “real” means that life is finite and that we could (and often do) lose the people we love in an instant. “You never know how long you have with someone until they’re gone,” Death tells Pinocchio, and while it may be a simple, even cliched phrase, even in the real world we’re unable to grasp it. Knowing just how hard that is makes Pinocchio’s ending even more heartbreaking. In lesser hands, it would feel cheap and manipulative, but instead, even anticipating what happens, it’s bittersweet and beautifully done.

In addition to its engaging storyline, Pinocchio is a pleasure to look at. Even the human characters look carved out of wood, with the herky-jerky animation stop motion is supposed to have. On the downside, the musical numbers, written by Alexandre Desplat, aren’t terribly memorable, and feel like an afterthought. It’s a minor criticism at best, however, and doesn’t take away from what will likely be the best family movie of the year, a deeply personal film for del Toro that speaks of the complicated dynamic between parents and children, and how loving someone means opening your heart to grief and loss, both in the now and forever.    

Pinocchio premieres on Netflix December 9th.

Pinocchio Trailer:

SimilarFantasia (1940), Shrek (2001), Shrek 2 (2004), Shrek the Third (2007), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971),
MPAA RatingG,
StudioWalt Disney Productions,