These-a Puppets I Do Not Like – Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (2022)

I am frankly puzzled at why anyone felt the world needed two Pinocchio remakes in the same year, much less two bad ones. Disney’s official live-action adaptation directed by Robert Zemeckis was a pretty big bust when it streamed on Disney+ just a few months ago. Now we have another Oscar-winning filmmaker, Guillermo del Toro, coming in with a stop-motion animated version of the tale for Netflix. I wish I could say it’s better, but sadly I don’t have a star to wish upon.

Do you like Guillermo del Toro’s other movies? Do you like Disney’s Pinocchio? Good, now go watch any of those again. They’ll be worth your time. After enduring this mash-up of the two things, I must report that the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water should avoid two genres in the future: children’s movies and musicals. Neither plays to his strengths.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio (2022) - Geppetto & Pinocchio
Title:Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
Release Date: Dec. 9, 2022
Directors: Guillermo del Toro
Mark Gustafson
Watched On: Netflix

Of course, Pinocchio didn’t originate with Disney. Due to easy availability of its rights in the public domain, Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio has already been adapted to screen countless times, including not one but two versions starring Roberto Benigni this century. As much as I imagine Guillermo del Toro will argue that his Pinocchio has nothing to do with Disney and is a fresh adaptation of the source, the 1940 animated classic remains the most iconic telling of the story and the standard all others follow. Its influence weighs heavily even upon this one. (For one thing, why else would del Toro make it a musical?)

The other clear influence here, obviously, is Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. This movie wouldn’t exist, at least not in its current form, if Burton hadn’t made it fashionable for live-action filmmakers to dabble in stop-motion animation. For his contribution to the genre, del Toro enlisted the help of co-director Mark Gustafson, an animator primarily known for the 1999-2001 sitcom The PJs (starring voice work by Eddie Murphy).

The latest Pinocchio changes things up here and there, but stays true to most of the familiar story beats: a woodworker named Geppetto carves a puppet out of pine, a magical fairy brings it to life, the boy is tricked into running away from home, everybody gets swallowed by a monstrous whale, and so forth – all the while a talking cricket comments on the action.

A Guillermo del Toro fan might expect his version to be darker than Disney’s. I suppose that’s true in some respects. For example, this Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley from Game of Thrones and del Toro’s The Strain) isn’t a kind-hearted, joyous man, at least not for very long. After a prologue showing the absurdly idyllic life of the very old father and his very young son (seriously, the guy must have had the kid in his 70s, and we never find out how old or young his wife was), the boy dies tragically and Geppetto turns into an angry, despondent drunk. He carves Pinocchio in despair, not as a toy but as a surrogate for his dead child.

Yeah, that’s kind of dark for a kids’ film. However, make no mistake, this is still very much a family-friendly movie suitable for young children. Any potentially scary or troubling elements are couched in a lot of goofy humor (Pinocchio himself is an insufferably precocious brat) and far too many godawful songs.

I also feel it needs saying that the 1940 Pinocchio was always one of the darkest Disney animated classics. Its storyline about an evil Coachman who abducts children and brings them to a twisted fairground called Pleasure Island, where they get hooked on booze, turned into donkeys, and sold into slavery (with some inferences to possible molestation as well) has fueled the nightmares of generations of viewers.

The del Toro equivalent for that is to set his version in 1930s Italy and have Pinocchio get conscripted into the Fascist youth army, where he’s expected to go to war and die for his country – over and over again, since death is only a temporary state for the wooden boy. While disturbing in its own right, I still think Disney has an edge in that department.

Also, Disney didn’t make Pinocchio sing a song about poop to Mussolini.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio (2022) - Death

After David Bradley, additional voice work is provided by Ewan McGregor as the talking cricket (here named Sebastian), Christoph Waltz as a malicious puppeteer, Ron Perlman as a Fascist goon (animated to look more like Willem Dafoe, strangely), John Turturro as a doctor, Tim Blake Nelson as a trio of rabbits from the afterlife, and Tilda Swinton as both the Blue Fairy and Death. Perversely, del Toro cast Oscar winner Cate Blanchett and makes her play a monkey. Not a talking monkey, mind you. Oh no, her performance is a lot of squealing and “Ooh ooh, ahh ahh”-ing. She only has a couple lines of regular dialogue when the monkey, who works for the puppeteer, somehow voices his marionettes.

Even with its plot differences, the new film mostly amounts to a remake of the Disney movie re-animated into del Toro’s aesthetic. The animation itself is very elaborate and detailed and visually interesting, but I can’t say it breaks any new ground for the medium Tim Burton didn’t already do better three decades ago, with a much better script and a lot more fun – not to mention far better songs.

Ugh. The songs… they’re simply dreadful. They grind the movie to a dead stop every time one comes up. The musical genre requires a very specific skill-set that not every filmmaker can simply jump into, and Guillermo del Toro lacks it. For that matter, he should stay away from kids’ movies altogether. I know that he’s worked with children before, and has always been fascinated with fairy tales, but actual family-friendly entertainment is out of his comfort zone and he’s not very good at it.

All that said, I seem to be in a minority with this view. The film has a very high critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment, which I find perplexing and unfathomable.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio (2022) - Count Volpe

Video Streaming

Netflix streams Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio in 4K HDR with Dolby Atmos audio. The 1.85:1 picture is satisfyingly detailed, but rarely seems as sharp as the best 4K content. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out to be upconverted from 2K photography. (I haven’t found a source to confirm that.) The film likewise doesn’t do much with HDR. Colors are fine but could be richer. Highlights are subdued and occasionally clip.

Cinematographer Frank Passingham claims he was inspired by Gordon Willis’ work on The Godfather, which mostly means that he leaves a lot of scenes underlit. Thankfully, the contrast is not overly dim, as sometimes happen when a dark movie is pushed through an HDR grade.

The Dolby Atmos soundtrack is pretty restrained for surround and height usage. I noticed thunder overhead once or twice. It has brief moments of moderate bass, such as explosions or the sounds of the sea monster, but lacks much range or depth in general.


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