Runtime: 1 hour 57 minutes
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Guillermo del Toro and Patrick Hale
Starring: David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Tilda Swinton, Ewan McGregor, Ron Perlman, and Finn Wolfhard
By Valerie Kalfrin
Pinocchio is a story we may think we know, but we don’t. So says director Guillermo del Toro, whose retelling breathes new life and pathos into a tale so many of us know through Disney cartoons and pop culture.
Airing on Netflix, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” (2022) is a more mature take on Carlo Collodi’s nineteenth-century original than Disney’s little wooden head of 1940, who sang and danced about how he had no strings. It’s also a stop-motion animated masterpiece, rich with emotion, texture, and detail both on the surface and within the story itself.
Knock on a piece of wood, and you might hear an echo depending on whether it’s solid or hollow. Del Toro (“The Shape of Water,” “Hellboy”), directing with animation veteran Mark Gustafson (“Fantastic Mr. Fox”), and writing with Patrick McHale (“Over the Garden Wall”), has crafted a solid story that echoes themes of love and acceptance, all nestled within his unique artistic style.
Life at first is simple and sweet, bathed in soft yellow sunlight, for Italian woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley, “Doctor Who”) and his ten-year-old son, Carlo (Gregory Mann, “Victoria”), an obedient child who doesn’t raise a fuss while his papa works on a crucifix for the church and other projects. Although it’s the early 1900s, with World War I bombers flying overhead, Geppetto’s world is small and pure. He plants a pinecone whenever he chops down a tree, explaining to Carlo how this is his way of giving back to nature what he’s taken.
Then a bomb strikes their idyllic village, killing Carlo and leaving Geppetto with just a pinecone his son had found moments earlier. He plants it by Carlo’s grave, where it grows into a magnificent tree but doesn’t fill the ache in this broken father’s heart.
Years later, on the cusp of another world war, Geppetto rails in drunken grief at the tree, then chops it down to shape into something resembling his lost boy. Moved by his pain, the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton, “The Eternal Daughter”), a blue angel with blinking eyes on her wings, brings Pinocchio to life so the older man will never feel alone.
Also voiced by Mann, Pinocchio turns out to be more of a handful than his inspiration. A chatty youngster full of questioning naivete, he’s designed with a naturally pointy nose (which, yes, grows after a lie) and a fanned piece of bark that juts from the side of his head like a cowlick. He swiftly exasperates Geppetto, who in an echo of “Frankenstein”(another favorite story of del Toro’s) carps about how different he is from Carlo.
In an intriguing twist, Pinocchio also can’t die, at least for a while, frightening the mystified villagers who think he’s a creature born from sorcery. Though viewers will sense where this is headed, Pinocchio’s chats with Death, an ambivalent chimera also voiced by Swinton, nurture his character’s growth.
Beyond the underworld, Pinocchio also gets a hand from Sebastian, a blue cricket and reluctant guardian voiced marvelously by Ewan McGregor (TV’s “Obi-Wan Kenobi”). The fussy cricket hops into the story right before Geppetto fells the tree where Sebastian has found a knothole to write his memoirs. He continues to live in the knothole after Pinocchio comes to life, placing him close to the boy’s heart.
The animators have fun squashing Sebastian for comic relief, but the film gives the cricket the commonsense and counsel that this imperfect father and son need. Sebastian scolds Geppetto for not loving Pinocchio just as he is and tells Pinocchio why someone might not mean a harsh word, even if their nose doesn’t grow.
Much like in the 1940s cartoon, a carnival performer, here called Volpe (Christoph Waltz, “No Time to Die”), his hair twisted like the fox ears of his name, takes one look at the sentient Pinocchio and plots to use him as a moneymaker. Meanwhile, in a wartime critique similar to del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the local fascist Podesta (Ron Perlman, “Nightmare Alley”) dislikes Pinocchio’s independent thinking but muses he’d make a fine indestructible soldier. He wants to shape his son, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”), into a soldier too, an ambition the boy accepts only to please him.
Composer Alexandre Desplat (“The Lost King”) gives this Pinocchio his own whimsical and tender songs, and the production design, art department, puppeteers, and effects team have rendered a world and characters that almost seem tactile. From the veins and ridges in Pinocchio’s bark to Geppetto’s wrinkles, from Sebastian’s mandibles shaded with gray to a barnacled sea beast packed with sharp teeth, each character seems molded with care, making this world and its emotions all the more immersive.
Overall, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is the best kind of reimagining. It transforms this familiar tale into a passionate fable of compassion and tenderness that’s visually beautiful, relatable, and bittersweet.