Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio review: a unique adaptation

Pinocchio and Geppetto in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio.
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Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio puts an unexpected spin on the classic tale, and the result is a heart-wrenching, bittersweet and magical film.

Given that there’s been more than one adaptation of Pinocchio released this year alone, you might think you’ve seen every possible iteration of the tale. But as Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio opens with a prologue exploring Geppetto’s life with his son Carlo, and how he was cruelly snatched away from him in a First World War bombing, it’s clear that del Toro (co-directing with Mark Gustafson and co-writing with Patrick McHale) has made this story his own.

Not only does he bring a darker tone to the tale through its setting and aesthetic – he also creates an emotional depth that was previously absent. Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) isn’t just learning to be an obedient child and a ‘real boy’, he’s learning what it means to be alive, which is of course something that’s defined by the inevitability of death.

As you can probably tell from the description of those opening scenes, the film doesn’t pull any punches in its depictions of death and grief. From the outset it makes its intentions clear as a movie that’s going to tackle some very sad themes, and it does so expertly. These aren’t the only changes the adaptation makes.

As Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley, who brings a heart-wrenching emotional rawness to the role) finds solace in the bottom of a bottle, the idea strikes him to recreate his son. The Pinocchio puppet is far from the one we’re used to seeing. He doesn’t really resemble a real boy in the slightest. He’s cobbled together in a drunken stupor, born of sheer desperation. The way the scene itself is presented is bordering on creepy, and draws an astute comparison to Frankenstein’s Monster that had never occurred to me before.

What happens next is familiar. A woodland sprite (Tilda Swinton) hears Geppetto’s pleas and brings the puppet to life. She then appoints Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor, as a character who’s only present because he was looking for somewhere quiet to write his memoirs) as his guide. Many more talents lend their voices to the project, including Christoph Waltz, Finn Wolfhard and Cate Blanchett – though her performance as Spazzatura the monkey consists purely of animal noises. Her casting in this role is quite baffling.

The finished Pinocchio is a bit uncanny. He bears a basic resemblance to a human, but only just. His limbs bend in ways they shouldn’t, and that results in some spider-like clambering around before he learns to walk properly. The character is also beautifully animated, with real-looking wood effects and lots of texture. The same goes for everything in the film, which is clearly lovingly crafted, but Pinocchio is an especially impressive accomplishment.

del Toro then drops the character into a setting that’ll be familiar to fans of his work. The director likes to stick it to the fascists and this is no exception, dropping Pinocchio into the middle of Mussolini’s Italy. As the townsfolk see the rowdy boy as either a demon or an ideal weapon in the war, Pinocchio’s relationship with Geppetto suffers as he can’t live up to the memory of his creator’s deceased son.

Pinocchio dancing on stage with puppets in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

The father/son dynamic and the theme of parental approval is a common one in cinema, and this plays out much the same as any other movie in that vein, however it’s the charming animation and dark tone that keep Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio afloat. With its unexpected additions to the story and colourful characters, it just feels like a completely unique take on the well-known tale.

It’s funny, too, with McGregor’s long-suffering Sebastian J. Cricket seemingly unable to catch a break. Much of the film’s themes may sound dark, but there are plenty of moments that provide some levity.

While Pinocchio follows the expected route of running away to join the circus, there are also much more interesting diversions into a military boot camp (where Ron Perlman gets to shine as the nasty, war-mongering Podesta) and into much more unexpected and fantastical places, as well.

The only drawback of del Toro’s adaptation is something that’s brought inherently by the original story, not the way it’s been handled. As a protagonist, Pinocchio is an extremely passive character. Things just seem to happen to him without him really getting much say in the matter. If he does make a decision, it’s one he’s been coerced into. The Pinocchio story has always consisted of various scenes happening one after the other, and del Toro’s film struggles with that structure at times, the same as any other adaptation has. It helps, though, that the director has made it his own and added an element of surprise to the proceedings.

It also helps that it really pulls off the finale too, with a heartfelt and emotional ending that isn’t afraid to buck tradition and be bittersweet. At the heart of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a story about the meaning of life, acceptance of mortality and making the most of our time while we’re here. This is a beautifully crafted film that’s worth seeing on the big screen, and if you do, expect to be crying in the cinema.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is playing in cinemas from 25th November, and is streaming on Netflix from 9th December.

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