GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO (2022) works on so many different levels, it’s difficult to know where to start.
So, I guess I’ll start by saying this version of PINOCCHIO is definitely not just for kids, as the themes and story in this one are definitely aimed at adults, even though on the surface it remains a children’s story. That being said, even though it is rated PG, it is rather dark and in spots frightening, and so parents of younger children be forewarned. But for everyone else, enjoy!
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is now available on Netflix, which means you can watch this one from the comfort of your own home. It features exquisite stop-motion animation, and the word that comes to mind when describing it is clear. Everything in this movie looks so clear, clean, and precise. The feel of the animation hearkens back to the old Rankin-Bass Christmas specials of the 1960s and 70s, vehicles like RUDOLPH THE RED- NOSED REINDEER (1964) and SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN’ TO TOWN (1970), only it’s a gazillion times better, as if these Christmas specials were shot by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, or perhaps some other cinematic visionary, say like Guillermo del Toro. How about that?
The actors providing the voices all do first-rate jobs, which is no surprise when you have the likes of Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Ron Perlman, John Turturo, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, and Christoph Waltz in your cast! Even the songs are memorable. But most of all, and by far my favorite part of this movie, even with its amazing animation, is its script by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the book Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Not only is the story it tells compelling, but it covers anti-war and anti-fascist themes, father/son relationships, and really and most importantly has a lot to say on what death means, and how important it is to love those around you while you have them, because life is so short, and then it’s gone.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO opens in World War I Italy where a woodcarver named Geppetto (David Bradley) lives a quiet happy life with his son Carlo (Alfie Tempest), but this happy time is cut short when a bomb falls from the sky, and Carlo is killed in the explosion. In the years that follow, Geppetto grieves and can’t move past his grief, wasting away as he yearns for nothing else but the return of his son. It’s at this time that the narrator of the story appears, the Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a self-described author who moves into the tree which had grown by Carlo’s grave in order to write his life story, but it’s at this point that Geppetto reaches an all-time low, and in a fit of drunken rage, decides that he’s sick and tired of his prayers not being answered, and he vows to take matters into his own hands. No, he doesn’t have a PET SEMATARY moment and dig up his son’s grave, but he does chop down the tree by the grave and uses the wood to build a puppet in the likeness of his son, but of course it is lifeless, and Geppetto collapses into a drunken stupor.
But as the Cricket observes, the Spirits take pity on Geppetto and decide to magically give the puppet life, and in a scene right out of FRANKENSTEIN, Geppetto awakes and is horrified to see the puppet, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) now alive and claiming to be his son. Pinocchio is jubilant to be alive and in one energetic outburst after another, runs about the house asking question upon question. Geppetto tries to control him and finally tells him to stay home while he goes to church, but Pinocchio wants to go to church and soon follows Geppetto there, even disobeying the Cricket who tries to teach him to listen to his father.
Inside the church, the churchgoers are horrified and cry out witchcraft at the sight of the talking puppet, and Geppetto whisks Pinocchio home. In a heated argument, Geppetto calls Pinocchio a burden, and heartbroken, the puppet runs away and joins the circus operated by the villainous Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). Meanwhile, Pinocchio has also attracted the attention of the Podesta (Ron Perlman), who sees great value in a wooden puppet who cannot die, and wants him to be part of the national army.
Eventually, Geppetto and the Cricket go off in search of Pinocchio, and in one of the more frightening sequences you’ll see in a PG animated movie, they are swallowed up by a massive sea creature, and they find themselves stuck inside the enormous belly of the beast. Left on his own, Pinocchio sees through the likes of Count Volpe and Podesta and learns that they are using him, and he decides that he must seek out his father and spend whatever time they have left together, setting the stage for an exciting rescue attempt.
On its surface, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO is a highly entertaining and visually stunning animated adventure, and beneath the surface is a well-written theme-driven screenplay that knocks it out of the park with its anti-war sentiments and thoughts on life and death.
In one scene, Pinocchio is overjoyed and singing that he’s going off to war because it sounds life fun, and Geppetto tells him that war is not fun, that war is bad, that war took away Carlo from him. It’s a simple scene, and a simple piece of dialogue, but this one moment captures succinctly what this film is all about. War is not a good thing, and that’s an important message to be sure here in 2022, because wars are all around us. The United States alone has been involved in ongoing global conflicts since 2001. The world doesn’t know what it’s like not to be at war.
The film is just as clear with its anti-fascist and anti-nationalist messages, which are equally as important here in 2022 as these movements continue to gain strength around the world.
But the most telling and most resonating message of the movie is its take on death, how life is short, and how we need to enjoy life with those around us while we can. Geppetto grieves greatly over the loss of his son, and nearly loses his life in the years afterwards. At first, he can’t really open himself to accepting Pinocchio because his heart is still with Carlo, but he eventually listens to the advice of the Cricket who basically shouts at him to stop feeling sorry for himself and to accept Pinocchio for who he is. It’s a powerful moment in what the casual observer might dismiss as a children’s movie. This version of PINOCCHIO is much more than that.
And the way this one ends is such a sweet and on-target moment about how to deal with death, that it’s the perfect end to a near-perfect movie.
While this all sounds serious, the film still manages to be fun and upbeat. Most of the comic relief comes from the Cricket, voiced with empathy and gusto by Ewan McGregor. He gets a funny running gag throughout the movie, as every time he begins to sing a certain song about his own father, something dramatic happens and prevents his singing it. The film gets the humor right throughout.
Speaking of gusto, young Gregory Mann is absolutely amazing as Pinocchio. He has so much spirit and energy, and he makes this living, talking puppet completely convincing.
David Bradley is perfect as Geppetto, the father who grieves so much for his deceased son it nearly kills him, and as such it takes him a long time to accept Pinocchio. But he is there for the young puppet with words of wisdom and love that eventually make their mark on the wooden youth. Bradley is known to HARRY POTTER fans for playing Argus Filch in that series.
Christoph Waltz has a field day voicing the villainous Count Volpe, and it’s one of my favorite performances in the film. Ron Perlman is memorable as the Podesta, as is Finn Wolfhard as his increasingly sympathetic son, Candlewick.
Tilda Swinton does her thing as the magical Wood Sprite, who Pinocchio visits each time he “dies.” These sequences are otherworldly and magical, and take the movie to a whole different level.
You won’t hear Cate Blanchett’s voice because she voices the monkey Spazzatura, and so she only makes monkey sounds, but this character becomes very important in the story. Spazzatura spends most of the time as the slave to Count Volpe’s master, but as the monkey becomes closer to Pinocchio, things change.
And in a fun bit of casting, Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob Squarepants himself, voices Mussolini, in a very funny sequence where the Italian dictator arrives to watch Pinocchio perform.
One odd thing about this version of Pinocchio is the near absence of women in the story. Other than the Wood Sprite, there really isn’t another woman character to be found.
Guillermo del Tor has always made visually stunning movies, and the visuals he creates have always been my favorite part of his films. I have actually liked his films less than a lot of other folks have, as I have found that the storytelling in his movies hasn’t been up to par with their visual aspects, and as such, I’ve only been lukewarm to films like NIGHTMARE ALLEY (2021) and THE SHAPE OF WATER (2017). But this new version of PINOCCHIO doesn’t have this problem. Its screenplay is actually a strength.
And so, GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson, is now one of my favorite Guillermo del Toro movies.
It also features stop motion animation, which I always enjoy, and which has a long history going back to KING KONG (1933) and even before that, as Kong animator Willis O’Brien had animated movies before Kong. Years later O’Brien’s protege was Ray Harryhausen who would go on to become the undisputed king of stop motion movie animation, with films like THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1958) and JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).
After watching GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, there’s no doubt in my mind that Ray Harryhausen would have been proud.
I give it three and a half stars.
Four stars- Excellent
Three stars- Very Good
Two stars- Fair
One star- Poor
Zero Stars- Awful