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Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

The 'The Shape of Water' and 'Pan's Labyrinth' director's stop-motion take on the beloved 19th-century Italian tale might just be the most magical yet.
By Sarah Ward
November 24, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
November 24, 2022
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Guillermo del Toro hasn't yet directed a version of Frankenstein, except that he now has in a way. Officially, he's chosen another much-adapted, widely beloved story — one usually considered less dark — but there's no missing the similarities between the Nightmare Alley and The Shape of Water filmmaker's stop-motion Pinocchio and Mary Shelley's ever-influential horror masterpiece. Both carve out tales about creations made by grief-stricken men consumed by loss. Both see those tinkerers help give life to things that don't usually have it, gifting existence to the inanimate because they can't cope with mortality's reality. Both notch up the fallout when those central humans struggles with the results of their handiwork, even though all that the beings that spring from their efforts want is pure and simple love and acceptance. Del Toro's take on Pinocchio still has a talking cricket, a blue-hued source of magic and songs, too, but it clearly and definitely isn't a Disney movie.

Instead, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is an enchanting iteration of a story that everyone knows, and that's graced screens so many times that this is the third flick in 2022 alone. Yes, the director's name is officially in the film's title. Yes, it's likely there to stop the movie getting confused with that array of other page-to-screen adaptations, all springing from Carlo Collodi's 19th-century Italian children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. That said, even if the list of features about the timber puppet wasn't longer than said critter's nose when he's lying, del Toro would earn the possessory credit anyway. No matter which narrative he's unfurling — including this one about a boy fashioned out of pine (voiced by Gregory Mann, Victoria) by master woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley, Catherine Called Birdy) after the death of his son — the Mexican Oscar-winner's distinctive fingerprints are always as welcomely apparent as his gothic-loving sensibilities.

In del Toro's third release Down Under this year, following Nightmare Alley and horror anthology series Guillermo del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities — something else that unswervingly deserved his name in the moniker — the Pinocchio basics are all accounted for. This isn't an ordinary edition of the story, though, or a wooden one (for that, see: the recent Mouse House live-action remake of its 1940 animated hit). Co-helming with feature first-timer Mark Gustafson, co-writing with Patrick McHale (Adventure Time), using character designs by author and illustrator Gris Grimly, and  boasting The Jim Henson Company among its producers, this Pinocchio still takes liberties with the original plot, without being beholden to Disney as its guide. Two big leaps: using wartime Italy under Mussolini as the movie's setting, and reinterpreting what it truly means to be "a real boy".

Also a visible departure: how Pinocchio himself looks, with his forest origins never sanded or polished away, or clothed over like a doll (or a flesh-and-blood child, for that matter). He cuts a rustic, thorny and whittled figure, complete with stick-thin legs, twisted nails protruding from his back, swinging joints and a branch-like nose with leaves snaking in all directions whenever he fails to tell the truth. No doubt aided by Gustafson's stop-motion background, including working as animation director on Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox, the end result looks so knotty, gnarled and textured that wanting to touch it is a natural reaction. Pinocchio's entire visuals do, as lensed by cinematographer Frank Passingham (Kubo and the Two Strings) — and as befitting a story that's inherently tactile anyway. (Being about a hand-carved puppet that comes alive will naturally do that.)

Sebastian J Cricket narrates, putting Ewan McGregor's (Obi-Wan Kenobi) melodious voice to good use as the talkative insect, and starting the film's star-studded cast. He chats through Gepetto's bliss with Carlo (also voiced by Mann), the recklessly dropped World War One bomb that took the boy's life and the booze-fuelled desolation that festers during the woodcarver's decades of mourning. It's while drunk that the latter whips up Pinocchio, who is then visited by the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton, Three Thousand Years of Longing), and embraces the next morning walking, talking and being thoroughly mischievous. Alas, the puppet isn't quite embraced in return to begin with — with his shocked papa constantly comparing him to his lost boy, the village priest (Burn Gorman, The Offer) demanding he's sent to school and the local Podestà (Ron Perlman, Don't Look Up) seeing military uses, wanting to ship Pinocchio to war with his own son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things).

Telling the curious, cheeky, chaotic and selfish timber tot what to do at all is a tricky task anyway, but he listens to one person: Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz, No Time to Die). The carnival master entices Pinocchio to his circus with help from his monkey sidekick Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett, Tár), promising treats and fun, but only really seeing lira and adoration for himself. Del Toro's choice of period gives not just this but the whole tale a grimmer spin, with never being afraid to confront history's horrors — and life's — even when getting fantastical always one of the director's great moves. As in The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth and Hellboy, it works beautifully; Pinocchio is as tinged with personal and universal sorrow and violence as it is gleefully sprouting with eccentricities. (On the page, too, Collodi's creation has always been weirder and more wondrous than Disney gave it credit for, as the 2019 version by Gomorrah's Matteo Garrone also recognised.)

Surreal, tinged with sadness, bittersweet, beautiful: that's the film that del Toro has chiseled. It's also caught between a stunning dream and a macabre nightmare, and oh-so-aware that life is only as remarkable and precious as it is because death casts a shadow over every moment for all of us. The usual moral flutters at its heart as well, like this movie's cricket inside Pinocchio's cavernous wooden chest, but the added darkness and pain gives the idea of becoming a genuine person through kindness, love and connection extra weight and depth. This iteration tinkers with the mechanics and meaning behind that 'real boy' quest, however, to utterly heartwarmingly results. In fact, the only less-than-glorious move del Toro makes in his Pinocchio-by-way-of-Frankenstein is keeping in songs — his movie is magical enough without them.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio screens in cinemas from Thursday, November 24, then streams via Netflix from Friday, December 9.

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