Competing with two other adaptions of Collodi’s legendary children’s novel this year, one might wonder how Del Toro, for the first time directing in an animated medium, finds a unique voice. Zemeckis opted to translate Disney’s 1940 film into live action; Rovenskiy’s version, which went viral on TikTok due to its abysmal voice acting, is a laughable attempt that harks back to the Direct-to-TV Barbie movies more than its source material.
Del Toro opts for neither, rooting his version in fascist Italy and Gris Grimly’s 2002 re-design of the character. It’s a bold move, emboldened further by him weaving the DNA of his previous films into this children’s narrative; there are moments of darkness and tragedy, a death that doesn’t cut soon enough, and a world at the dawn of war that seemingly has no place for a boy made of wood.
The titular character of the film, voiced by newcomer Gregory Mann, has been stripped away, no longer intent on magically transforming into a ‘real boy’, and instead seeking the acceptance figuratively as he runs away to earn money to support his papa Geppetto (an excellent David Bradley) in the carnival. Pinocchio’s alienation is central to the story, and he is no longer accompanied by The Talking Cricket common in many adaptions of the material. Instead, ‘Sebastian J.’ Cricket is more of a companion to Geppetto, continuously cursed to be interrupted as he tries to make his singing debut, scene after scene. Ewan McGregor is the stand-out voice, nurturing a distinct tone from his unique position as narrator and guide. Sebastian is less involved than his close Disney relative Jiminy, and allowed a greater arc than The Talking Cricket from the original book; Del Toro successfully elevates the character to new heights, in part aided by the intricate animation that gives The Cricket his magnificent, expressive facial hair.
Christoph Waltz is an equally dominating screen presence as Count Volpe, an amalgamation of the crafty fox, his companion the cat, and the evil theatre director Mangiafuoco from the original text. It’s a smart decision to combine these characters, and if Del Toro had opted to be more faithful to the source material the film may have bloated, dealing with too many antagonist in too little time. The Count’s heritage is clear, fox like side burns spiking up as he waves a cane to his puppets and long-suffering companion, Sprezzatura the monkey; Waltz carries him with a distinction that makes him utterly repulsive. It’s a remarkable feat, given that this film also contains Mussolini, who is dramatically overshadowed by the villainous carnival master throughout.
Del Toro’s great attention to moments of poignancy should be commended as well, with the tragedy that kickstarts the story, and the looming war, handled with a gentleness that never dilutes the fact this film was made for children. Geppetto’s slide into misery and pain form a critical component of his early relationship with Pinocchio, allowing it to blossom with all the care of the character arcs Del Toro crafts in his more minimalist, personal films.
If there was any part that stumbled, however, it was in the form of Candlewick, and to a lesser extent his father, The Podestà (distinctly voiced by Del Toro regular Ron Perlman) . Finn Wolfhard gives the first an adequate degree of innocence, but his relationship with Pinocchio is jarring, very quickly alternating between rivalry and intense friendship leaving you unsure how much you should root for him. Sure, he’s a child, but leaving him with such complex behaviours mean his father is clumsily overlooked. So much so that together, they have nothing but the classic ‘overbearing-father-and-child-who-wants-to-be-approved’ dynamic that is common in just about any piece of children’s fiction with a father-son relationship at it’s core. It’s a shame, because there are sparks of ingenuity, such as having Candlewick offer a child’s perspective on the ‘glory’ of fascist Italy, but they are quickly blotted out by his characterisation, leaving you unsure what exactly to take away.
Overall though, Del Toro has given us the best Pinocchio in a while, notably competing with others in a single year. It’s a hard competition to be noticed in, especially with their common source material and a long history of adaption, but the veteran director takes the drama to new heights whilst never losing the human touches that made the story so heartfelt in the first place. If you watch only one Pinocchio film this year, make it this one.
Pinocchio will be released on Netflix on December 9th.
Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor