Del Toro’s Pinocchio is not huggable

It is one of the most anticipated movies of 2022: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. A dark stop motion version of Carlo Collodi’s ambiguous fable about a puppet whose nose sometimes grows when he lies. The Disney interpretation is famous, but the Mexican director gives it his own twist and moves the story to Italy during the rise of dictator Mussolini. That is reminiscent of his Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which combined Spain’s fascist history with fairy tale elements.

Del Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson (Fantastic Mr. Fox) get the most out of stop motion, the technique where real puppets move a little bit each frame. Sets are not smoothed out like in computer animation, the moving figures are beautiful and uncanny at the same time. Del Toro’s Pinocchio is not cuddly, but has spindly limbs and protruding nails. And there are wonderfully gruesome monsters, such as the man-devouring whale or the burrowing rabbits in the regularly visited purgatory.

It took the Mexican director decades to convince financiers to put their money into his animation. It seems as if during that period the ideas, associations and metaphors in the script piled up. The original fairy tale is already episodic: it appeared as a serial in a children’s magazine. Del Toro’s film goes one step further in terms of plot twists. For example, the film opens with a long prologue about Pinocchio’s father Gepetto, in which themes emerge that recur later, such as the life-destroying effect of war and the way in which church and state force people to conform.

Childish slapstick

Woodworker Gepetto is an acclaimed model citizen until his son Carlo dies in an unfortunate bombing raid on the church where they are working together on a crucifix during WWI. The grieving father loses himself in alcohol until a forest fairy revives the puppet he intoxicated made: Pinocchio.

Unlike Gepetto’s earlier son, this ‘replacement’ has little desire to listen well and allows himself to be seduced by circus director Volpe, who promises him candy and fame. Meanwhile, fascism is becoming more and more present. That leads to childlike slapstick, like an encounter with a puppet version of Il Duce. But also to original variations on Collodi’s story. For example, the ‘lazy land’ where Pinocchio turns into a donkey here is a fascist youth camp.

Sometimes Del Toro could have chosen sharper. The tone of his Pinocchio varies a lot at times: vocal numbers for a much younger audience are out of tune with the rest of the film. And towards the end, so many plot twists are rushed through that the surprising, emotional ending about the meaning of Pinocchio’s life choices and the transience of earthly existence just falls short of the chord it seems to be aiming for.

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