The Criterion Collection has a box set of Guillermo del Toro’s films titled “Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro” that includes the director’s first film Cronos as well as later films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. With Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio (hereafter just Pinocchio), the Collection may need to rethink that trifecta of films.
Like the latter two films in that box set, this reimagining of Pinocchio, written by del Toro and Patrick McHale, is yet another fairy tale about a child navigating a world ruled by fascists, this time Italian fascists instead of Spanish ones. The film also opens with woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) enjoying life with his son Carlo (Gregory Mann) before the boy dies in a bombing during World War I.
It’s a movie explicitly interested in death, war, morality, and how children navigate a world full of questions about these things. It’s also one of the most visually astounding pieces of stop-motion animation recently brought to the screen.
An Old Tale Made New
The aforementioned introductory section of this Pinocchio that shows Geppetto’s life decades before he even thinks of making Pinocchio immediately sets the tone. In fact, before we even meet the young Carlo, a voiceover from Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) tells us that Geppetto lost his son during the First World War before transporting us back in time. It’s a strange choice but one that forces a painful dramatic irony on the audience while we watch Geppetto and his son joyously work and play together.
This treatment of death is a crucial part of what makes the film so special, as we learn later that Pinocchio (also Mann) literally cannot die. So the puppet’s quest to become “a real boy” is not only about being made of flesh and blood and looking like all the other children in the world but about mortality.
To focus any children’s film story on mortality is heavy, but setting a film interested in death in the middle of a war is even bolder. As the film goes on, Pinocchio is courted (or rather demanded) by greedy carnival proprietor Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and the unnamed Podestà (Ron Perlman). Volpe wants Pinocchio to perform in his show and make him money, while the Podestà sees in the immortal Pinocchio a superhuman soldier of the Italian Fascist state. These aren’t the most subtle ways to take a stance against capitalism and fascism, but given that this is ultimately a children’s film, they’re well integrated.
These narrative changes and new thematic interests make Guillermo del Toro‘s version of the nearly one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old story feel fresh in its intellectual interests and emotional power. We regularly discuss films as being “life-affirming,” but Pinocchio manages to be death-affirming in a way that makes it remarkable.
A Visual Marvel
It’s not just the film’s content that makes it special, though. The form here is something truly magical to behold. Of course, there’s the metatextual delight in watching a movie about a living piece of carved wood brought to life by animated pieces of (beautifully) carved wood, but more than that, there are images in Pinocchio that make you want the movie to stop for a moment and allow you to take in all of the details. Among those details are the seemingly entirely physical and three-dimensional flames created with the same stop-motion techniques as the rest of the film and the gorgeously drawn and animated backgrounds (particularly of the carnival that we see in various states).
But perhaps the most compelling images in the film are the manifestations of a Wood Sprite and Death (both voiced by Tilda Swinton). The Wood Sprite resembles something closer to a Biblically accurate angel than a fairy, with many eyes and multiple wings that enfold its more humanoid body. Death looks more familiar, like a mythical chimera with an unmoving face that matches her Wood Sprite “sister” (according to the film) and wide horns more like a bull than a goat.
An Imperfect, Special Film
This iteration of the classic tale isn’t perfect, though. Despite the film’s many interests, its two-hour runtime feels unnecessary. For the last twenty minutes, the film feels like it could have ended already, especially as some plots continue well after they need to. The fact that the film is also a musical contributes significantly to this length.
The songs in the film aren’t bad or grating (something always possible in an original screen musical), but they aren’t memorable or particularly enjoyable either. The best of these musical sequences isn’t good because of the music but because it soundtracks a series of increasingly destructive physical jokes.
But these flaws are ultimately trifles in comparison to what the film offers. It’s a film that fits perfectly into del Toro’s filmography and may well become a classic of stop-motion animation on the level of Coraline for its brilliant combination of emotional power, thematic heft, and visual artistry.
Pinocchio is currently playing in limited theaters and will expand on November 17 before arriving on Netflix on December 9.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Kyle Logan studied philosophy and now constantly overthinks music and movies.
He’s a film and television critic and general pop culture writer who has written for Cultured Vultures, Chicago Film Scene, Castle of Chills, and Filmotomy. Kyle has covered virtual film festivals including the inaugural Nightstream festival in 2020 and the 2021 Fantasia Film Festival. Kyle is interested in horror films, animation, Star Wars, and Adventure Time, as well as older genre films written and directed by queer people and women, particularly those from the 1970s and 80s. Along with writing, Kyle organizes a Queer Film Challenge on Letterboxd.