Pinocchio (aka Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Director Guillermo Del Toro has a lot of fondness for horror and animation. His obsession with monsters is gleefully on display in his award-winning The Shape of Water. His familiarity with animation’s wonder can be found in Pacific Rim, taking clear inspiration from Japan’s Gundam anime franchise. His desire to create a stop-motion Pinocchio picture is a perfect marriage of these two mediums, combining the compassion of monster movies with the fantastical nature of stop-motion animation.
This is the type of film where it feels like it could only be composed through animation. The story portrays Geppetto (David Bradley) as a man bound by pathos. His life seems great until World War I bombings bring his child’s life to an abrupt end and distorts Geppetto’s entire view of the world. Grieving, he chops down a tree in a storm and builds a puppet in his late son's image. Through a miracle, Carlo is reborn as a wooden boy, Pinocchio. Geppetto is…terrified! Why wouldn’t he be in this situation, especially when considering how creepy a design he settled on? Despite Pinocchio’s chipper nature, Geppetto is hesitant to raise this boy as his own again, especially since he has to explain the nature of the world to this new soul.
This is no mere Disney reiteration of Pinocchio’s story, as the wooden boy experiences far more of life’s strangeness than going to school, telling lies, and smoking. For being set during the early 20th century, he gets to learn all about the nature of religion, the bullying by others for being different, the horrifying decay within capitalism, and the fascist reign of Benito Mussolini. These are tough topics that Geppetto is not fully equipped to explain, and even the more open nature of the talking cricket, Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) finds it hard to teach what it is to live a good life.
But this narrative goes one step further by having Pinocchio come in contact with the afterlife. Death herself (Tilda Swinton) confronts Pinocchio and explains the deal he’s been given. As a puppet, Pinocchio will live forever while others around him will die. Further complicating this matter is that every time Pinocchio “dies,” it takes longer for him to revive. The world will change without him and around him, forcing the young boy to question what is most important in life. These are heavy topics for an animated film, but this is what makes Guillermo Del Toro’s film so masterful. It could easily be watched by children with its colorful animation and Pinocchio’s silly song comparing Mussolini to poop, but it also treats children as the more compelling characters for questioning more of the world that adults do not. This is a film that never talks down to the wee ones and presents them with a surprisingly mature tale of fantasy and horror. All of it is composed through detailed and compelling stop-motion, and it is never afraid to go dark with exaggeration.
There may be a question if Guillermo Del Toro’s interpretation of Pinocchio is suitable for family viewing, considering it deals with topics of death and fascism in a blunt manner. It’s up to the parents to make that call, but this is the perfect picture for the older kids who feel that animation has nothing left to offer them. With the award that Del Toro received for this film, he stressed that animation is not a genre but a medium, not bound by one demographic or type of film. It’s a sentiment that many cinephiles have proclaimed, but Del Toro makes good on it with this film. Despite how the film jumps around a bit in its narrative and themes, this film takes the Pinocchio story and does something far more original and intriguing with it, especially when compared to Disney’s lackluster live-action treatment released so close to this film. The world needs more biting animated films like this one.