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‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ review: a mature fairy tale about grief, war, and growing up

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How do we treat a miracle? This is the question that protrudes from the wooden heart of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, like a splinter we’re meant to be snagged on. The miracle here is the eponymous little wooden boy, brought to life for a humble carpenter named Gepetto. But if you think you know this story, trust in del Toro to give it a fresh coat of dark lacquer, urging you to appreciate the grown-up themes in what might be mistaken for a children’s story. 

Guillermo del Toro co-wrote Pinocchio with Patrick McHale and co-directs with Mark Gustafson, transporting Italian author Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book The Adventures of Pinocchio to 1930s Italy, where fascism thunders under the leadership of Benito Mussolini. As he did with Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro plunges audiences into a world of fantasy and war, where threats might be supernatural or all too human. At their center stands a child who is brave, resilient, and forced to grow up unfairly fast. But this adventure won’t be as rich or rewarding.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a fairy tale with rough edges.  

Credit: Netflix

In Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, that child is a miracle, born from great pain. Literally, the pine from which Gepetto will carve his second son grew from a tree that sprung up from his first son’s grave. In a frenzy of grief, the carpenter hacks and hammers at the wood, creating a bizarre facsimile of a boy.

His limbs are gangly. His eyes are holes amid a pair of knots in the grain. His mouth a sloppy scratch. His ear, well, he only has one, as if in the drunken wrath of woodworking, his father got haphazard. On the boy’s back, there is a spattering of half-hammered nails, abandoned to protrude from his shoulder, uneven and alarming. Where his heart should be there’s a hole, and inside a judgemental cricket has nested.

This Pinocchio is not the cuddly toy boy of Disney merch. He is a bit of a monster, like Frankenstein’s, a child created, confounded, and entrusted with little instruction. His story begins in tragedy, but unlike his brother, may not end that way.

Del Toro’s Pinocchio is not kid stuff. 

Credit: Netflix

For the mournful Gepetto (David Bradley), the boy (Gregory Mann) is a baffling burden, who has no idea how to behave in polite society. But to the entrepreneurial circus ringmaster Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), Pinocchio is a spectacle to be showcased — for a fee, of course. The wooden child is happy to sing and dance for paying audiences. But to the sneering government official Podestà (Ron Perlman), the greatest gift Pinocchio has to offer the world is his magical immortality. Naturally, Podestà argues, this miracle child was born to die for his country, again and again as a child soldier. 

These growling old men push and pull Pinocchio down paths, to a solemn church, a staunch school, a rowdy circus tent, a deadly war zone, the inky blue land of the dead, and ultimately to the beast-infested ocean. The broad strokes of the journey are familiar, but mired in del Toro’s earnest politics — along with awkwardly on-the-nose pronouncements — the ride gets rocky and at times creepingly slow.

Amid this meandering adventure, Pinocchio carves out for himself who he wants to be and what matters to him. In the headstrong hero’s earnestness and impulsiveness, del Toro and his collaborators sincerely capture the impetuousness of youth. This child isn’t endlessly adorable as much as he is authentically annoying, always ready with a challenging question or a nonsense song. Del Toro’s refusal to idealize children grounds the fantastical story with a kid character who feels real in his mix of charming glee and chaotic energy. By contrast, the grown-ups around him — be they grandiose or grim — represent the sharp reality into which children are often pitched without warning. 

For the adults who need him, Pinocchio is a miracle. For Pinocchio, his life is a miracle. And through Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, the visionary filmmaker urges us to consider the miracles in our lives, and how we use them. Are they a plaything to be picked up when we are bored? Are they a burden, demanding bandwidth that feels unfair? Are they to be shared? Exploited? Or sacrificed in the name of religion, nationalism, or whatever “ism” makes your heart thud hard? Here, del Toro will offer his two cents, rewarding his fans with an ending that is unsurprisingly bittersweet but beautiful.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio boasts incredible stop-motion animation. 

Credit: Netflix

Del Toro’s signature blend of the repulsive and the resplendent is visually reflected in the film’s look. Stop-motion animation lends his characters — who crawl, grovel, crack, and clamor — a physical weight and a sense of texture so tangible that your fingertips can sense the rough spokes of wood protruding from Pinocchio’s head or the soft down of a wood sprite’s feathers. With highly detailed sets and costumes, this animated film builds a world so full that it feels like we might tumble into it. But far from vibrant, Pinocchio’s is a terrain of greys, browns, stone and mud, which undercuts the whimsy one might want from a fairy tale.

The true color comes from a star-studded voice ensemble adding gravitas that echoes through the eerie adventure across land and sea. David Bradley, who played the grumbling janitor Filch in the Harry Potter movies, gives a breath-snatching portrait of heartache as the hardened Gepetto. Ewan McGregor brings a dandy flair to the poignant — and at times pretentious — musings of Sebastian J. Cricket, who serves as Pinocchio’s conscience and the story’s narrator.

Christoph Waltz taps into his collection of unhinged baddies for the theatrical Volpe, while Perlman growls intimidatingly as the cold-hearted Podestà. Bringing a smoky femininity, Tilda Swinton voices this film’s spooky version of a blue fairy, while Cate Blanchett’s silky tones are constrained to the squawks of a jealous monkey called Spazzatura. Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard presents a brow-furrowed earnestness as Pinocchio’s fair-weather frenemy Candlewick, while Gregory Mann stands in stark contrast to the lot, giving the titular no-strings puppet a vocal performance that flickers and glows brightly, like a candle flame. Love him or cringe over him, his boy is on fire with life and verve.

Altogether, del Toro’s mature themes, textured animation, and vivid vocal performances chisel Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio into a curious adaptation, admirable in its ambition. Yet the plotting fumbles from one setup to another, while the script veers between poetry and proclamations. It’s as if del Toro is torn on whether this movie is meant to speak to adults or talk down to children. So, the elegance in visual storytelling becomes undercut by dialogue that spells out emotions and motivations. The result is a film that feels roughly hewn in the way of its hero, full of emotion and intent, but lacking finesse. So, while elements are thoughtful and even wondrous, it is overall a bit of a slog.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio comes to select theaters and will be available on Netflix Dec. 9

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