Movie review: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Pinocchio is one of those stories that we think we know intimately and well, thanks to the 1940 Disney animated version of the book by The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (with illustrations by Gris Grimly) which has gripped the public consciousness ever since its release and which defines for many how this story is told and what it means.

Originally published in 1881 in magazine instalments, the story, even in the justly celebrated Disney version, is dark and salutary lesson about venturing into the world unprepared for its many dangers and vices but also, inspiringly about the power of love and connection and of sacrificing yourself for others, with some even hailing Pinocchio as a self-sacrificial hero who receives ample reward for giving himself up for others, principally his creator Geppetto.

As you might expect in a Guillermo del Toro iteration of a tale that has given many idioms still in popular use such as bursting into laughter and the idea of a nose growing longing with deceit and lying, things get a little darker in the aptly-named Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio than we are used to in the Disney take though there is also a lightness and a gothic whimsy which brings to the fore the good fortune that Pinocchio, voiced by Gregory Mann, who is gives vocal life to Geppetto’s real life son, Carlo who, in a WW1-based sequence that has the emotional gut punch of the incredibly moving opening montage of Pixar’s UP, paves the way for his wooden brother’s creation.

A creation which, by the way, is birthed out of considerable grief, loss and pain which has rendered the much-loved wood carver of a mountainous Italian village unable to deliver the kinds of glorious woodwork, including one of Jesus on the cross, for the local church where the priest (Burn Gorman) seems to welcome Geppetto with rapturous warmth as long as he delivers the goods.

But as Geppetto descends into a grievous slough with the loss of Carlo, he is abandoned and set adrift by villagers who are all too quick to scorn and abandon him; lost in alcohol and bitter regret – being a del Toro film, emotions are a given a liberative ability to be as dark and ruinous as they often are in real life; it’s frankly a relief, though you mourn what Geppetto once had, to see grief presented in such honest fashion – he finally chops a sentimentally important tree and carves Pinocchio who turns out to be a good deal more impetuous and rebellious than his much-mourned, obedient and sweet brother.

With Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) at his side by virtue of the fact that the insect is living in the tree in a hollow which becomes the wooden boy’s chest, Pinocchio is given life by a kindhearted spirit figure known as the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) who, in keeping with del Toro’s penchant for mythological figures of awesomely beautiful visage – she has a feathered snake’s tail and multiple wings covered in blinking, all-seeing eyes and a voice that feels like resonant echoes of breaking glass – is arrestingly unmissable, both in appearance and deed.

She gives life to Geppetto’s drunkenly-realised creation, against all the rules set out by her sister Death who is a similarly mesmerising Chimera with parts drawn from lions, buffalos and snakes among others, with the clear hope that the wood carver will find new hope and life in the restitution of what he has lost.

It’s a beautiful act but not one fully appreciated by Geppetto at first who realises, a little too late, that he can’t replace his son, not really, a fraught epiphany which sees him and Pinocchio, who is exuberantly in love with being alive, clash despite the boy’s native attempts to carpe diem the hell out of his unexpected life which comes with an immortality which proves handy as the story goes on.

With the latter part of the novel, post Pinocchio’s creation, set in fascist World War Two Italy, where outliers like the wilfully-minded wooden boy not appreciated for their lack of discipline and compliance with inhuman authoritarian dogma – unsurprisingly, Pinocchio ends up being more alive and more human than many of the collaborative humans around him who give up doing what is right, and thus their capacity for humanity, for the peace and quiet of toeing the line – Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio‘s is a revelation, investing startling moving new life into a story we all think we know.

While not a scrupulous adaptation of the book, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is nevertheless far more realistic than many versions than have gone before, willing to let us sit in the darkness that can sit at the heart of the human soul, especially when so much is abruptly and cruelly taken from it.

But while the film, which keeps many of the fantastical elements of the book and gives them ever more expressive realisation – the Wood Sprite and Death alone are jaw-droppingly terrifyingly beautiful characters who dominate their scenes with a heady mix of pragmatism and kindness – acknowledges much of life’s darker, more awful moments, it also celebrates, in ways that feel grounded and truthful, buoyant without being cheesy or trite (but then you’d hardly expect less from a man who has shown a refreshing propensity for being gruesomely but reassuringly honest about the human condition), how good love and connection can be, especially when they come with no expectations.

As Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio progresses, Geppetto and Pinoccio both comes to life-changing realisations of their own, ironically finding a fresh appreciation for the sheer welcome vibrancy of being alive in a period marked by significant deprivation, growing as characters alone and into each other which warms the heart even as you come to appreciate how much something so worthwhile and true can cost you.

In other words, trademark del Toro who doesn’t pretend that the good things in life, should you be so lucky to encounter and claim them, can take as much as they give; it doesn’t diminish their value for a second, in fact, it burnishes them, but nothing comes for free, even if there are happy endings to be had, something that the final affectingly exquisite moments of this luminously wonderful film makes moving and lovingly clear.

The film’s receipt this week of the Best Animated Feature Oscar is well deserved with the stop motion masterpiece that is Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio a breathtakingly beautiful, heartfelt exploration of the very best and the worst of the human condition, affirming how incredibly powerful and complex animation can be but also how simply truthful and impactful these stories are, delivering up narratives that can more than hold with their live-action counterparts while offering something truly unique which stays with you long after the last moving song and touching piece of animated wonder have given way to some delightfully creative credits.

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