Netflix must have called in the Blue Fairy because what better investment could they have made than giving Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro the funding needed to finally realize one of his dream projects – a stop-motion animated movie based on Carlo Collodi’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio. True to form, del Toro’s sensibilities are all over this terrific cinematic effort. The look comes distinctly from the art one could see in his many notebooks. The music by Alexandre Desplat is ethereal yet complex. And, while being a story for children and adults, there’s a dark edge to all of this wonder, allowing it to feel more sincere.
Anyone familiar with Pinocchio knows the basics of this story. However, del Toro and co-writer Patrick McHale have made some notable changes. This film takes place in 1930s Fascist Italy, where the government occasionally torments a local village. Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) is a skilled woodcarver grieving his recently deceased son Carlo. While one can infer certain things from other versions of this story, the overt characteristic in this film means rather than simply carving a wooden puppet to help him deal with the loss, Geppetto instead gets a bit too drunk one night and builds Pinocchio mostly out of spite.
Being a del Toro feature, he and co-director Mark Gustafson often draw a line between lighthearted fantasy and something more serious and thrilling. This sequence where Geppetto builds Pinocchio plays like a body horror sequence more than anything else. We watch intense closeups of the wood shavings coming off of a tree, take in shots of nails being hammered into this little body, and deal with the sounds of joints coming together. We may have this film’s version of Jiminy Cricket guiding us through the scene, but it’s pretty wild.
Seeing this happen in a stop-motion animated feature is incredibly impressive when considering the time and craft involved in something that’s clearly tangible and full of detail. It adds an extra edge, which is saying something, considering how wildly impressive 1940’s Pinocchio from Disney still is as one of their best hand-drawn animated features. I can’t say the same for Robert Zemeckis’ recent live-action attempt, which honestly felt like a step backward for a filmmaker known for pioneering new approaches to visual effects.
Remaining focused on the same construction scene, it’s curious to see him bring his affinity for horror into this production. Del Toro has often talked about making Pinocchio and Frankenstein features, as he loves those stories and sees a kinship between the two key characters. One may not typically view Pinocchio as a misunderstood monster in the same way as the creature Dr. Frankenstein created, but seeing the little puppet boy being assembled gave me a different understanding of what this story is after.
Having an altered take on Pinocchio’s origins allows for some interesting twists on what most may be used to when it comes to this adventure. Voiced by Gregory Mann, while still curious and ultimately well-meaning, this wooden boy is also more akin to causing mischief and playing tricks. It’s a near opposite take on Geppetto’s son (also voiced by Mann), whom we briefly meet in the film’s opening, as if the woodcarver is being tested, having crafted a crude puppet boy with unexpected results. There’s a barely controlled exuberance in Pinocchio, and his arc focuses on how to understand love, obedience, and the value of life. The living puppet’s attitude also informs how he’ll get along with the other characters in this story.
Christoph Waltz effectively brings what’s needed as Count Volpe, an aristocratic puppet master, hellbent on roping in Pinocchio to perform for him for life. As the other key antagonist, del Toro regular Ron Perlman portrays a government official of the worst kind, spinning the Coachmen character in a different but fitting direction. Other notable stars, including Tim Blake Nelson, Cate Blanchett, and John Turturro, also pop up. More key to the story is Tilda Swinton taking on a couple of creative new angles for how the Blue Fairy functions. In this film, there’s a Wood Sprite who grants life, as well as her sister, Death. Lastly, Ewan McGregor voices Sebastian J. Cricket, who serves as the story’s narrator, and, of course, becomes the conscious for Pinocchio.
What’s nice about having this cast is the effort to make them feel like a range of characters fit for this story. Balancing what audiences have always known about Pinocchio and his adventures and what del Toro wants to do differently with his version means making unique and interesting choices that do not alienate the audience. For all efforts to include startling imagery with the rise of a fascist state used as the backdrop, it’s a credit to the filmmakers for making it all feel so approachable. There’s magic in this world, and it’s the kind that allows for compelling storytelling to shine through.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is the best kind of reimagining, as he’s taking something he’s so clearly fond of and making it fresh in ways that totally suit his visionary eye. Working with plenty of great talent, the realization of this take on the story allows for memorable imagery, some macabre sensibilities to provide a more challenging way to entice the viewer, and a level of energy that comes through in the spirit of this film. Seeing these stop-motion puppets designed and animated in a manner that aligns with the other fantastical efforts from del Toro only cements the success of this project. And that certainly feels like the wood sprite made the right choice when granting life.