Hear the name “Pinocchio” and you undoubtedly think about the 1940 Disney version, with Pleasure Island and our hero trying to avoid turning into a jackass as a consequence of his selfish behaviors. The original story, however, was published back in 1881 by Carlo Collodi and has much darker themes, including the police investigating Gepetto of child abuse, and Pinocchio almost ending up as firewood to cook puppet show master Mangiafuoco’s dinner! It’s definitely, a different tale than what most people are used to, though the heart of the story remains the same; the quest for selfless love.
Enter master storyteller Guillermo del Toro, whose best film remains the dark and wildly imaginative 2006 Oscar-winning “Pan’s Labyrinth”. That story takes place in Spain during World War II, offering a compelling examination of the evils of fascism as it focuses on a young girl’s fantasy escape from both the horrors of war and the horrors of her own family.
16 years later, del Toro’s version of “Pinocchio” explores very similar themes, making it a stop-motion style animated movie much better suited for adult viewers than children. It’s set in Italy, initially during The Great War (known later as World War I), when Gepetto’s son Carlo is tragically lost during a bombing raid. With a broken heart, Gepetto (voice of David Bradley) spends years mourning his son’s death, until one day he is inspired to recreate his son as a wooden puppet: Pinocchio (voice of Gregory Mann). Having seen his mourning, an ethereal blue wood sprite (voice of Tilda Swinton) appears and gives Pinocchio the spark of life. Turns out that he’s not just brought to life, though, he’s granted immortality (though with a twist, as revealed later in the story).
The cricket-as-conscience appears in the film in the guise of Sebastian (voice of Ewan McGregor), who is offered a deal by the wood sprite: guide Pinocchio to making wise choices and he can realize his own dreams of being a famous cricket author. Pinocchio doesn’t stay still for long, however, soon meeting puppet master Volpe (voice of Christoph Waltz) and his evil monkey sidekick Spazzatura (voice of Cate Blanchett). They lure him into their traveling carnival, but also convince him to sign a contract so he’s obligated to stay with the show.
But there’s a war on and it’s impossible to escape the heavy fascist overtones of Mussolini’s Italy, as personified by the town bully Podesta (voice of Ron Perlman), who sees in the immortal Pinocchio the makings of a perfect soldier. Soon Pinocchio is at a military training camp, where he befriends Podesta’s downtrodden son Candlewick (voice of Finn Wolfhard); Can they overcome the violent rhetoric of the Brownshirts? It’s an entirely different story than anything Disney ever imagined, and far more profound and evocative.
Indeed, del Toro’s Pinocchio is a smart and thoughtful animated adventure that explores a lot of significant themes in ways both subtle and overt. It’s impossible to miss that many of the pivotal scenes either involve Gepetto creating a sculpture of Christ on the cross as the centerpiece of the local church or take place in front of the Christ figure. What felt most fascinating, however, was Pinocchio’s relationship with Death (also the voice of Tilda Swinton) and the costs he was obligated to pay for his inadvertent immortality.
There are many animated films that offer up messages, typically banal and so obvious that only the youngest audience member might have a moment’s pause, if they notice it at all. del Toro, however, offers up something that can be analyzed at a much deeper level, an exploration of loss, grieving, conformity, a father and son’s relationship, and the meaning of love, selfless love, and even maturity itself; who in the story really is an adult as exhibited in their behaviors?
The visual style is excellent, with scenes both beautiful and chilling. It’s also a very emotional cinematic journey, particularly when considering the loves and losses that Gepetto experiences as the story proceeds. I quite enjoyed it and recommend it, though not for the youngest members of your family. It’s not a family film, nor has Netflix marketed it as one.