There are some stories that have become immortalized in time, made famous by a particular adaptation but remade numerous times nonetheless. The 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi was the inspiration for the 1940 animated film that won two Oscars, for its score and for the now-classic song “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Evidently, Pinocchio is on many people’s minds as an Italian film starring Roberto Benigni opened to acclaim two years ago and two 2022 versions are now available, one on Disney+ and another Netflix. The latter boasts the very distinguishable imprint of filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro, which adds an entirely new degree of magic to it.
Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) narrates the story of the carver Geppetto (David Bradley), who is devastated by the death of his beloved son Carlo at the end of World War I. Decades later, Geppetto remains depressed. A Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) grants him the gift of his latest carving coming to life, which manifests as Pinocchio (Gregory Mann). The excitable living puppet goes on a wild journey that helps him to discover what it means to be alive, with the important caveat that, because he is not in fact a real boy, he cannot die.
A look at Del Toro’s credits, which include last year’s Nightmare Alley and the Oscar-winning films The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth, does not exactly recommend him as a creator of films for children. And it is true that there are many adult themes present in this version of Pinocchio, namely Pinocchio’s repeated conversations with Death, who starts an hourglass each time he visits her before returning to the land of the living, and the rise of fascism in Italy, seen most potently through the ongoing war and the toxic patriotism of the Podesta (Ron Perlman), who seeks to turn Pinocchio into the ideal invincible soldier. There’s much to process here that will either upset children or may not simply because they cannot understand it.
Yet Del Toro brings a sense of wonder that does feel entirely appropriate for both children and adults, presenting Pinocchio as a marvel who bursts with joy at the notion of experiencing life, portrayed humorously during a musical number in which he destroys a good portion of Geppetto’s workshop in the process of his carefree rummaging. Even such villainous figures as the manipulative ringmaster Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and a giant whale in the sea are almost more spectacular than they are fearsome, and they feel vibrant and new despite their origins in literature that has been circulated for centuries.
The use of stop-motion animation is dazzling, enhancing each scene and allowing its characters to move in a particular way that is immensely watchable. It also serves to temper some of the film’s darker themes and to show more violent content that, presented in this form, is not quite as jarring. That this has been a project Del Toro has been working on for more than a decade – and that his name appears in its title – makes its successful completion all the more worthy of celebration, and this finished product is truly impressive.
As with any animated venture, a strong voice cast is important. In only his second film credit, Mann is a delight as the eager young Pinocchio, and he’s matched in exuberant enthusiasm by McGregor, the source of much of the film’s lightness through his lively and colorful narration. Perlman, Swinton, Waltz, John Turturro, Burn Gorman, Tim Blake Nelson, and others provide solid supporting work, and Bradley is captivating as Geppetto. This film, which is sure to be widely watched on its streaming home of Netflix after a limited theatrical release, is an adaptation with something for everyone, bursting with invigorating creativity.
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Pinocchio is currently playing in theaters and debuts on Netflix on Friday, December 9th.