'Pinocchio': Disney's Latest Live-Action Remake is a New Low for Robert Zemeckis
Few children's stories have been adapted for the screen as much as Pinocchio has. It's a phenomenon that I don't fully understand, given that we have received so many iterations of the classic tale over the years that it seems like there's not much else to explore with it. This year alone, sees three new adaptations getting released. The first, a Russian animated film titled Pinocchio: A True Story was poorly received, mainly due to the weak animation and the laughable English language dub of it that stars Pauly Shore as Pinocchio, for some reason. Later this year, we will get a darker take on Pinocchio made in stop-motion from Guillermo Del Toro. It seems to have some potential, but I am remaining cautious until I actually see it. In between these two films, we get the Disney remake of Pinocchio, directed by Academy Award Winning director Robert Zemeckis. This version exists at a strange crossroads, in that it is both another Pinocchio movie and another live-action remake of a classic Disney movie. Given that there seems to be waning interest in both of those categories, it's surprising that Disney went ahead and made this film. Between this, and the fact that this dropped on Disney+ instead of getting a theatrical release, I wasn't all that excited to watch this film. However, I had a shred of optimism going into it since it is a Robert Zemeckis film, but this film is quite possibly a new low for him, and the film itself comes across as unnecessary and trite.
Like most of the Disney remakes, the film basically recycles the plot of its predecessor. It's essentially a copy/paste of the 1940 original, which centers on Pinocchio, a small wooden boy created by Geppetto, a woodcarver living in a small Italian village. When Pinocchio is brought to life after Geppetto wishes upon a star, he goes on a series of adventures alongside his "conscience" Jiminy Cricket. The film is episodic in nature, and sees Pinocchio joining a traveling show, journeying to a mysterious island, and trying to get back home to Geppetto. There are a few creative choices made by Zemeckis and company to try and make this stand apart from the original, but they don't do all that much in that regard.
The trajectory of Zemeckis’s career is fascinating to look at. He became a name to watch in the mid-80s and early-90s with the Back to the Future trilogy, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump, which earned him the Oscar for Best Director. He continued to have success well into the 2000s, but this era also marked a turning point in his career, as he became obsessed with using motion-capture technology, 3D, and CGI in his films. He used these to varying degrees of success in his 2000s and 2010s output, but despite his best efforts, he hasn't been able to reach the heights of his early career. There has been a steady decline in the quality of his films over the years, which hit a career low with The Witches. But somehow Zemeckis has found a way to sink even lower with Pinocchio, and delivers a creatively bankrupt rehash of a beloved classic that probably shouldn't have been made in the first place.
At the very least, this feels like a Robert Zemeckis film. Unfortunately, it feels like a bad Robert Zemeckis film. We get some big CGI setpieces, namely the sequence that takes place on Pleasure Island, the place where children go to misbehave and cause mischief. At its best, the CGI is somewhat decent, but at its worst, it is an absolute eyesore. Some of the visual effects are the worst I've seen in some time, and it is very disappointing since the visual effects are usually the saving grace of most of Zemeckis's work. But in this case, they didn't do much for me. With this and The Witches, it really feels like Zemeckis is taking a half-hearted approach to filmmaking, which is sad since his early stuff is so great and full of excitement. Even with the films of his that I dislike, I can generally see the passion and dedication that he brings to them. There are some flickers of this here, but it mostly feels like he's phoning it in.
It doesn't help that the script is so weak. Aside from just copy/pasting the original film's plot, what few new elements it adds don't work too well. The addition of two new characters, Fabiana and Sabrina is one of the better aspects of the film, but they are given so little to do in the grand scheme of things. The film is much more concerned with hitting the same beats of the original, that the new elements feel like more of an afterthought. I can't say I'm surprised, considering that the MO of the Disney live-action remakes is just to make the film as close to the original as possible, but in live-action instead of animated. Since this film is rather close to the original, it is pretty boring as a result. On top of that, the music in this film is abysmal. Save for a beautiful rendition of "When You Wish Upon a Star" sung by Cynthia Erivo, the music is one of the weakest parts of the entire film. The songs are rather forgettable, and feel so elementary that it is almost insulting. I know that this is a kids movie, but even in that context, it feels like it is too basic. One would think that Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard would be able to come up with something better than what we get, but this is a low point for them both.
Admittedly, the film has a talented cast of actors, but I am not overly impressed by any of them here. Most of them aren't half bad, but it's nobody's best work. Perhaps the strongest performance comes from Tom Hanks, who is playing a character with a thick European accent for the second time this year. While his portrayal of Colonel Tom Parker in Elvis was divisive and over-the-top, his Geppetto is gentle and warm-hearted, and a bit more palatable. It's a bit of a safe performance, but it works better than I was expecting it to. I also felt that Cynthia Erivo was quite good, even if she is only in one scene of the film. But I do think that this is for the best, as it means she isn't overused.
As for the voice cast, most everyone is doing an okay job at the very least. Keegan-Michael Key is the right amount of charming and deceptive as Honest John, a fox who tricks Pinocchio into being sold to a traveling show. Some of his dialogue is cheesy, and he gets one of the worst songs of the film, but he manages to sell it to where it isn't completely unbearable. I honestly thought that Benjamin Evan Ainsworth wasn't half bad as Pinocchio, as he captures the naivete of the character nicely, and does a serviceable job in the role. The one performance in the whole film that just flat-out didn't work for me is Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Jiminy Cricket. On paper, it sounds like it shouldn't be too bad, but I found him annoying. It's as if Gordon-Levitt was trying to do an impression of Jack McBrayer (who probably would have been a better choice, all things considered) and he has absolutely zero charm whatsoever. Something about his take on Jiminy Cricket just did not sit well with me, and was easily my least favorite thing about the whole film.
I can't say that I was expecting Pinocchio to be particularly good, but I definitely was hoping it would be better than what we ended up getting here. This is both the nadir of the Disney live-action remakes and Robert Zemeckis's filmography. While Disney will undoubtedly keep making remakes, I still have hope that Zemeckis will find a project that will allow him to tap back into the same passion and excitement for filmmaking that he had for the better part of his career. I just really want him to make something that is at least somewhat decent, but who knows if that will happen or not. It's just sad to see someone who has made some of the most iconic films of all time make something like Pinocchio. There are few redeeming qualities that this film has, and it was just a bummer for me to watch. It is easily one of the worst films I've seen in a while, and couldn't even meet my already low expectations.