Hard to believe, a year’s passed since audiences’ last encounter with the wonderfully imperfect genius of Guillermo del Toro. His reimagining of Nightmare Alley felt its impact stifled in the wake of larger cinematic escapades, a suspense treat that played like a dream, vivid and confusing. It may not have clicked with everyone, but it was at least worthy of eventually finding its audience. His next endeavor does soothe any budding concern for disconnect. It may not reach everyone at once if its quieter theatrical rollout would attest. And even when it knows which audience it’s aiming for, it’s nowhere near expected.
His first venture into animation – specifically the still-kicking medium of stop motion, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio may appear on Netflix’s splash screen as a whimsical kids’ movie. Knowing the famed auteur, it goes so much deeper, more faithful to its inspiration, and unashamedly more profound than any recent iteration of Carlo Collodi’s manuscript. Without hesitation, his spin is the only one to rival the vintage storybook appeal of Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation. If not also surpass it, by fortuitous means.
The root basics of this tale, as del Toro, co-director Mark Gustafson (Fantastic Mr. Fox), and co-writer Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall) lay out, feel similar enough to what we’ve seen a hundred times over. Until it suddenly isn’t, and the trio’s long-gestating strategy really takes over. No longer a cutesy bedtime story with little distinctive qualities. Any hope for subtlety in co-designer Guy Davis’s hands is instantly eradicated.
It’s 1930s Italy, the peak of Mussolini’s fascist rule. Even the smallest of villages are not prone to danger, and woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) keeps that in the back of his mind every day. Even after losing his son Carlo in an air raid, caution never fades. Neither does the shadow of guilt, crafting a living marionette in a drunken fit. Aided by an omniscient Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) and a worldly cricket named Sebastian (Ewan McGregor), the titular wooden puppet boy (Gregory Mann) quickly finds life, its purpose, and its fragility.
Other versions would settle for basic adventure, skating the surface of right and wrong, and the virtue of an honest mind. Del Toro and McHale make no small effort to go further. Exploring the meaning of being alive, the limbo of immortality, and that unpredictable middle ground. That comes so easy for this pair you’re left to wonder where all that was before. Ideas often lost in translation by other adaptors, with the leftover story appearing sanitized by comparison.
The best fairytales often insist on real-world consequences and brutal respect for the source material’s place or time of origin, even if it were a subtle nod. Any other studio would err on the side of generic portrayal; Guillermo is his own reckoning force, pitting his Pinocchio deep in the Spanish Civil War on one end, and a nefarious circus entertainer on the other. At one point, the puppet’s inability to die is needlessly exploited by his community’s podesta (Ron Perlman) who assembles an army of young soldiers to dive straight into enemy territory. Another, he’s relishing in the tumult of stardom, under the guidance of Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). Both want nothing more than his full unlocked potential, the newfound may be seeking more to prove his worth. Without it appearing all that clear, of course, his judgment clouded by a bratty streak of rebellion to match his sense of longing. Much like any kid in hand-carved clogs, really.
Emotional complexities are far from absent in del Toro’s plan for remodeling Collodi’s youthful hero. Lacking any filter, he’s very much written to be a real ten-year-old with real feelings that are still developing on a pragmatic scale. Defiant to cultural norms, and unafraid to show fear or sorrow in the right circumstances, Pinoke’s arc borders on the iconic. And Mann surpasses that margin with endless exuberance; a youth performance poignantly capturing that divisive crossroads. Geppetto’s storyline finds fresh ground in parallel, grim with pious undertones. More of him goes around, struggling to assess Carlo’s passing, and build his parenting skills. Bradley responds appropriately, executing his performance with a learned, razor-sharp mien.
Elsewhere, Swinton’s Wood Sprite is even less conventional, fighting valiantly for her screen time, but no less impactful with her momentary prose. Waltz’s baddie might not have sat right with me; his character, eviler than the average Stromboli, needs the first hour to effectively settle into the story. Monkey sidekick Spazzatura (a method-trained Cate Blanchett) overthrows his axis with unwavering chaotic energy and furious chatter. And all this as a soulful McGregor keeps the mood bouncy and calm, channeling Burl Ives like candor.
That is just as much a constant between del Toro and Gustafson, framing each scene with storybook sheen, its color palette, and frame of motion matching the electric turn of a page. The type of tale where it can’t be put down, slowing down to absorb its eye appeal. And when paired with Alexandre Desplat’s (The Outfit) earnest score, it’s often like sight reading from charts in an elementary school choir. Songs and background tracks that, in one light, provoke the heart, and in another warm it, through a soft, nostalgic lens. The type that cinematographer Frank Passingham (Kubo and the Two Strings) knows best, guiding the camera along in precise syncopation and moderate speed.
Once more, del Toro has found his filmmaking Shangri-la, always curious enough to break his own cycle and that of fairytale adaptations past. All while inadvertently completely a trilogy sharing familiar ground; Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone are the other two. His Pinocchio brings the usual children’s page-to-screen piece back to a spot of prominence once considered unattainable by auteur standards, going far back to the likes of Watership Down.
The classical version might still be the most iconic, and more of a general crowd-pleaser. del Toro, Gustafson, and McHale are thinking more about restoring authenticity and realism to a fairytale. Through textured scenery, novel character strengths, bold meandering through faith and political order, and an enveloping sonic horizon, they do just that. This definitive spin on Pinocchio is best shared with the entire family; a treat to witness, discuss, and engage with. Collodi would be proud to see his story find new life in animation, and in a time when the medium can be seen as art and a mature conversation starter. May the latter be true, especially. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is streaming on Netflix and in select theaters; rated PG for peril/scary moments, rude material and some language; 114 minutes.