Despite brilliantly, lovingly crafted visuals, the irresistible strangeness of the original tale is lost in an allegory of political thuggery
M, 117 minutes
Review by © Jane Freebury
The classic children’s tale, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, has been told and re-told in many ways since it first appeared in serialised form in a children’s magazine in 1883. And there have been three new features released in English-language this year. The irresistible strangeness of the original tale, with its unsettling violent undercurrent, persists.
One of the most famous of cautionary tales for fibbers has had a long life
The latest Pinocchio is the work of Mexican auteur, Guillermo del Toro, a master of gothic horror, fantasy and the political allegory. For this tale close to his heart, he has adopted an artisanal approach to the picaresque adventure, so in keeping with the story of a boy who is hewn from an oak tree. He and all the other characters have been given life with the technique of stop-motion, the oldest form of the art of animation.
The results are entrancing, a marvel of production design, skilfully crafted puppets and stop motion techniques. It’s no surprise to hear that the project has been decades in the making.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is set in Italy just prior to the Second World War, at a time when fascism was taking hold under its notorious strongman Il Duce, Benito Mussolini, who had his boot on the neck of the country. When Mussolini’s puppet, voiced by Tom Kenny, makes his appearance here he is appropriately short, stout and simple-minded.
Politics is never far from the surface in films by this very talented creative. Other films of del Toro’s like The Devil’s Backbone, set during the last year of Spanish Civil War, and the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth, set just afterwards, were both allegories for the cancer of fascism. While the beautiful, mesmerising The Shape of Water, with Sally Hawkins falling in love with an amphibious humanoid held captive at a top secret government laboratory, suggests a Western paranoia about otherness.
Del Toro has said that he identifies with Pinocchio, who he saw as an outsider like himself when growing up. For the look of his lead character, del Toro was inspired by the illustrations in Gris Grimly’s book on Pinocchio, but some of the animated figures also look like the distinctive Capodimonte porcelain figurines come to life.
The simple, wood-hewn look of the Pinocchio puppet that has been achieved by del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson (director of animation for Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox), and their vast team, is not a bit like the cute rascal in the famous 1940 animation made by Disney. Except for a nose that grows. There again, the nose on del Toro’s Pinocchio grows into a branching, leafy shrub instead. Thirty-two puppets were created to cover the range of his expressions and poses.
Aging Geppetto, with splendid moustache and beard, is voiced by David Bradley. The screenplay, a collaboration between del Toro and Patrick McHale, gives the old man a real son at the start, a charming, pliant child who is thrilled by simple things like an acorn. But the boy is killed in the Great War when a church is hit by a bomb dropped by enemy planes overhead.
It’s no surprise that del Toro has delivered a tale dark in tone. It’s what he does best
The Cricket (Ewan McGregor) is a kind and wise influence and there is a creative re-imaging of the Fairy with Blue Hair, but as in the original tale, there are malign adult influences on the young and impressionable Pinocchio.
The Fox and the Cat have changed so much over the years that few may notice their absence. They have morphed into a single vulpine and feline crook here, Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz voicing), an exploitative carnival master, combining yet another original villain who offers fame and fortune but of course delivers neither. A sinister, slinky primate called Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett), accompanies Volpe on his rounds. Neither feline nor vulpine, the mayor, Podesta (Ron Perlman), an enforcer of moral rectitude and proper thinking in the fascist state, is terrifying for viewers of any age.
The imagery is absolutely wonderful. Brilliant. But the profusion of dark scenes and harsh dialogue don’t fit easily with family entertainment. Nor is it surprising that del Toro has delivered a tale so dark in tone with, in the language of the office of classification, scary scenes, mature themes and violence. It’s what he does best.