There have been numerous cinematic adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s children’s book The Adventures of Pinocchio over the years, so perhaps it was inevitable that two would arrive in the same year. 3 months after Disney released a live-action “reimagining” of their own 1940 classic, Netflix responds with their own version of Pinocchio, a stop-motion effort co-directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro. I could compare and contrast these two movies for the rest of this review but the important takeaway is that Disney’s film is another cynical re-do that drains the life from its predecessor and while Netflix’s film isn’t a masterpiece, it’s leagues more inspired by comparison. As one would expect, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a darker and more complex tale but still carries out the original novel’s timeless themes.
This version of the story takes place in 1930s Italy, where woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) bitterly grieves over the loss of his only son due to an errant bomb dropping from a wartime plane. After a battle with the bottle one evening, Geppetto crafts a wooden puppet resembling his lost boy in a traumatized frenzy. In the middle of the night, a wood sprite (Tilda Swinton) gives life to the pine creation and when Geppetto wakes up, he meets Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), who sounds and behaves like his late son. In his effort to become a real boy, Pinocchio encounters the proverbial angel and devil on his wooden shoulders, in the form of Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) and Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), respectively.
Most of Pinocchio plays out in the way that you would expect from horror/dark fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro putting his own twist on the classic fable. Reminiscent of his finest film Pan’s Labyrinth, the specters of war and ultra-nationalism loom large over this story about the good and evil of the world seen through the eyes of a young soul. Volpe’s carny huckster wouldn’t be out of place in last year’s Nightmare Alley and the sea-set finale with The Dogfish (named Monstro in the 1940 Disney version) recalls the marine creature work from Best Picture winner The Shape of Water. There’s inevitable Henry Selick influence in a recurring purgatorial gag and the associated appearances of Death (also voiced by Tilda Swinton) reminded me of the endlessly creepy Mysterious Stranger sequence from 1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain.
Aside from being the umpteenth cinematic variation of this fairy tale, Pinocchio does commit some unforced errors that aren’t necessarily tied to its companion pieces. While the musical score by Alexandre Desplat is transportive, the songs sung by the characters feel like an afterthought and whiff of forced whimsy to counteract the film’s darker nature. Waltz is perfectly menacing as always in his villainous role but the overly-peppy voicework from Gregory Mann as the protagonist becomes grating and one-note after a while. There are also some inspired tertiary voice casting choices, like Cate Blanchett as a mostly non-verbal monkey and Tom Kenny (known as the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants) as Benito Mussolini The stop-motion figures and set designs are immaculate and filled with rich detail but some of the CG, especially the animation of children’s faces, pales in comparison to the traditionally rendered effects
Now that we’re towards the end of the year, it’s worth reflecting on how strong a year this has been for stop-motion animated features, even without a new film from Laika Studios. This is a strong foray into the genre by Guillermo del Toro and in addition to Pinocchio, Netflix alone has released two other stop-motion movies — The House way back in January and Wendell & Wild, more recently — that are excellent exemplifiers for the genre. When you include Marcel the Shell with Shoes On and Mad God, two films that couldn’t be more different in terms of subject matter and tone, you get a sense of just how varied of films this style of animation can produce. Stop motion is obviously a labor-intensive and meticulous breed of filmmaking but banner years like this one prove how vital the work can be to the world of cinema.
Score – 3.5/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Coming back to theaters is Father Stu: Reborn, a PG-13 cut of the titular drama released earlier this year starring Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson about a boxer-turned-Catholic priest who lives with a progressive muscle disorder.
Also playing only in theaters is The Mean One, a Christmas horror movie starring David Howard Thornton and Krystle Martin about a woman who witnesses her parents’ murder at the hands of a green monster as a child and seeks to avenge their deaths 20 years later.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is Emancipation, a historical action film starring Will Smith and Ben Foster about a runaway slave who forges through the swamps of Louisiana on a tortuous journey to escape plantation owners that nearly killed him.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup