How do you imagine a Guillermo del Toro-directed stop-motion adaptation of Pinocchio? Think it through. What would the visual style be like? What directions might the plot take? What themes would be emphasised? What would the mood be? Got all of that in your head? Good. You’re almost certainly right. If you’re thinking of a morality tale set during the rise of Italian fascism, in which Pinocchio dies and goes to the underworld, the adult characters are all deeply flawed and miserable, everything is sinister and the Blue Fairy is made out of eyeballs … well done.
This is the most, well, Guillermo del Toro that Guillermo del Toro has been in quite some time: the master fantasist who fundamentally understands the stuff of children’s nightmares, and gets that those are adult nightmares too. A storyteller who knows that simple tales hold complex themes, and a moralist who can make small stories completely universal (In other words, the del Toro we wish had directed The Hobbit). Pinocchio perhaps matches Shape of Water as his most completely realised vision since Pan’s Labyrinth. It’s creepy, clever, charming, fun and satisfyingly weird.
Pinocchio, of course, is a story that’s been done on screen hundreds of times, though most adaptations since the one produced by Walt Disney himself back in 1940 have been forgotten rather quickly; meaning that Disney’s version of the story (extremely creepy in its own way), rather than Carlo Collodi’s 19th century Italian source material, is the one most familiar to audiences. Del Toro and his co-writers (regular collaborator Matthew Robins, joined here by Patrick McHale, the surreal mind behind the cult Cartoon Network show Adventure Time) are able to cherry-pick from Collodi’s original stories and lean into the more familiar tropes used in the 1940 version while adding original twists. The result is as familiar as a fable, while being able to expand in numerous new directions.
The meat (or at least the wood) of the tale is the one you almost certainly know – a lonely old carpenter named Gepetto (David Bradley) creates a wooden puppet boy named Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), who is given life by a spirit. Pinocchio is assigned a talking grass-hopper (Ewan McGregor as the delightfully crotchety raconteur Sebastian J. Cricket) to guide him onto the straight and narrow path. Unfortunately the newly-conscious and extremely-wooden youngster struggles to tell right from wrong, and is lured into a series of unfortunate adventures, joining a travelling theatre (overseen by Christoph Waltz’s terrifying Count Volpe), running away, and lying through his teeth as his nose grows and grows – one of the most beautifully simple bits of moral storytelling in history. He must learn to put the needs of others before himself if he is ever to become a “real” boy. There’s also a bit where Gepetto is eaten by a giant fish. You know the story.
Del Toro, Robins and McHale have enough sense to keep the skeleton of the tale, just as Disney did. Into this they re-introduce a key theme from Collodi’s original work: Pinocchio in this version is less the wide-eyed innocent, and more, well … kind of a dick; not especially interested in anyone but himself. The kind of annoying child that answers every statement put to him with “why?”. It’s a clever device – we identify more with those having to put up with this irritating oddity than the wooden boy himself, at least at first. Like Gepetto we have to come to love Pinocchio for who he is. From this base stock, the story is able to go in more familiarly del Toro-ish directions. Geppetto himself is a drunk whose beloved son was killed in an accidental bombing at the tail-end of the First World War. He spends his time cursing God from the bottom of a bottle and weeping at the graveside of his little boy. When he creates Pinocchio it’s in a drunken rage, in the teeth of a dark and stormy night. The scene evokes the stitching together of Frankenstien’s monster more than the beloved work of a master craftsman. In his first appearance, the newly-awakened Pinocchio scuttles on all fours like a cockroach. It’s terrifying. This is Mussolini’s Italy, with facism on the rise, and once the local official (Ron Perlman, naturally) realises that Pinocchio cannot die he is recruited into a brigade of child soldiers. Again, this is not new territory for the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone.
Depicting the familiar story in stop motion was a smart move – there is something simultaneously naturalistic and uncanny in the technique that isn’t present in other forms of animation, and co-director and stop-motion veteran Mark Gustafson does an incredible job of realising the characters. Hand-on-heart, this is probably the most visually accomplished stop motion feature ever produced. The detail is astonishing, and the characterisation in each puppet’s movements is wonderful. Gepetto is frail and tearful, Pinocchio hacked together roughly, all hobnails and splinters, knock-kneed and shaky. The spirits (of which there are two, of life and of death, both voiced by Tilda Swinton) blank-eyed and terrifying. Every frame here is gorgeous, lensed beautifully by Ardman’s Frank Passingham. It’s as charming as the old-fashioned thumbprint-in-the-plasticine stop-motion styles, and somehow creepier than the glossier work of Henry Sellick and Tim Burton. Visually, Pinocchio is stunning.
The only slightly weaker link are the original songs. Bradley, McGregor, Waltz and Mann all acquit themselves well, and there’s a lovely melancholy in Alexandre Desplat’s compositions (though you can’t help but wonder what del Toro’s first choice, Nick Cave, would have come up with). Unfortunately it’s the one area where Disney’s shadow is inescapable. The songs are fine, but they’re not ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, ‘Give A Little Whistle’ or ‘I Got No Strings’. Few are. That’s possibly unfair, of course: the Disney classics, by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington, have had eighty-odd years of cultural ubiquity and it’s almost impossible to judge new work against anything so familiar. Still, at least on first listen, none of the handful of musical numbers especially stick in the mind, though the mood they cast serves the story well enough.
Not everything del Toro touches turns to gold, he’s as fallible as anyone, and this could have been an unfortunate folly; expensive, indulgent, too scary for children, too childish for adults. Each creative choice here was fraught with danger. Fortunately, the great director and his team were equal to it. Pinoccio rarely puts a clogged-foot wrong. An instant classic.