Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a del Toro movie right from the start, not just because it has a possessive title. He is a director whose visual style is just as strong as Tim Burton’s or Wes Anderson’s, but it has not hardened as much, so he can still change and surprise.
With Pinocchio, del Toro uses stop-motion animation, just like both of those directors. This lets him keep the feel of his live-action work while controlling how every single thing in the frame looks.
But there is more to the movie’s success than how it looks. What is surprising about Pinocchio is how personal it feels to Guillermo del Toro, even though he co-directed it with Mark Gustafson and shot it at the same time as Nightmare Alley and had teams of artists working on it on three different continents.
This Netflix animated film might be the most del Toro movie since Pan’s Labyrinth. It is definitely one of the best since then, and it is as unique as any of his English-language work.
It is nothing like the classic 1940 Walt Disney movie or its recent, lifeless remake, or either of the two live-action Italian versions starring Roberto Benigni, or any of the other dozens of attempts to turn Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book into a movie.
It is the first movie ever made with stop-motion, which means that Pinocchio, the wooden puppet who comes to life, is played by a fundamental instrument for the first time.
Beyond this, del Toro (who co-wrote the script and the lyrics for a few songs) takes a few key passages and themes from Collodi, throws out even more than Disney did, and moves the story to the middle of the 20th century.
He makes it more significant to include many of his own vital themes, especially from the scary fairy tales The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth: Europe between the wars, the fear of Fascism, the terror of childhood, the land of the dead, and the place where the monstrous, the human, and the sublime meet.
In this version, the humble woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) has a beloved human son named Carlo, who dies in a bombing during World War I.
Years later, he makes Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) not out of whimsy, but out of wild, scary grief that has more than a little bit of Frankenstein in it.
Pinocchio is made from a pine tree that grew from a pine cone that Carlo had found and where Sebastian J. Cricket, a haughty insect storyteller played by Ewan McGregor, had made his home.
Cricket watches as Tilda Swinton, who plays the angelic Wood Sprite, brings Pinocchio to life. But he still lives by crawling back into his home in the heart of the wooden boy.
This Pinocchio is curious, quick, and rash, which is very different from Carlo, who always does what he is told.
He has only been alive for a few hours, but he is already running around Geppetto’s workshop like a crazy whirligig, smashing everything he touches with his thin, jerky limbs.
It is fun and a little scary at the same time. Pinocchio is rough and unfinished. There are still nails and twigs sticking out of him, and he moves and acts in a haphazard way. But, unlike most people who tell this story, del Toro does not want to fix these flaws.
Pinocchio fights every sign and situation that del Toro puts in front of him. He asks a wooden Christ in a church, “Why do people love him and not me?”
Count Volpe, a greedy circus ringmaster by Christoph Waltz, and the Podestà, a Fascist official by Ron Perlman, try to trick the trusting puppet into doing what they want.
But anarchy tends to follow the wooden boy: into the presence of Il Duce, Mussolini, or into the stomach of a giant, monster dogfish, or into a tomb where rabbits with exposed ribs play cards. This place has a lot going on.
It has a confusing, episodic plot, and the filmmakers do not hit every goal they set out to. This is not a movie for kids, even though it sometimes acts like one (and adventurous kids may get as much out of it as anyone else, if not more).
In the later stages, there are elements of satire, parables, creature feature, dark fairy tales, and sweet sentimentality that do not always work well together.
But many of its plot lines are pure fun, like the rivalry between Pinocchio and Count Volpe’s monkey puppeteer Sprezzatura. There is more to this intelligent, ugly animal than meets the eye, and that is before you realise that Cate Blanchett is the voice behind its wordless screeches and yelps.
Even by del Toro’s standards, Pinocchio is a feast for the eyes and ears. Alexandre Desplat wrote the score, which is full of melody and romance (The Shape of Water).
The voice acting is excellent, especially from Bradley, a veteran character actor from “Game of Thrones” and “Harry Potter,” as the grumpy Geppetto, and from McGregor, who nails all the most prominent laugh lines and whose voiceover does so many to make this sometimes awkward movie fun and hold it together.
The animation is made by ShadowMachine in studios in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Mexico. It is a fantastic show that can not be done with CG or even hand-drawn animation. Even at its most glorious, it is rich, tactile, and personal.
As you might expect from the person who made the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, the puppets are creepy, strange, ugly, cute, sad, and always memorable. The screen is always full of light, colour, and detail, and the animators do amazing things with scale and action.
But what stays with you are the minor actions, like the way Geppetto drags his long, worn fingers across a blanket or the way Pinocchio’s expression changes in the wood grain around his eyes.
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There is no doubt that this is one of the best stop-motion animation works, a rare and strange art form. This is just as ambitious as Avatar, even though it is set in a world made of rubber, clay, paper, paint, joints, wires, and levers.
But del Toro’s best work is that he does not let all the artistry get in the way of the art. It is an unruly, wild, and tender movie that sometimes gets lost but ends up in a very moving state of grace.