Movies

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio Shows Why We Keep Adapting This Story

The Netflix movie is this year’s third adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s book—and the first to truly come to life.

A wooden boy stares into the camera, a faint smile on his face, as golden light filters through a porthole window behind him
Netflix

Even in the age of IP, it’s hard to wrap your head around how many movie versions of Pinocchio there are: well over two dozen, including three this year alone. The number is even more surprising when you take into account how far its source material, Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book, has drifted from the public consciousness, and how few of those adaptations have been either good or successful or both. Even if you haven’t read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol or seen the 1951 movie starring Alastair Sim, sometimes called the greatest Christmas movie ever made, Scrooged and the Muppets are ample proof of the story’s enduring appeal, and its mutability. But somewhere around the time in early September when I watched the latest Disney version of Pinocchio, a misbegotten “live-action” remake directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto, I couldn’t help but wonder: Why do they keep doing this?

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Guillermo del Toro’s animated version of the story, which is now streaming on Netflix, doesn’t provide a definitive answer to that question, insofar as much of what makes it distinctive is what he brings to it rather than anything extracted from the original book, but it’s a testament to how deeply Collodi’s book marked the director as a child, and how much it’s sustained and inspired him ever since. Written by del Toro and Patrick McHale, it’s heavily entwined with two of del Toro’s favorite things, Catholic imagery and the march to fascism, and set in the only place where the two fit together more snugly than the mid-20th-century Spain of his The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth: mid-20th-century Italy.

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This Pinocchio, voiced by child actor Gregory Mann, isn’t just a miraculous replacement for the grieving woodcutter’s dead son—he’s more like a transubstantiation. The boy, named Carlo, is killed by a World War I bomber while he’s admiring the crucifix Geppetto has been installing in the village church, shortly after handing the old man a bucket of red paint to touch up Christ’s stigmata. He’s gone back inside in the first place to retrieve a prized possession, his “perfect pinecone”—a symbol often associated with the Catholic Church—that after his death provides the seed for the tree from whose wood Pinocchio is hewn. What’s more, this Pinocchio, given life by a luminous wood sprite (Tilda Swinton), cannot die. Instead he merely passes into the underworld, where he’s kept until it’s time to return to the land of the living. He’s born over and over again, not exactly dying for our sins, but sometimes dying because of them. The boy, an outcast in his small mountain town, especially as fascism’s conformist influence grows, even looks up at the crucifix hanging in church and wonders aloud, “He’s made of wood, too. Why does everyone like him, not me?”

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Del Toro first announced his plans to make Pinocchio in 2008, and the project was set up and fell apart several times over the years, which helps explain why, even though it arrives less than a year after his Nightmare Alley, the movie has the feel of a last at-bat, a go-for-broke heedlessness that avoids the micromanaged fussiness that often infects live-action directors’ forays into animation. (Looking at you, Wes Anderson.) At times, the movie simply feels overstuffed, mimicking the episodic structure of the book—if very few of its particulars—to the extent that it can feel like you’ve nodded off and woken up in the middle of a different story altogether. But its inventiveness is so vivid that no matter where you are at any given moment, you’re happy to be there. Why is the afterlife through which Pinocchio passes inhabited by poker-playing rabbits who speak in Yiddish slang with the voice of Tim Blake Nelson? Perhaps the question is—why not? (That goes double for Cate Blanchett’s credit as the voice of the circus monkey Spazzatura, a wordless role that consists mainly of screeching and blowing raspberries.)

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Although it’s credited as a direct adaptation of Collodi’s text, del Toro’s Pinocchio owes as much to the 1940 Disney version, including the central presence of a garrulous insect, here named Sebastian J. Cricket and voiced by Ewan McGregor. True, this one is not a sprightly conscience but a vain aspiring writer, toiling away on a memoir called Stridulations of My Youth. But considering that the unnamed cricket in Collodi’s story gets squished early on by a hammer-wielding Pinocchio, the influence of Uncle Walt can’t be discounted. Del Toro’s is, of course, a darker and more complex vision, as knotty as the pine out of which his living puppet is carved. His Pinocchio comes into the world as an agent of pure chaos, laying waste to Geppetto’s workshop and smashing objects just for the fun of it. But it’s also lighter and sweeter than anything he’s ever made, with songs by composer Alexandre Desplat so gossamer some of them barely exist at all. (In one delightful running gag, Sebastian the cricket keeps trying to launch into a wisdom-of-the-ages number about everything he learned from his father, only to get squished behind a door or drowned out by the sound of a monstrous beast.) As the voice of Gepetto, David Bradley, best known as Game of Thrones’ treacherous Walder Frey and the Harry Potter series’ cantankerous caretaker Argus Filch, delivers a vocal performance of surprising tenderness, and turns out to have a lovely singing voice as well.

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The off-the-cuff approach works less well when it comes to the movie’s depiction of encroaching fascism, which takes over Italy as the story moves through the 1930s and into the ’40s. Del Toro has rationalized the connection by saying that Pinocchio represents a kind of innocent disobedience, of which fascism’s calculated conformity is the precise opposite, but the movie also shows how easily his innocence can be corrupted. Once he’s effectively conscripted by the opportunistic circus owner Volpe (Christoph Waltz), Pinocchio is easily swayed into performing militarist propaganda for the rising Mussolini. But he’s also capricious enough to turn around and subvert that spectacle on a whim, even in the presence of Il Duce himself. While Del Toro’s other movies have championed anti-fascist resistance, this one presents its truest and most potent counterweight as childlike anarchy.

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That sense of anarchy is a quality that has become scarcer in del Toro’s increasingly ornate live-action films, and it’s a surprise to find him reconnecting with it in the world of stop-motion animation, where every movement is planned out years in advance. But it feels like he’s gotten his groove back, and if the price is the occasional feeling of incoherence, it’s well worth the trade-off. Del Toro finds in this oft-told tale both the heart that has allowed it to endure for so long and an idiosyncratic connection that makes his version feel new.

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