Continuing the new tradition of taking all of their animated classics and turning them into “live-action” features, Disney now dips their toes into the world of Pinocchio. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring his go-to guy Tom Hanks as Geppetto, “Pinocchio” is a colorful, charming adaptation that feels like a classic in the making… until it doesn’t.
That’s not to say there is anything wrong with this revamping, but in some ways, it just feels like a 3D animated version of the original.
As written by Zemeckis and Chris Weitz, the movie starts quietly beautiful, with our introduction to Jiminy Cricket (voiced with unrecognizable spunk by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He begins to tell the tale of the wooden boy Pinocchio adding that he would tell it as the fairy tale that it is. This effectively allows us to believe there is a world where a walking, talking puppet and upright bantering animals is normal.
For the first twenty minutes or so, we meet the kindly woodcarver Geppetto (Hanks) and discover that he used to have a son and wife, but both are gone now. Longing for his son, he crafts a wooden boy he names Pinocchio. Surrounded by walls of cuckoo clocks he refuses to sell, he spends nights muttering to himself, his cat Figaro, and goldfish Cleo.
Finally turning in for the night, he notices the “wishing star” outside his window and makes a wish. While he’s asleep, the beautiful Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) arrives to grant it: giving life to his puppet boy (now wonderfully voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth.)
Meanwhile, Jiminy is flabbergasted by all of this and is sucked into the magic when the Blue Fairy makes him Pinocchio’s conscience.
When Geppetto awakens, he is overjoyed with his wooden son, and the two spend days getting into a routine. But soon enough, he decides that Pinocchio must go to school (which excites the kid very much) and sends him on his way. But darker forces are at work in their small seaside town in the manner of Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) – a sly fox looking to nab acts for the Stromboli circus.
Most everyone knows the rest of the story. The circus kidnaps Pinocchio, and he is later coerced into going to the mysterious Pleasure Island with new friends. He also turns into a donkey and gets swallowed by a whale. All moments are represented here. In fact, it’s pretty much a play-by-play of the animated film but with a more “live-action” feel to it (though most of it is still CGI).
There’s nothing wrong with Disney’s update of its beloved classic. It’s just that there isn’t much to brag about. Zemeckis is a wonder at these types of live-action/animated endeavors, but aside from a really good opening act that promises a richer story, it plays by the numbers after that.
To be fair, it all looks really neat, and the animated fox and his dim cat friend are fun to watch, as is our main puppet, but there doesn’t feel like any huge stakes. I never worried about our characters and didn’t have as strong an emotional connection as I’d hoped.
The addition of Sabina (Jaquita Ta’le), a puppeteer in Stromboli’s circus, is a sweet extension of the story. Although, aside from a nice song from her, her presence doesn’t have the impact it could have. Nothing does. It’s all fun, but it moves from one familiar sequence to the next. It’s all eye-catching and keeps your interest, but it doesn’t have the enduring quality the original animated film does.
Another interesting film flaw reminded me of one of Disney’s first forays into remaking its animated catalog. In 2016’s The Jungle Book, the re-imagining seemed to be afraid to make the film a musical, despite it having some of the most popular songs of all Disney movies. They’d use a few bars here and there or a verse and chorus, but they never really went full-on musical. The same happens here. Hanks half speaks/half warbles a tune right out of the gate, Erivo does a shortened version of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and Pinocchio gets a truncated “I Have No Strings,” but they only add up to moments.
Luke Evans, as the evil Coachman who takes kids to the mysterious Pleasure Island, has the most extended number complete with choreography, but that’s really the last musical sequence we see. I wanted Disney to either fully embrace the musical aspects of the story or just forget about it.
Don’t get me wrong, Pinocchio is a perfectly cute movie and looks terrific, but as much as I was lamenting its arrival on Disney+ and not in theaters, I guess I can see why it didn’t earn a big screen release. The film doesn’t have the adult cross-over appeal that it could have. Sure, there are some visual gags (mostly in Geppetto’s clocks which all reference Disney movies), but there isn’t enough cleverness to the writing that will engage both young and old like Pixar and Disney oftentimes accomplish.
I wanted to love Pinocchio, but as it stands, I simply liked it. The film goes down easy and is a feast for the eyes, but I’m not sure it’ll go down as a classic of the live-action reboots. Cinderella is still my number one there, so we’ll see what happens when Peter and Wendy debuts next.