The Tale of a Wooden Boy

There are two adaptations of the Italian fable “Pinocchio” this year. One is an animated film from Disney starring a motion-capture Tom Hanks as Geppetto. You can watch it on Disney+. There’s a great comparison of the two version by MÓNICA MARIE ZORRILLA: “Pinocchio vs Pinocchio” from the Animation blog Inverse. Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is more of a “re-imagining” of the 1883 Italian novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi). Unlike the Disney versions, del Toro (with Matthew Robbins), drew inspiration from the illustrations of Gris Grimly from his version of Pinocchio published in 2002.

This version is more akin to The Brothers Grimm and the story isn’t aimed at young children. Running 157 minutes (yes, that’s a full 2 ½ hours!), this is a beautifully crafted stop motion animation film. Less a morality play for naughty children, del Toro focuses more attention on the setting, where religion, war, and politics are impacting society. There’s also more attention paid to the plight of the old woodworker, Geppetto. Del Toro shares directing duties with Mark Gustafson. The story opens with a tragic death and the setting is an Italian village plagued by fascism.

The animation is a marvel. Though the wooden boy looks nothing like the Disney version, there’s a wonderful textural quality to the rough-hewn wooden creature. He was whittled in a moment of despair and when he becomes animated, his jangly movements seem almost puppet-like. He’s a raucous boy, breaking things and moving like a spinning top. His creator, the grieving Geppetto (David Bradley) has his hands full.

Del Toro specializes in monsters and this film gives us some creatures from the spirit realm that are fascinating. The film is packed with characters voiced by wonderful performers. Cate Blanchett is Spazzatura, the angel who gives the puppet life. Tilda Swinton voices Wood Sprite, who looks like an Angel of Death. Her character keeps sending Pinocchio back to Geppetto because the wooden boy can’t really die.

Christoph Waltz is another recognizable voice as the circus manager who tricks Pinocchio into running away with his circus. Waltz is the ringleader, Count Volpe, and he’s vividly animated. He’s a cross between a conniving fox and a menacing bird: all pointy nose and wings of hair. The circus scenes recall del Toro’s noir film from last year, “Nightmare Alley” also set in an old-time circus full of charlatans. There are many echoes between the films.

Ewan McGregor voices the Cricket of the tale. Here, he’s not called Jiminy Cricket and he’s not the voice of reason. Sebastian J. Criket is the narrator and he’s working on his memoirs. Though he does become a bit of a moral guide at the end, his role is the funny sidekick. He’s often being squashed and left behind.

The story is full of jeopardy and sadness but there’s also many moments of wonder. The scenes inside the whale and the reuniting of Geppetto and his wooden boy are well-rendered. The snippets of Pinocchio and Geppetto in their bedroom as Geppetto ages and his “son” remains a boy are touching. The return to the grave under the tree, which morphs into multiple graves to show the passage of time, is brilliant shorthand.

The steam punk sensibility of the production design is clever and eye-catching. The story moves at a fast clip only slowing down when Pinocchio visits the underworld. It’s easy to see why it would be difficult to edit the story down to a standard run time. Del Toro has built so many interesting characters and worlds.

Mature children and teens would enjoy the film but a brief overview on Italian fascism might be in order first…or after. The stop motion animation is the reason to see this darker version of the tale of the wooden boy. If you’re looking for a tale that more closely resembles the Disney version, check out the Disney remake. Not all fairy tales need to be for children, del Toro has made his version to please himself and lovers of animation.

Drinks with films rating

Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pinocchio”—3 flagons of Italian wine (out of 5)

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