******TERRIBLE DOGFISH-SIZED SPOILERS!!******
“When you wish upon a star…”
While I don’t remember ever actually reading Carlo Collodi’s 19th century children’s classic, “Pinocchio,” I do remember seeing the 1940 Disney movie on TV as a kid (and later on laserdisc), and it more or less holds up today. The classic Jiminy Cricket sung-ditty “When You Wish Upon a Star” is still very hummable (composer John Williams even used phrases of it in 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). However, many versions of the story have been made since, including an ill-conceived live-action production in 2002 starring a then 49 year-old Roberto Benigni as the wooden ‘boy.’ This year, Disney released another live-action version starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto, with a fully CGI Pinocchio. It was, more or less, a rote rehash of the 1940 cartoon.
Director/writer/producer Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Shape Of Water”) has taken this beloved children’s story, and put it through an entirely different lens by setting it in war-torn Italy as a darker fairy tale (closer in tone to Carlo Collodi’s original book). Working in stop-motion animation with co-director Mark Gustafson, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is as unique to his sensibilities as the 1940 film was to Walt Disney’s. With first-rate voice talent, gorgeous visuals, and a lovely score by Alexandre Desplat (“The Shape of Water”), this version of “Pinocchio” offers a refreshingly new and haunting take…
The movie opens in Italy during World War 1, with storybook-style narration given by the anthropomorphized insect, Sebastian J. Cricket (voice of Ewan McGregor). Sebastian is searching for the perfect place in which to pen his memoirs, as he locates a nice hollow in an Italian pine tree to use as his writer’s retreat. It’s in this hollowed pine that Sebastian overhears the heartbreaking story of a grieving father…
Note: The stop-motion animation looks like the sort of high quality work done by Laika Studios (“ParaNorman,” “Coraline”). There is computer augmentation, of course, as well as digital matte paintings, but you can see the wonderfully imperfect textures of cloth and other materials on the surfaces of the models themselves. It’s stunning work, credited to the Jim Henson Company, the studio founded by the late creator of “The Muppets.”
Widower/carpenter, Geppetto (voice of David Bradley) lives alone with his young son Carlo (voice of Gregory Mann). In their solitude, the father and son want for nothing, as they have each other’s company. Creating a grand new crucifix for their church, Geppetto and an assisting Carlo are working one night when an enemy plane carelessly drops its remaining payload of bombs onto their village. A distracted Carlo is killed, as his father is blown free of the demolished church. The surviving Geppetto finds himself in the deepest state of grief; ignoring his work, and repeatedly drinking himself into a stupor for years to come. One night, in a drunken rage at Carlo’s grave, Geppetto chops down Sebastian’s adopted pine tree in order to create a wooden facsimile of his dead son for company. The torso of the wooden boy retains Sebastian’s ‘home’ as the cricket decides to continue dwelling within the doll’s chest…
Note: The boy’s name of “Carlo” is a nod to the original 19th century author, Carlo Collodi, from whom all versions of “Pinocchio” sprang. Both Carlo and the awakened Pinocchio are voiced by talented young actor Gregory Mann.
A drunken Geppetto leaves the unfinished doll at his work area, before collapsing into a deep sleep on the floor. During his slumber, a magical, glowing blue Wood Sprite (voice of Tilda Swinton) appears. With Sebastian as her only witness, she brings the doll to life in order to ease the grieving father’s torment. As the winged entity awakens the doll, she encounters Sebastian, and agrees to grant him a single wish someday, if he acts as a guide for the newly animated doll, whom she dubs “Pinocchio” (also voiced by Gregory Mann).
Note: The Wood Sprite (with origins in Slavic folklore) is an image that would be right at home in del Toro’s earlier dark fantasy, “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), with its multiple-eyed wings, and mask-like face. Unlike the beautiful (and very human) ‘Blue Fairy’ of the 1940 film, the Wood Sprite is more mythological creature than fairy—both lovely and unsettling at the same time, with an unmoving mouth and glowing eyes evocative of a death mask. It’s not surprising that we learn the Sprite is a direct relation to Death herself.
The Wood Sprite departs, and a newly awakened Pinocchio is alive, and full of curiosity. As Sebastian tries to teach Pinocchio rules of conduct, such as obeying his papa, the impatient wooden boy is overflowing with giddy recklessness and joie de vivre. Geppetto awakens, and is initially terrified by his walking-talking creation. Once he accepts that he’s not dreaming or drunk, he tells Pinocchio that he must remain in a cupboard in order to avoid being seen by the locals. Ignoring his maker’s advice, Pinocchio sets out into the village, where he instantly terrifies the villagers.
Note: Pinocchio is a metaphor of children as unwitting agents of chaos; you love them, of course, but they can upend your orderly existence very easily.
Geppetto decides to let Pinocchio assist him, as he finishes his crucifix in the war-ravaged church. Pinocchio wonders aloud why the Christ–another wooden figure–is worshipped, while he is feared? Both the priest (Burn Gorman) and the local government official, Podesta (Ron Perlman) agree that the boy needs a firm hand. It’s also learned that Pinocchio’s wooden, peg-like nose rapidly sprouts into branches whenever he lies. The fascistic-leaning Podesta orders Geppetto to enroll Pinocchio at school as soon as possible, so that he might learn to obey his father and conform to rule of law. Geppetto promises Podesta that he will enroll Pinocchio the following morning.
Note: Guillermo del Toro works in his ongoing message against fascism by setting the story between World War 1 and the onset of World War 2, with Podesta representing the rise of Mussolini’s influence (something previous 19th century-set versions couldn’t have attempted). As fascism rears its ugly head once again in present-day Europe and the United States, it’s no surprise that we see a rise in book banning, as well as repeated attempts to negate democracy. The past repeats…
On his way to school, a distracted Pinocchio is met by Count Volpe (voice of Christoph Waltz), a smooth-talking ringmaster who runs a traveling vaudeville with his overworked monkey, Spazzatura (voice of Cate Blanchett), who also controls the marionettes. Volpe sees a walking fortune to be made with the stringless puppet Pinocchio, as he persuades the naive wooden boy to sign a lengthy contract … promising that a portion of his earnings will help his father, Geppetto.
Note: “Volpe” in Italian means “fox,” a fitting name for the showbiz huckster (and the original anthropomorphized creature in both Collodi’s story and the 1940 cartoon). Volpe’s overworked performing monkey is named “Spazzatura,” meaning ‘garbage’ or ‘rubbish,’ which is how the sentient creature is treated. With names like Ron Perlman, Christoph Waltz and Cate Blanchett in supporting roles, this film has one helluva voice-talent roundup.
Pinocchio begins to learn the ‘ropes’ of showbiz, as he pretends to be a marionette onstage before Volpe slashes his strings—leaving the audience wowed by the self-animating puppet. That gimmick becomes the basis of Volpe’s new act, as a resentful Spazzatura watches. Meanwhile, Geppetto searches everywhere for his runaway wooden boy, after learning that he failed to appear in school. Finding him at Volpe’s traveling show, he grabs him by the arm and forces him to return. However, Volpe insists that he has a legally binding contract, and grabs the other arm. Their tug-of-war for Pinocchio ends with the wooden boy being flung from their grips, and into the street, where he is struck by an oncoming car and killed.
Note: Volpe’s stage act, which begins with Pinocchio on strings like an ordinary puppet, is symbolic of the movie’s message of specially-gifted children (like Pinocchio) being used by adults (like Volpe and Podesta) as either commodities for immediate exploitation, or forcibly squeezed into narrow societal parameters.
Pinocchio then awakens in a dark afterlife, where he is met by the “Black Rabbits,” who are eternally playing cards in a waiting area. The rabbits send the confused maquette into the next chamber to meet Death (also voiced by Tilda Swinton), who is the sister creature of the Wood Sprite who gave Pinocchio life. Death presents a hourglass to Pinocchio and tells him that he may ask her a question, but when the sands of the hourglass pass through, the immortal puppet will be forcibly returned to the realm of the living, since he cannot remain dead. She warns him however, that each time he returns to her, the sands will pour for longer periods…
Note: The afterlife as depicted in the film is very reminiscent of the fantasy universe seen in del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), particularly the physical manifestation of the horned Death, who has a four-legged body similar to a mythological gryphon (a mix of a lion and an eagle). The corpse-like “Black Rabbits” have rotting ribcages which protrude through their fur, and expressionless faces similar to the doomsayer rabbit ‘Frank’ of “Donnie Darko” (2001).
Pinocchio revives in the morgue, and is taken home by Geppetto. Along the way, Geppetto laments how much he wishes that Pinocchio would be a good boy, like his long lost son, Carlo. Pinocchio reminds his maker that he is not Carlo, and that he is his own person. Soon after returning home, Pinocchio once again forsakes school to return to Count Volpe’s vaudeville, in hopes of making enough money to support Geppetto, and to avoid conscription into the military—which is now recruiting young boys in the increasingly desperate campaigns of a second World War. An opportunistic Volpe seizes upon the return of his prized novelty act, and welcomes him back.
Note: As was done in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone” (2001), Guillermo del Toro reinforces the horror of children living in times of fascist rule. In his earlier films, we saw the Spanish Civil War’s impact on children. In this movie, we see young boys growing up in Mussolini’s Italy. Placing a beloved children’s story like “Pinocchio” in a time of war creates an automatic schism between childhood innocence and forced adulthood.
Meanwhile, Geppetto learns that Volpe’s troupe has taken a boat across a treacherous mined gulf, towards another touring gig. Giving what little money he has to a reluctant boat captain, Geppetto manages to secure passage for himself and Sebastian on an old fishing boat. The boat manages to avoid the mines, only to be swallowed whole by the ‘terrible Dogfish.’ Elsewhere, Pinocchio soon realizes that he and Spazzatura are being terribly exploited by Volpe. With Benito Mussolini himself (voice of Tom Kenny) attending their show, Pinocchio decides to make a break from servitude by humiliating Volpe with a performance that openly mocks Il Duce’s fascist regime. This, of course, gets Pinocchio killed, which is only a temporary state for the immortal wooden boy.
Note: Like Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator,” we see that one of the best weapons against fascism is mockery. Bullies (and wannabe strongmen) often have fragile egos that can’t bear open humiliation; something to remember as fascism reemergences today…
Once again back in Death’s domain, Pinocchio is then returned to life, where he is conscripted into the military. At a boys’ training camp on a remote island, supervisor Podesta decides to exploit Pinocchio as a valuable tool in Mussolini’s army; a soldier who can’t stay dead. Meanwhile, Podesta’s own son, Candlewick (voice of Finn Wolfhard) is also among the ranks of the boy recruits. Despite Candlewick’s former bullying of Pinocchio in their home village, the boys learn that they have a lot in common, and soon become fast friends.
Note: One of the most radical departures from previous versions is this grim reimagining of “Pleasure Island” (aka “Toy Island” in Collodi’s original story) as a military training camp for boys to become cannon fodder in Mussolini’s war against the allies. Like the juvenile delinquents of Pleasure Island, these “Lost Boys” are truly lost—they’ve lost their boyhoods, and are being taught to lose their humanity, as well.
During war games under Podesta’s guidance, the boys are divided into squads, with Candlewick leading one squad, while Pinocchio leads the other. The two squad leaders must use their ‘soldiers’ to avoid being shot by paint guns while climbing a post, in order to plant their flag in the guard tower. First one to plant their flag is the victor. Candlewick and Pinocchio both reach the guard tower at the same time, and claim a mutual victory. Podesta is incensed, and reminds his son that Pinocchio is the enemy—he must be killed, not welcomed. Candlewick defies his father, just as the training camp is obliterated in a surprise bombing raid by enemy planes. Pinocchio is blown clear of the exploding fortress, and lands on a cliff, overlooking the sea…
Note: It’s a much more hard-hitting fate for the boys of this ‘Pleasure Island,’ who are killed, instead of simply being turned into donkeys. Another grim message against war and the exploitation of children.
Pinocchio awakens to find that he’s been tracked to the island by a vengeful Volpe, who lost everything after Pinocchio’s politically-charged performance. As Volpe pulls a sword on his frightened former star, Spazzatura intervenes—choosing to save Pinocchio, instead of serving his ungrateful boss. The arrogant Volpe is killed, as Pinocchio and Spazzatura land in the ocean below. In the waters, the newfound allies avoid the large mines, only to be swallowed whole by the monstrous leviathan known as the terrible Dogfish…
Note: The “terrible dogfish” of the original story was named “Monstro” the whale in the 1940 cartoon (and in the rote 2022 Disney remake). In real life, a ‘dogfish’ is a small, yet abundant species of shark; a species known for its non-lethal venom, which is secreted from external spines. The sea creature described in Collodi’s original story is more like a cross between a large whale and the long-extinct shark species known as megalodon.
Once inside the animal’s cavernous (and mercifully slow-metabolizing) stomach, Pinocchio and Spazzatura are reunited with Geppeto and Sebastian, who’ve been making themselves at home in the large air-breathing sea creature’s gut. Geppeto soon sees a way out of their predicament by climbing the fishing boat’s mast in order to reach the dogfish’s blowhole—through which the creature inhales and exhales at the surface. Asking Pinocchio to tell a steam of lies, the wooden boy’s nose suddenly sprouts into an elongated tree branch, with which they climb out of the blowhole. Once across, Geppetto snaps the branches off of Pinocchio’s nose, and the four of them are blown free of the creature by its exhalation. The enraged beast then turns and tries to swallow its former occupants once again. In order to save Geppetto, Sebastian and Spazzatura, Pinocchio tricks the beast into swallowing one of the mines, which Pinocchio forces to detonate…
Note: Once again, del Toro wisely uses this version’s new wartime setting to allow the Dogfish/Monstro to be destroyed by an ocean mine, something not possible in previous versions. The mine also affords Pinocchio a more dramatic opportunity to sacrifice himself for his maker and friends, truly earning his later redemption.
Once again in the afterlife, Pinocchio realizes that Geppetto is drowning, with only moments left to live. With the sands of the hour glass pouring too slowly for him to save him, Pinocchio is offered one final choice; he can return now to save Geppetto, but only by sacrificing his immortality. The noble wooden boy makes his choice, and reawakens in the ocean, just in time to drag Geppetto to the shore. On the beach, Geppetto is reunited with Spazzatura and Sebastian, as they find the lifeless pine body of Pinocchio. Remembering that he is owed a wish by the Wood Sprite, Sebastian angrily summons the entity to collect on the debt. The Wood Sprite appears on the shore, and grants Sebastian his one and only wish; to bring Pinocchio back to life.
Note: I’m not crying, you’re crying…
The four of them return to their humble village, and live as a family. As he was warned earlier by Death, Pinocchio outlives Geppetto, Spazzatura and even Sebastian the cricket. Pinocchio dutifully visits the grave of his father, just as Geppetto used to visit the grave of his human son, Carlo. With no one left for him in the village, Pinocchio then departs into an unknown future. The question of how long he’ll live remaining unanswered…
Note: The unanswered question of Pinocchio’s remaining lifespan reminded of that line from Gaff (Edward James Olmos) in “Blade Runner”: “It’s too bad she won’t live. But then again, who does?” Sebastian the cricket (aka “Jiminy” in the cartoon) never had a formal name in the original book; he was simply “Mr. Cricket,” and later the ghost of Mr. Cricket, as he’s killed early in the story.
The coda sees narrator Sebastian J. Cricket narrating his memoirs from the Afterlife, where the late cricket engages the Black Rabbits in their never-ending game of poker. As the credits begin to roll, Sebastian sings them a song.
Note: I have to mention that the movie’s many songs, such as “Caio, Papa” and “Everything Is New To Me” (some of them cowritten by del Toro) are delightful and memorable. Stars Ewan McGregor, David Bradley and Gregory Mann all have terrific singing voices, too.
Summing It Up.
Guillermo del Toro has infused a greater European vibe into this movie than its heavily-Americanized predecessors. This version also better explores the pain of grieving woodworker, Geppetto (David Bradley), warts and all. Cowritten by del Toro, Patrick Hale, Chris Grimly and Matthew Robbins (“Batteries Not Included”), the script plumbs the story for all of its latent emotion, not just for potential visuals or action. The agony of child loss, the futility of war, the dangers of ascending fascism, and the sweet-savoring of our own mortality are well-mined in this meticulously animated, exquisitely crafted film. Top-notch voice talents of David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Gregory Mann, Tilda Swinton, Finn Wolfhard and Ron Perlman truly make the gorgeously luxe stop-motion animation come alive, as well.
To those expecting a lighthearted fairy tale, this new “Pinocchio” may be off-putting, and perhaps a bit too heavy for little children. However, older kids, and certainly adults, will find Guillermo del Toro’s remake to be a deeper, more rewarding experience. Every drop of grief, pain, and sentiment wrung from this film feels very much earned. Del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is a textbook example of why one should bother to remake a beloved classic; to re-tell the story through an entirely new lens. By placing “Pinocchio” during a time of war, the story suddenly gains multiple new insights into raising a special boy in a hostile, dangerous world, which sees such uniqueness only as a resource to be exploited—either in entertainment, or war.
Previous versions of Carlo Collodi’s “Pinocchio” have succeeded in retelling the story, but rarely have they so enriched it.
Where to Watch.
Released to theaters in November, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is also currently available to stream exclusively on Netflix. Get your tissues ready. Enjoy!