Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio review: Surprisingly creative and extremely moving

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (Center) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (Center) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022 /

*Warning: the following review contains spoilers for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio*

To say that I’m over Pinocchio adaptations is the understatement of the year. Most adaptations, save for Disney’s 1940 versions, re-tread the same story repeatedly without trying to reinvent its aesthetic and thematic footprints. Sure, it’s a timeless tale, but there are so many (bad) adaptations to choose from that it feels pointless to tell the tale twice more! Just this year, we have two adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s story.

One, directed by Robert Zemeckis, had moments of visual splendor but was way too convenient to hold my attention. The other, directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, re-treads familiar beats we’ve come to know from the traditional story of The Adventures of Pinocchio but is a surprisingly effective iteration of the tale, both visually and thematically.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is the standout of the two adaptations this year

Familiar beats and a rough first act notwithstanding, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio starts to soar during its second act, where our titular character (Gregory Mann) gets charmed by Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), who promises him massive amounts of fame and fortune if he performs on his stage. Of course, we know how it will end up from here, but del Toro’s version is far more emotionally poignant than most adaptations of The Adventures of Pinocchio are.

Del Toro and Gustafson set the story in a fascist backdrop during 1930s Italy, where Benito Mussolini is at the height of his power. During the war, woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) loses his son, Carlo, and creates Pinocchio out of rage, drowning his sorrows in alcohol. A Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) hears his cries for help and awakens Pinocchio as a “real, living boy.”

The rest follows the beats of the original tale, minus a few differences. Part of the reason the film works is how strong del Toro is at creating a raw emotional core between Pinocchio and Geppetto that we ultimately care about the puppet as he learns to become a real boy, with the aid of Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) by his side.

The voice cast is superb, particularly Bradley, who gives excellent emotional depth to the role of Geppetto that has never been felt in any adaptation of Pinocchio I’ve seen. Of course, I haven’t seen every adaptation of the tale, but I’ve seen its main ones. Unfortunately, none of the versions I’ve seen (including the 1940 Disney animated film) have captured Geppetto the way del Toro and Gustafson do here—especially during its soul-crushing opening minutes, where we see his love for Carlo before his son’s life gets taken away by the horrors of war.

Bradley captures the character with so much emotion that we immediately get invested in his story and his connection to Pinocchio, as annoying as the wood puppet can be. Funnily enough, one of the parts that doesn’t work at all is Pinocchio himself and the songs, which hinder most of the film’s story in favor of forgettable tunes, even if Alexandre Desplat’s music is quite nice to listen to.

I’m sure Mann is a nice person. Still, his vocal talents for Pinocchio do not do the character justice. He frequently gives the character a sillier tone than he’s supposed to have, especially during scenes where emotions run at the highest.

Sometimes, his approach works, most notably when he visits the afterlife and hangs out with Black Rabbits (voiced by Tim Blake Nelson). That humorous tone is acceptable here because those scenes are played out humorously (the film’s most visually staggering moments, where del Toro’s creativity and fascination for the supernatural shines the highest). But most of the time, it doesn’t work, especially when the drama starts to amp up and he must make difficult choices for his life and Geppetto’s.

Thankfully, the supporting cast does most of the film’s heavy lifting, including the highly exuberant Christoph Waltz. He uses his expressive skills brilliantly to bring life to the grandiose Count Volpe, a hybrid of Mangiafuoco and The Fox and the Cat. He’s both terrifying and endlessly charming. There’s always a moment where the audience teeters between sympathy and disgust as he manipulates Pinocchio and Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett) to work for him.

Blanchett surprises as the voice of a pet monkey but has lots of fun throughout the film, especially when imitating the vocals of Volpe’s puppets. Ewan McGregor is also excellent as Sebastian J. Cricket, who has far better material to chew on than Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s iteration of Jiminy Cricket in Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio. Other smaller parts, including Ron Perlman as the Podestà and Finn Wolfhard as Candlewick, are also highly memorable and bring a wide range of emotional power to the film’s spectacular visual language.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’s stop-motion animation is the defining sign that del Toro needs to do more animated works. Frank Passingham’s photography is stunning, and the world that del Toro brings life to feels vast and lived-in, particularly when Pinocchio dies (many times) and goes into the afterlife. That vision is creative enough to warrant an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature film, and del Toro may win it.

The filmmakers don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel in terms of story, and its lead character is woefully miscast, but the film still works well. Compared to the sea of mediocre Pinocchio adaptations we have gotten in recent memory, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a visually stunning and emotionally invested piece of work that demands to be seen on the big screen, the way del Toro always envisions his movies to be seen and heard.

Sadly, the film is getting a limited theatrical run (to qualify for Awards consideration) before making its way to Netflix on Dec. 9. But if it’s playing in a cinema near you, run, don’t walk to see it.

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Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is now playing in theatres. The film will release on Netflix on December 9.