What makes a classic story irresistible? It is a fair question, because before the age of nostalgia we live in now, that feeling was caught in the retelling of fables, fantasies, and dark legends over a campfire. We retell the same things all the time, and always have. How then do these tales keep the same flavor after the first taste? The tale of Pinocchio is the subject of that question in 2022.
One interpretation, the first big one of the year, is of the classic Disney mold, jumping off of the hand-drawn stylings of the 1940 film into a revitalized live-action adventure. Without any surprises thrown in, it is the movie we know of the old man who never had a son, deciding one day to craft one out of wood. Throw in one blue fairy and a heap of magic with life lessons from a cricket, and there we are. It is color-by-numbers production that saves no surprises, unfortunately for anyone looking for something different.
So, enter Mexican filmmaker and expert storyteller Guillermo del Toro, who for years has both delighted and spooked audiences with modern classics such as Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, and most recently the anthology series Cabinet of Curiosities. That isn’t to say he can’t make anything for younger audiences. With the same hands that crafted the cabinet compartments in 2022, del Toro also produced and voiced the animated series Trollhunters on Netflix, showing his range in varying his works. With as much fanfare he has made working with the streaming company, allowing him to take on the classic fairy tale may lead to some interesting results, or at least something different. What comes of the final product is a tale closer to us in the real world, and perhaps a bit of darker appeal to boot.
Del Toro’s Pinocchio takes the story we know and places it here in our world to dramatic effect. Taking place in Italy near the middle of World War 1, Geppetto (David Bradley) is a bereaved father in this variation, struggling to make sense of his gentle son’s loss. In almost a Frankenstein-isc manner, on a dark stormy night, drunk and alone on a hilltop next to his son’s grave marker, Geppetto decides that he will remake him out of the pine tree they grew together. Our conscience this time around, Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), narrates the story from inside the tree, which also was his home before being fatally cut down for parts. As Geppetto slumbers, Tilda Swinton’s Blue Fairy, after making a pact with Sebastian, gives the puppet life, and thus, the adventures of Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) truly begin.
The setting of the film isn’t the only thing that is striking in this rendition. In following his own vision, Del Toro does away with the singular villain in the classic character of Stromboli and delivers one for each part of the puppet’s growth over the two-hour movie. Easily recognizable, Christoph Waltz plays the carnival leader Count Volpe, who is as charismatic as he is devious, if the hair isn’t enough of a giveaway. Our second antagonist, a sign of the times, is the former blacksmith Podesta (Ron Perlman), now in line with Mussolini’s era and only concerned with the public good in the “Fatherland”. Lastly, and of quiet note, Monstro is now a giant dogfish, still big enough to swallow our group of protagonists, but otherwise only used as a set piece. Both Waltz and Perlman put on amazing vocal performances, guiding the puppet for their own greedy and prideful ends, causing Pinocchio to grow in a more believable way, or about as much as a living wooden boy can.
The raw emotion is there throughout the film, growing beyond the stop-motion and bringing the viewer into the piece. I can’t say I didn’t tear up at Geppetto’s tragedy or at his reactions to the world around him, or at Sebastian’s last stand speech at the end of the film. I don’t know if it was because it was our world mixed in with fantasy elements, but the characters all seemed so much more real to me than anything Disney can conceive with this story. The highs where radiant, and the lows heartbreaking, and that is the core of excellent storytelling. Del Toro struck a perfect balance between both worlds that left me satisfied by the end and gave me lessons that, young or old, apply. The singular line though came from Sebastian, one that I’ll be taking into the new year and beyond; “I’ll do my best, and that’s the best anyone can do.” ~
[An abbreviated version of this review appears in the January edition of the Charlotte Gaymers Network’s Newsletter] ———————————————————————————————————————
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