Guillermo del Toro’s dark update of a beloved modern fairy tale
The enchanted marionette with no impulse control who learns to be a good boy gets a suitably phantasmagoric spin in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, a welcome and shrewd update of Carlo Collodi’s enduring 1883 picaresque portrait. The Oscar-winning, monster-loving Mexican never fails to express his deep, wonderfully weird love for Italy’s most famous major minor, a live-out-loud naif with zero street smarts who falls out of one mess and into another with blindingly gullible ease.
PINOCCHIO ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Starring: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Burn Gorman, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton
Running time: 117 min
The familiar elements remain: there’s a conscience-nudging cricket (Ewan McGregor) and a blue-haired-fairy Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), along with a sea monster sporting a whale of an appetite. But in this version, rendered in a delightfully tactile mix of digital and stop-motion animation, del Toro also infuses the classic with Mussolini’s particular brand of fascism, updating the 19th century wonderment to war-brewing 1936 and adding an existential urgency that’s missing from the more episodic, charmingly magical structure of the original. Just watch as Il Duce orders one of his goons to shoot Pinocchio in the chest. It’s dark.
As befitting a filmmaker who revels in the macabre, Del Toro’s version has Geppetto making his boisterous brat only after a self-destructive bender at his son’s gravesite, sloppily carving the puppet with drunken abandon in his living room before literally passing out on the stairs. And—in a twist—this Pinocchio actually dies, more than a few times, and ends up in a sort of time-out Bardo populated with skeletal goombah-accented rabbit pallbearers. Their overlord in this underworld? an eerie sphynx-like version of Death (also Swinton), weirdly the sister of the Wood Sprite.
Every time he bites it, Pinocchio has to wait longer and longer before he comes back to life—but he always returns, which the fascist warmongers love since it makes him the ideal soldier. Life brings suffering, and eternal life brings its own type of eternal suffering. That sensibility tinges the film throughout. “Oh, the pain!” he wails in one of the many moments his world crushes him. “Life is such hideous pain.”
Speaking of pain: there are groaningly banal songs, too, a fatal misstep that feels like an unforced error. There’s even a running joke about how one character keeps getting interrupted whenever he starts crooning. If only all the rest suffered the same fate. No worries, you’ll forget the numbers as soon as you hear them.
The irrepressible story of Pinocchio seems as strong, durable, and elastic as the pine wood that lonely Geppetto uses to create the child that fulfills his daddy dreams. Filmmakers keep stress-testing the material, and re-discovering its smooth-grain themes as well as its gnarly narrative threads. Three Pinocchio movies came out in 2022 alone, along with Matteo Garrone’s faithfully gonzo 2019 version and Oscar-winner Roberto Begnini’s WTF take from 2002 where he casts himself, a middle-aged man, as the tyke. But Del Toro’s sociopolitical tweaks give the material even more poignance—string-pulling queries like “Who controls you?” land with even greater weight, especially given the story’s baked-in lessons about imperfect fathers and unformed sons. His craftsmanship is in full effect here, and the lovingly polished result truly has a life of its own.