As you might expect from the billing, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio — which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival today — is a very different beast to the 1940 Disney animation, and just as cavalier with the picaresque elements of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel. The factor that unifies all three is that the main character — a wooden puppet blessed with life — longs to be a real, human boy, but it’s no spoiler to reveal that del Toro, champion of monsters and misfits, doesn’t see the appeal of that.
Instead, this sophisticated animation fantasy — made in conjunction with The Jim Henson Company and pushing the art of stop-motion to a whole new artistic level — takes a macabre approach that even Collodi might have found a bit much. The result is a very grown-up kids’ film that isn’t suitable for the very young (it comes with a 12 rating on Netflix ) and doesn’t have very much to offer little girls with its constant affirmation of the unabashedly sentimental father-son relationship that anchors it.
It begins with that very subject, sketching in the backstory of Gepetto (David Bradley), a carpenter and “model Italian citizen” whose masterpiece — a crucified Christ commissioned by the local priest — is left unfinished after his young son Carlo is killed in church by a bomb blast in 1916.
Years pass, and Gepetto, now an unhappy drunk, decides to knock up a surrogate son from a chunk of pine. This wholly unexpected origins scene is perhaps the film’s most intriguing idea, filmed with a gothic relish worthy of James Whale’s 1930s Frankenstein movies. Gepetto is a master craftsman, but Pinocchio is a rush job with nails sticking out of his back, and while the old man is sleeping, the spirits of the forest visit and give his handiwork the gift of life.
All this is narrated by Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a talking insect that spends most of the film imparting wisdom, getting squashed (repeatedly), and, after striking a deal with a wood sprite (one of only two female characters, both voiced by Tilda Swinton), trying to keep Pinocchio on the straight and narrow. Off the bat, however, Pinocchio is unruly and mischievous (“But I don’t want to obey,” he yells), and on his first day of school runs off to join a circus run by the ‘stache-twirling Count Volpe. After Gepetto comes to save him, Pinocchio is seemingly killed in a road accident — only to find, in an afterlife run by skeletal rabbits and overseen by a blue, eyeless gryphon that symbolizes death, that he can never actually die, and will keep returning for all eternity.
So far, this isn’t a million miles from the source book, but in relocating the setting to Mussolini’s rule, del Toro makes his boldest and possibly weakest gambit, forcing a connection to The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth that doesn’t seem especially organic. Returning to the circus, Pinocchio — “The Stringless Wonder” — is forced to perform for Il Duce, inexplicably singing a song about poop that, understandably, raises the dictator’s hackles. But by this time, the puppet’s immortality has been duly noted by a sinister local fascist who believes that Pinocchio can be groomed to become the ultimate fighting machine. Gepetto and Sebastian set out to look for him, and the three are reunited in the belly of a monster fish — just in time for the emotional finale.
Throughout, the script has been juggling a slew of morals, mostly along the lines of, “In this world you get what you give.” But in the final run, del Toro decides to go much, much darker, and as soon as Death notes that “you never know how long you have with someone until they’ve gone,” it’s clear where things are heading (like the ending of Silent Running before it, del Toro’s film might leave parents with some explaining to do).
For all its heartfelt homilies, however, Pinocchio is a strangely unmoving experience, and the intermittent musical numbers are nowhere near as memorable as the animation. Fans of del Toro’s effortlessly brilliant visual style won’t be disappointed, but like last year’s Nightmare Alley there are perhaps too many surface details and flourishes when what it really needs is a little more charm and wonder.