What a difference a director makes. In Robert Zemeckis’ recent remake of Disney’s Pinocchio, it felt like a downright creepy and unnecessary addition to give Geppetto a dead son as motivation for creating a wooden replica in his place. When Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (in select theaters now and on Netflix December 9) does the same, however, with a drunken Geppetto carving a grotesquely half-assed surrogate son replica he pledges to finish when he’s sober, only to have it come to life first ... that feels appropriate. The director, known for his love of the grotesque, put his name in the title for a reason. Obviously, he wanted to distinguish it from the Disney films, but the full title also makes clear that this is distinctly his version of the classic. Carlo Collodi’s serialized story for kids may have inspired it, but del Toro isn’t going for fealty. He very much has a take, and if he creeps you out with it, so much the better.
Most of the broad strokes are still here. Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) does indeed have a cricket (Ewan McGregor’s Sebastian) imparting moral lessons, this time from literally inside the wooden boy’s chest, where the bug has nested. As always, Pinocchio finds the temptations of a traveling puppet show more intriguing than school, and eventually he will be swallowed by a sea creature. But all this also happens during the rise of Mussolini in Italy, with the local fascist authority figure the Podesta (Ron Perlman, who else?) taking interest in Pinocchio both as a potential troublemaker and as a possible military recruit. This time, Geppetto, carney Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), and the Podesta are all aware of each other’s conflicting intentions towards the string-free marionette; it’s up to Pinocchio to make actual, informed moral choices, rather than being duped into the wrong ones, as most tellings have it.
Co-directing with Will Vinton Studios Claymation veteran Mark Gustafson, del Toro creates as fully designed a reality as he ever has in live-action; arguably more so, since he’s also creating actors from scratch as well. The humans, for the most part, are so caricatured that it’s remarkable you end up empathizing with them, yet the voice acting and the small gestures sell the illusion. Unlike the ultra-smooth stop-motion of Wendell & Wild, the animation here, presumably using a lower frame rate, retains the herky-jerky quality of older entries in the medium, which is of a piece with the many classic cinema allusions and references scattered throughout.
Biblical subtext inherent to the original story already included the Jonah-inspired climax and the notion of a carpenter’s son who magically transcends his physical limitations. This time around, there’s even more. Geppetto works on a giant wooden crucifix for the local church; Pinocchio, with nails sticking out of his unfinished form, wonders why the local religious fascists love that tormented-looking wooden figure but not him. The cosmology at play in this world, however, is far from typical Christianity, with coffin-toting bunnies hauling coffins to an afterlife presided over by a Tilda Swinton-voiced Sphinx. As in Hellboy II, del Toro incorporates both the modern notion of winged angels, and the ancient concept of them as many-eyed monstrosities.
He knows that you likely know other versions of Pinocchio already, and plays with that. In the original book, rather than Disney’s beloved conscience Jiminy, the talking cricket gets squashed and killed by a hammer the moment he tries to tell Pinocchio what to do. Most movie version have backed away from that; del Toro not only embraces it, but he makes up for lost time, with Sebastian J. Cricket constantly getting squashed in almost every scene, by mallets and other things. He’s a resilient bug, but sighs, “Oh, the pain!” as frequently as Professor Smith on the original Lost In Space. Mercifully, McGregor gets to use his natural Scottish accent; prior animated films that hired him to do his shaky American impersonation never made much sense.
To the extent that the movie missteps—and it does—it’s to the degree that it attempts to be a musical. Most of the songs cut off after the first verse, and are so decidedly unmemorable that when Pinocchio at one point sings parody lyrics to one of Geppetto’s previous numbers, it takes Geppetto noting that fact, out loud, to himself, to make it clear that’s what’s happening. Later, when Pinocchio adds a bunch of a bawdy jokes to a previous number, the film plays it as if he were singing South Park’s “Uncle Fucka,” when in fact it’s a rushed, overly forgettable thing, mostly notable for the impeccably English-accented Mann saying “poop” and “boogers.”
The sea monster finale also feels a touch forced, like it happens because it’s obligatory for Pinocchio, even though it doesn’t quite fit this Pinocchio. Del Toro cleverly substitutes a fascist military school for the Land of Toys; couldn’t a Nazi submarine have somehow replaced the Terrible Shark? The sequence also repeats a couple of irritating non-book tropes used in other adaptations, like Pinocchio using his lie-grown nose as a deus ex machina, or characters kicking the water so fast their legs become an outboard motor. (Zemeckis’ remake did both, though the Disney cartoon does not.)
Thankfully, the movie doesn’t end there, and goes to some other places that get pretty dark. So stylish and uniquely crafted is the whole that the missteps may stick out more, but this Pinocchio nonetheless makes for a worthy take. Frequent del Toro collaborator Matthew Robbins and Over The Garden Wall’s Patrick McHale co-wrote the script with the director, and it sometimes feels like there are conflicting voices in the chorus, but that doesn’t detract from a visual style that invokes everything from German expressionism to Terry Gilliam, propaganda newsreels to anime and back. In flashbacks to Geppetto’s happier times, the world feels like a European art film; as fascism descends, so does that Guillermo del Toro feeling of dark, moist rust-punk.
Pinocchio himself retains the unfinished, hand-made look, as does the film around him. Like Zemeckis’ version, this is a Pinocchio that wants to affirm that flawed people are fine just as they are; unlike him, del Toro can pull that off without betraying the aspirational nature of the story. No spoilers, but his way of maintaining that balance proves unexpectedly great.
For Collodi fans, the perfect Pinocchio adaptation remains elusive. But perhaps, as the roughly carved, open-nail protagonist of this version constantly reminds us, perfection is beside the point. And boring, to boot—an adjective nobody in their right mind would apply to the film at hand.