The obsession that many filmmakers and creative types have with the story of Pinocchio is fascinating, but its easy to see why it is so resonant. It deals in part with creation, and has a sense of wonder to it that is rather alluring. There have been countless re-tellings of Pinocchio over the years, with some capturing the magic of the original story, but most of these adaptations tend to miss the mark. It feels like a bit of a fool's errand to make a successful Pinocchio film, and yet there seems to be a new one every few years or so. I never have high hopes for these films, but I couldn't help but be a little excited when it was announced that Guillermo Del Toro was making his own version of Pinocchio. The problem that so many adaptations of Pinocchio seem to have is that they tend to feel too similar to one another. If there is a filmmaker that can make a version of Pinocchio that is unique and stands apart from the rest, it's Del Toro. And thanks to his darker sensibilities and visionary direction, he does just that.
The film wisely threads the needle between keeping some of the familiar elements of the original story, while also putting its own spin on it. Perhaps the most noticeable change is that the film is set in 1930s fascist Italy, which allows the film to touch on deeper themes that we typically don't see in a Pinocchio movie. The film does retain the episodic nature of the original story, but the setting re-contextualizes Pinocchio's adventures significantly. It gives the film a nice edge, and feels refreshing. We still get some of the most iconic moments from the original story, such as Pinocchio joining a traveling show and Pinocchio battling a sea monster, but it is told through Del Toro's distinctive lens, and cuts deeper than any other adaptation of Pinocchio that I've seen.
The idea of mortality is present in every iteration of Pinocchio, but this version takes it and puts it at the forefront. Most versions explore this idea through Pinocchio's quest to be a real boy, whereas this one takes a fuller approach and confronts death head-on. From the beginning, the film deals with this as Geppetto grieves the loss of his son, Carlo. But it carries on throughout the rest of the film, as it grapples with Pinocchio's mortality. Considering that he is a wooden boy, Pinocchio is seemingly invincible. This version takes this a step further, and gives him limits that raise the stakes for the last half of the film. This is the film's primary focus on the subject of mortality, but we also see this in the motivations of the other characters. Its themes of legacy and accomplishing greatness within our numbered days is so crucial to most of the film's characters, and is a driving force for the film as a whole. So much of the film is concerned with what one does with their mortality, and it builds to a rather poignant ending.
On a technical level, the film is an incredible achievement. I am always impressed when it comes to stop-motion animation, and this film is no exception. The animation is so fluid and engaging, and the world of the film is so inviting, yet has a sense of danger and darkness to it. The locations are stunningly crafted, and the world of the film has such a distinct look to it. The character design is the real star of the show, however, as the characters themselves look like woodcarvings, and have nice details to them. I was especially impressed with the designs for Sebastian J. Cricket, Death, and the monstrous Dogfish, as they have such a unique style to them that mirrors the original characters while employing a specific vision for each of them. Of course, the most impressive design comes from Pinocchio himself. Most iterations of Pinocchio portray him as a traditional wooden marionette, usually in a style associated with 19th century Italy. This version is a bit cruder, as he appears to be unfinished and is more treelike. One of my favorite details comes from when he lies, as his nose sprouts branches as it becomes larger. On top of that, the stump-like rings on his head, and the hole in his chest where his heart would be are great design choices. The best aspect is that even though he isn't as pristine looking as most versions of Pinocchio, he is still quite adorable and charming.
This film captures the naivete of Pinocchio perfectly, and makes him truly feel like a child. It also plays brilliantly into the film's core themes, as he is clueless about the ways of the world, unlike the rest of the characters in the film. This, coupled with how the film is structured, makes the way he seemingly stumbles into his adventures feel more truthful, and gives some levity to the film's heavier moments. It is easily one of my favorite versions of Pinocchio as a character, and I appreciate the ways he stands apart from other iterations of him.
The music in the film is mostly good, but it is one of the aspects of the film that didn't fully sit right with me. The score from Alexandre Desplat is beautiful, and fits the film perfectly. However, the songs that the characters sing leave a bit to be desired. I wouldn't say that they are abysmal or anything, but they aren't exactly catchy or anything. They are serviceable at best, as they do what they need to do, but they don't have much staying power. I wasn't expecting much from the songs to begin with, so its not a complete letdown, but I do wish there was a little more to them.
The voice cast, however, is excellent across the board. Gregory Mann is great for Pinocchio, as he captures the wide-eyed optimism and innocence of the character so well. David Bradley's turn as Geppetto is a major highlight, as he is a bit harsher compared to how Geppetto is normally portrayed, and he handles the emotional aspects of the character beautifully. Ewan McGregor is excellent as Sebastian J. Cricket, as he brings a conceited vibe to the character, while also doing a solid job with the character's more earnest moments. He makes the character his own, and he absolutely delivers. Tilda Swinton also shines in dual roles as The Wood Sprite and Death. Her voice performance here comes across as both lovely and intimidating, and she is so precise with what she is doing here. And of course, I have to bring up Cate Blanchett's performance as Spazzatura, a monkey who is mistreated by the evil Count Volpe. Blanchett has no lines of dialogue as this character, and instead makes monkey sounds. It is so strange to me that she agreed to take this character on, but she honestly does a pretty good job, all things considered.
Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio is a dark take on one of the most iconic stories of all time, and it is easily one of the best versions of it as well. It is beautifully animated, lovingly crafted, and acts as a fascinating exploration of mortality and death. It is much more spiritual and profound than I would have guessed, and it makes the film all the more special. It really connected with me, and showcases Guillermo Del Toro's distinct style beautifully. His sensibilities are such a great match for stop motion, as well as the story of Pinocchio. I'm sure that more adaptations of Pinocchio will be made in the future, but I would be surprised if any of them reach the level that Del Toro's version does.