The possessive claim in the title “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is a gutsy one. There’s confidence — some would even say arrogance — in filming an oft-told story at least as old as the hills, and suddenly branding it as your own: Even two auteurs as ballsy as Francis Ford Coppola and Baz Luhrmann didn’t slap their own names on “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet,” respectively. Still, you can hardly blame del Toro’s stop-motion spin on Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century chestnut “The Adventures of Pinocchio” for wanting to advertise its distinguishing vision up top: After umpteen tellings of the wooden-boy tale, and coming on the heels of Robert Zemeckis’ wretched Disney remake, Netflix’s rival adaptation has to announce itself as something different. That it is; it’s often delightful too.
There’s a reason why Collodi’s story keeps getting recycled, of course: It’s a great and unusual one, a moral-bearing Tuscan folk tale that transcends the tradition of its form with delirious surrealism and a perverse streak of wit. So delirious and so perverse, in fact, that it’s rarely been very faithfully adapted, with Disney’s gentler 1940 interpretation — most notable for giving the original tale’s reckless, selfish title character a far more likable makeover — becoming canonical in many children’s imaginations.
Directing alongside stop-motion veteran Mark Gustafson (“Meet the Raisins!,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” here taking his first feature helming credit), del Toro isn’t much more interested in strict fidelity than Walt Disney was. His “Pinocchio” updates the setting to Mussolini’s Italy in wartime, and remixes an array of Collodi’s hijinks with some bold ideas of his own — not least a fresh, more progressive idea of what the story’s driving objective of “real boy” transformation might entail. (Hint: As we teach our kids about everything these days, it’s more about what’s inside than out.) In spirit, however, this notably peculiar, frightening animation feels more in line with Collodi’s imagination than most previous iterations. As you might expect from the man behind “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” there’s a dark, violent sense of consequence to this one, a healthy sense of grotesquerie, that makes its happy ending — yes, that’s still on the cards, but not exactly as you’d expect — feel hard-earned.
The film’s stranger, thornier vision begins with the image of Pinocchio himself, here a far cry from Disney’s cutely dressed, bubble-featured boy. Taking their cue from the illustrations of American artist Gris Grimly (given a co-producing credit) for a 2002 edition of Collodi’s book, del Toro and Gustafson redesign him as a literal stick figure, gnarled and spindly and held together with snaggly nails, with a nose that grows not as a neat rod but in antler-like, leaf-covered branches. If he looks rustic and unfinished, that’s because he is: fashioned by his human woodcarver “father” Geppetto (beautifully voiced by David Bradley) in a drunken fit of grief for his late, cherubic son Carlo (Gregory Mann, gamely doing double duty as Pinocchio too).
Outlined at the outset of the film, this teary new backstory also permits del Toro an early introduction for two of the film’s other fixations: morbid Christian symbolism and the horrors of war. “Everyone likes him, why not me?” asks naively mischievous Pinocchio, gesturing at the gigantic wooden crucifix that Geppetto is repairing for the village church — one damaged in the same First World War bombing that killed Carlo. Two decades later, in an Italy under Il Duce’s fascist thumb, the timber tyke is shunned as a demonic outsider by the community; the village’s authoritarian Podestà (Ron Perlman), however, thinks the “dissident” puppet could prove his worth in the military, serving alongside his terrorized son Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard).
The conservatively macho conceptual leap from “real boy” to “real man” is one of the cleverest layers in del Toro and “Adventure Time” writer Patrick McHale’s busy screenplay, though there’s hardly time to ponder such nuances and subtexts as the story, true to its episodic source, barrels along. The Podestà isn’t the only one after Pinocchio, after all, as travelling circus master Count Volpe (a hissing Christoph Waltz) sees a whole lotta lira in the uncanny living puppet. Meanwhile, our hero’s repeated scrapes keep landing him in a purgatorial netherworld, where a slinky electric-blue incarnation of Death — sister of his life-giving guardian sprite — determines his fate over and over; Tilda Swinton eerily voices both entities, as if you’d choose anyone else to do so.
Trying and rarely managing to keep our hopeless hero on the straight and narrow between all these obstacles is one dapper Sebastian J. Cricket, given a faintly sardonic raconteur’s air by Ewan McGregor that frequently warms up these potentially chilly proceedings — even if his coolly metallic appearance, complete with white, pupil-less eyes, is the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, the animation commendably resists cuddliness at every turn, reveling in the macabre visual textures of a whale’s shuddering inner organs or the severe, soaring lines of 1930s Fascist architecture. A sophisticated colour palette of russets, tans and sunset ochres is led by the lumbery constitution of Pinocchio itself, as well as the flames that, in multiple set pieces, are his greatest enemy.
Aesthetically and narratively, then, this is a “Pinocchio” that credits its young audience with eminently grownup taste and intelligence — so much so that its occasional lurches into more old-school animated musical territory (with a handful of immediately unmemorable songs punctuating Alexandre Desplat’s otherwise lush, puckishly orchestrated score) feel rather half-hearted.
Only rarely, however, does “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” feel compromised in this fashion. Unfolding over a faintly indulgent but never dull two hours, this is a rare children’s entertainment that isn’t afraid to perplex kids as much as it enchants them, down to a coda that prompts a certain level of junior existential contemplation (not to mention a mournful tear or two) at the notion of a dead insect in a matchbox coffin in a boy’s wooden — but very real — heart. It’s a vivid, lavish stroke of weirdness, better seen than described. “Pinocchio” always has been.
From Variety US