Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio has been a long time coming. Del Toro has been trying to make this movie for fifteen years, and thank goodness for Netflix that it has finally happened. While the potential in Del Toro tackling the beloved fairy tale was obvious, what he and co-director Mark Gustafson actually give us is so much more. This is no simple retelling. In fact, I’d say the only thing this version has with the original are the bones of the story. But the genius of this Pinocchio is how it uses the familiar elements we all know to touch on very different themes that are relevant today. By doing so, Del Toro and Gustafson have created the most unique version of Pinocchio, one that will touch the souls of an entirely new generation.
An absolutely magical, soul-nourishing film, Pinocchio is about being open to love, to being true to oneself in the face of totalitarianism, and the power of faith. The setting in Fascist Italy of the 1930s is crucial. It is a time when everyone is overcome by hardship, grief, and loss. The woodcarver Gepetto (voiced by David Bradley) is one of those people. In a heartbreaking scene, we see how war took Gepetto’s son, at a church no less, leaving him alone to wallow in sadness. At his lowest depth, Gepetto constructs a wooden boy named Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), named so by a Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) who magically grants him life. Along with the traveling scribe and narrator Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor, real star of the show!), Pinocchio sets out on a journey not to become a real boy, but to live his life as he wishes.
That last point is crucial. In this Pinocchio, the wooden marionette isn’t out there trying to be turned into a human being, at least not overtly so. His journey is a familiar one. He’s recruited into the terrible circus run by the inhuman Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), faces all sorts of indignities and injustices, making friends and enemies along the way. This is all done in the classic Del Toro style, though. Done with meticulous, detail-rich stop-motion animation, the whole thing has this incredibly tactile look to it. Pinocchio has never looked this good before. There’s an incredible amount of expressiveness to the human characters, who are bursting with live emotion. This being a Del Toro film, the creatures can be a bit scary, and even some of the human characters resemble monsters. This is a dark retelling of the story, and it goes much deeper than the visuals.
Del Toro, Gustafson and screenwriter Patrick McHale don’t shy away from the traumas of war and oppression. So much can get lost when under the grip of tyranny, with the threat of death lingering over everything. Some give in to it and become the oppressors. Others succumb to despair. In some ways, Pinocchio is more of a Gepetto story, as the old man has to learn what it is to love another again. He has to be able to recognize it. To feel it. And that also means accepting Pinocchio for who he is, and not forcing him to change in order to be loved. He is living his life and taking everything as it comes. There are plenty of lessons to be learned but it’s not Pinocchio who is the student, but a teacher.
The amount of work that went into Pinocchio is simply unbelievable. Shot for 1000 days with dozens of animators, the craft on display is next level, even for a Del Toro project. There’s magic in every single frame because we know it took human hands to make each little movement. You can feel how much love went into making this movie as special as it can be. Del Toro, Gustafson, they poured so much into it that by the time it comes to a bittersweet conclusion, you feel as if you just experienced something that can never be duplicated. A masterful combination of heart, adventure, music, and scares, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio isn’t just the best animated movie of the year, it’s one of the best of the year, period.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio hits Netflix on December 9th.