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Review: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

December 8, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (official title) is a passion project for the Mexican filmmaker, who crafts an emotional stop-motion retelling of author Carlo Collodi’s classic book.

The story of the wooden boy brought to life has been adapted for the screen countless times, perhaps most famously in Disney’s animated film from 1940 (and most recently in their soulless live action remake, which got dumped on Disney+ just a few short months ago).

It’s no surprise that del Toro’s take on the material feels like an especially dark fairy tale, and along with his co-writer Patrick McHale, he does make some changes to the original story. Del Toro’s version is set in post-WWI Italy amidst the rise of fascism in the 1930s, and this plays a big role in the film.

This is a dark, enchanting, and emotional retelling that doesn’t hold back from exploring themes about death and mortality. In this version, Geppetto (David Bradley) is a grieving father who carves a puppet out of pine wood in a depressive, drunken episode one night, still heartbroken over the tragic loss of his son Carlo (Gregory Mann). Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann) is brought to life by the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), with the insect who was living inside his trunk, travelling writer Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor, also our narrator), as his conscience.

In many ways, this is a more grounded take on the material. Gepetto is initially aghast with horror when he awakens to find the wooden boy alive. Pinocchio’s appearance at church raises the ire of the Podestà (Ron Perlman), a local fascist official who wants to turn his own son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) into a model fascist youth. This fascist allegory allows the film to draw an analogy about what it really means to be a puppet in society, versus a true independent being who doesn’t blindly follow orders.

Pinocchio is taken by Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), the cruel owner of a travelling carnival puppet show who abuses his monkey assistant Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett, in a fascinating vocal performance that mainly consists of grunts and animal noises). Count Volpe’s main goal is to impress Italy’s leader Mussolini (Tom Kenny in an amusing cameo). But there is still ample room for fantastical touches that allow del Toro’s dark and vivid imagination to run wild, including an angel of death (also voiced by Swinton) who serves as a mirror version of the Wood Sprite and resides in the afterlife.

Working with co-director Mark Gustafson, del Toro has crafted a rich stop-motion world, with a visibly handmade quality to it – right down to the wood grain on Pinocchio’s unfinished face – that enhances the material. Everything about this world has a very tactile feel to it. If there’s one aspect of the film that falls slightly short, it’s the songs. While technically a musical, the song numbers aren’t as strong as they could have been, though the sweet “Ciao Papa” is probably the best. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat is also quite lovely.

As a whole, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an outstanding technical achievement, one that feels like both a passion project and statement piece from the filmmaker. At heart, this is an emotional story about fathers and sons, bookended by a deeply moving prologue and epilogue, that culminates in a profound, philosophically shattering final few moments.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, and will be available to stream exclusively on Netflix as of December 9th.

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