Stream or skip? +2023

Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro (now on Netflix) is the fourth iteration of Pinocchio published in the last two years. The puppet onslaught began with a visually repulsive Italian film starring Roberto Benigni as Geppetto, followed by a cheesy Russian cartoon starring Pauly Shore voicing Pinocchio (weird but true!) and a pointless Disney “live-action” remake of the 1940 animated classic from director Robert Zemeckis. We are therefore inspired to a safe assumption: the new stop-motion animated version of del Toro, winner of multiple Academy Awards and one of the most creative visionaries in filmmaking in recent decades (see: Pan’s Labyrinth, The shape of the water), is not only the best of the last series, but probably the best Pinocchio in 80 years.

The essentials: “By the time Geppetto made Pinocchio,” says Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), “he had already lost a son.” The boy was Carlo (Gregory Mann). He was 10. Flashback: Geppetto (David Bradley) sings Carlo to sleep every night while he plays gently on his squeeze box. They are inseparable. The boy helps his father with his wood carvings – cutting down trees and planting pine cones to replace them, or, being a del Toro film, sculpting a massive crucifix for their church, allowing the filmmaker to continue beyond reflecting on his notoriously strained relationship with Catholicism. War is raging outside their quaint little Italian town. One day Geppetto is standing on a ladder and asks Pinocchio to bring him more red paint for the blood from the crown of thorns of Christ crucified when they hear airplanes. A bomb falls. But the crucifix is ​​still standing.

“The years passed,” says the cricket. “The world kept turning. But not Geppetto.” At this point, Sebastian introduces himself. He’s a writer. He has had wonderful adventures. And now he wants to settle down and write his memoirs. He finds a tree with a cozy hollow and makes himself comfortable. He’s standing next to Carlo’s grave. In a fit of drunken grief, Geppetto topples the tree and carves Pinocchio out of it, and now Sebastian lives exactly where the puppet’s heart would be. A visit from the forest spirit (Tilda Swinton), who, according to the del Toro course, is spooky but beautiful but still spooky, brings Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann; read up on it if you like) to life with it he can perform a piece of music in which he mistakes a chamber pot for a hat, and so he can make a mighty disruption of Mass by impersonating before the congregation the crucified Christ—the crucified Christ who has stood unfinished since the terrible event years ago.

This Pinocchio has a delicate singing voice, but that doesn’t mean he’s a sweetheart. Although Sebastian dutifully serves as the forest boy’s conscience, Pinocchio is stubborn and disobedient. And so the local fascists, a sub-sect of the responsible national fascist Mussolini, get involved: the Podesta (Ron Perlman) orders Geppetto to send the doll to school, and during the meeting we learn that Pinocchio can consume food (although as he digests it, remains uncertain; later he will sing a song about poop, but it remains uncertain whether he can make the substance), and when his feet burn up in the fire, Geppetto simply carves him new ones. Pinocchio doesn’t even make it to school on his first day – he gets sidetracked to a nearby carnival and puppet show run by the whiny Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), who has a baboon pal, Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett!). Of course, Pinocchio is a superstar, and he’s running off with the circus, a panicked Sebastian chasing him, so he can have strange adventures that take him to stages across Italy, Mussolini’s version of a Hitler Youth training camp, and the inside of a terrifying sea creature . Oh, and to death and back a few times too. Anyone else have a few dozen questions about the existential nature of this Pinocchio?

where you can see Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro
Photo: Netflix

Which movies will it remind you of?: GdTs P has more in common with weird but wonderful ventures/relative commercial outliers coral and Wes Anderson’s stop motion work (Fantastic Mr Fox and Island of Dogs) than anything Disney has ever done. On the other hand, the brutal, hilarious performance reminds me of Mussolini The leader’s facethe Donald Duck cartoon depicting Nazis as clowns splashing a juicy tomato on Hitler’s mug.

Notable performance: The vocal cast here is impeccable – Bradley, McGregor, Waltz, Blanchett (I’ll say it again!), Swinton as bizarre, ethereal-voiced spiritual beings. But we should single out Mann for finding the mischievous tone of sweet naivety for Pinocchio, whether he’s singing or speaking.

Memorable dialogue: Love these two bits:

Pinocchio on his apparent immortality: “I could be killed many times! I’m the happiest boy in the world!”

Or this exchange:

Mussolini: “Shit?”

Mussolini’s toady: “Yes, Poop, Your Excellency.”

gender and skin: none.

Our opinion: Those familiar with del Toro’s aesthetic, tonal, and thematic preferences will not be surprised Pinocchio – it’s bizarre, lovely, grotesque, intriguing, disturbing, sweet and deeply moving. Rather than repeating or adapting an all-too-familiar story, the filmmaker seems to have poured a large part of himself into his interpretation of author Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, filters characters through his distinctive lens to allow him to explore ideas about waking and dreaming, the spiritual and the physical, consciousness and sensation. Freedom and oppression, too, when del Toro ditches the classic donkey vignette for a chapter in which Pinocchio meets the Podesta’s son, Candlewick (Candlewick!) in Mussolini’s Li’l Fascie Camp for Tweens – a sequence that’s more dramatic weight than it might have had ten years ago.

So: the inside, fathers, political tyrants, forest spirits, Christ the Father – it seems as if someone is always pulling the strings.

Heady stuff for a “family movie”? Maybe – visually the film should challenge young viewers without being overwhelming. The biggest hurdle is the design of the title character, who is the unpainted Arizona version of Pinocchio – raw wood, roughly carved, naked, earless, crooked pumpkin smile, hole in his heart where a bug lives. He’s not huggable. He’s a goblin, rogue goblin; or, as the Podesta calls him, a “dissident puppet.” His most disturbing adventure is the afterlife, which he greets in true del Toroian fashion: not with fear, but with open-hearted wonder and curiosity.

The catch for kids might be Geppetto and Carlo’s father-son bond, which roots the story in grief (remember the heartbreaking sequence in Pixar’s High, which tells the sad tale of Ellie and Carl) before moving on to grander, more sophisticated notions of finding happiness amidst the looming specter of impermanence. I laughed frequently, more out of surprise, though more conventional jibes are rife in comedy: the cricket routinely throws in her edgy but upbeat sense of humor, often just before being crushed; Volpe is resident Snidely Whiplash, a cruel, selfish buffoon; Spazzatura, with one mottled eye, ragged fur, and the disheveled clothes of a rag collection, would sell tons of plushy counterparts in a just world, but win hearts nonetheless.

Del Toro is joined by two key artists: author Patrick McHale, creator of outstanding animated series adventure time and Over the garden wallco-writer of the film, and stop-motion veterinarian Mark Gustafson, whose numerous and varied credits include Fantastic Mr Fox and Return to Oz, is co-directing his first feature film. Her expertise in the medium is a perfect match for del Toro’s idiosyncratic warmth and vision of a world shaped by its wonders and horrors. There are forces of nature and man at work, and between them Pinocchio exists, wooden in body but celestial in soul – an idea revived during a heartbreaking gleeful aftermath. Del Toro only Pinocchio could be so provocative and scary and endearing and soothing.

Our appeal: Stream it. Guillermo del Toro is the new master of fables and his Pinocchio is a miracle.

John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more about his work below

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