A dark and twisted masterpiece

Guillermo del Toro and Pinocchio are a match made in heaven. One is our greatest teller of disobedient fairytales. The other is the original fairytale lesson on the perils of disobedience. Put them together in a visually stunning stop-motion movie (set in war-torn fascist Italy) and you get a bewitching animated masterwork that’s one of the best movies of 2022.

The pop culture dominance of Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio, itself a disarmingly dark tale that’s traumatized generations of children, has obscured the legacy of Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. But Collodi’s dark, grim, morality play was a groundbreaking piece of literature that married a whimsical fable with social realist art — a much deeper and more grisly saga than the story of a wooden boy whose nose simply grows when he tells a lie. It’s the themes of Collodi’s novel that Guillermo del Toro picks up and runs with, but in classic fashion, the Nightmare Alley and Pan’s Labyrinth filmmaker reshapes Pinocchio into something far stranger, sharper, and better.

Del Toro’s Pinocchio begins with a man and his dear son, but not the ones you think. Gepetto (David Bradley) is the well-respected resident woodcarver of a small town in 1930s Italy. Gepetto, singing the first of the movie’s charming songs in dedication to his son, adores the 10-year-old Carlo, who is the perfect son in every way. But a stray bomb kills Carlo, sending Gepetto deep into a liquor-induced depression. When a particularly strong wave of grief hits him on a rainy night while visiting his son’s grave, Gepetto chops down the tree that grew from his son’s pine cone and his own tears and carves it into a wooden puppet. Little does he know that a kindly Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton, ethereal as always) visits the puppet in the night to give him life, nor that the grumpy cricket (Ewan McGregor, hilariously flowery) living in the tree has been tasked to be the puppet’s conscience. When he wakes, he’s shocked to meet an energetic puppet brimming with curiosity and a lust for life — and an often misplaced eagerness to please his father.

So begins a tale that many of us are familiar with, but del Toro’s Pinocchio almost immediately takes us down a twistier and more gnarled path. Where Disney would sand down Collodi’s original story into a more wholesome fairytale about good sons and ideal fathers, del Toro sharpens and hones Pinocchio into a story that embraces disobedience as a stand-in for free will and rebellion.

This is a Pinnochio deeply embedded in its 1930s Fascist Italy setting, where the leader of Gepetto’s village is a fascist government official (Ron Perlman, booming and frightening) who is disgusted at Pinocchio’s unnatural existence before he gleefully realizes that the puppet’s immortality makes him the perfect soldier. This is a Pinocchio that takes us into an afterlife populated by poker-playing rabbit undertakers and Death herself (also voiced by Tilda Swinton). And this is a Pinocchio that eschews the darkest subplot of the Disney film — the donkey body horror — for something even more disturbing: children who are happily sent off to war.

In del Toro’s Pinocchio, Gepetto is a grieving father who is gifted a new son in the form of Pinocchio.Netflix

Collodi’s original Adventures of Pinocchio might have been a story of how society can corrupt even the best of intentions, but it was still one that upheld strict societal standards: the law is good and just, crime is evil and corrosive, and authority figures are all morally upright. In contrast, del Toro’s film presents a radical idea for a children’s movie: authority can be wrong. In fact, the authority figures that Gepetto and the rest of the villagers kowtow to may be even more wrong and evil than the circus ringmaster (Christoph Waltz, all sinister sleaze) who lures Pinocchio into being the star of his show, only to abuse his workers and put on fascist propaganda shows. And through all this, Pinocchio (a luminous Gregory Mann) remains a beacon of enthusiasm and hope, even as his impulsive, selfish decisions hurt Gepetto or as his (figurative) strings get pulled in every which way by devious characters.

Del Toro’s co-writer Patrick McHale brings the same brand of uncanny surrealism to Pinocchio that made his spooky animated miniseries Over the Garden Wall a fall-time fairytale staple. Together, del Toro and McHale (and del Toro’s co-director Mark Gustafson) turn this classic fairy tale into an almost Dadaist piece of art with comically absurd elements peppered throughout. Darkness curls around the edges of the film’s most whimsical elements, like the aforementioned rabbit undertakers (an element that appeared in Collodi’s original novel), reminding us — nay, threatening us — that the horrors of reality can easily overtake this fable. And yet, despite the grim backdrop and the somber themes that Pinocchio grapples with, despite the violence and hardships that Pinocchio experiences, the film — and its unyielding protagonist — never loses its zest for life.

Never trust men with hair that tall.Netflix

Many of those patches of brightness come through in Pinocchio’s lovely songs composed by Alexandre Desplat and partially written by del Toro. The songs have a shagginess and purity to them that make them feel more like old folk songs than ones written for a full-fledged musical, which feels in keeping with Pinocchio’s earnest approach to the fairytale. A few more rays of light are brought in by the film’s sweet moments between Gepetto, Pinocchio, and Sebastian J. Cricket, and its honest depiction of a father’s grief. But the bright beacon around which Pinocchio revolves is its title character, voiced with guileless buoyancy by Mann, and sporting an endearing character design — all gangly limbs, jittery movements, with nails poking out his face —that is just this side of ramshackle.

The animation of Pinocchio is spectacular to behold. There are no clean lines to be seen. The characters are all knobby, full of wrinkles, red-faced, or gaunt. Every detail, from the backdrops to the architecture, to the trees curve and bend organically. Del Toro has always had an eye for the ethereal fantasy, and Pinocchio’s most unearthly elements don’t disappoint: the glowing Wood Sprite and her dark sister Death are closer to creepy phantasmagoria than cuddly kid’s fantasy sidekicks. The stop-motion lends a layer of unreality to the movie — Pinocchio sometimes moves with a terrifying, jerky, inhuman speed that wouldn’t be out of place in The Exorcist. It’s a world that embraces imperfection, leaving no place for the glossy smoothness of contemporary CG animation. Pinocchio looks and feels wholly singular.

The Wood Sprite takes on the part played by the Fairy with Turquoise Hair, known as the Blue Fairy in the Disney version.Netflix

Del Toro has called Pinocchio the third film in his unofficial “childhood and war” trilogy with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. And it feels earnestly of a piece with those two movies, both much darker and much bleaker than Pinocchio ends up being. But despite its more hopeful approach, Pinocchio is no less fierce — hammering in its messages about fascism and revolution with all the subtlety of, well, a nose that grows with every lie. But there is no need for subtlety in a movie this breathtakingly beautiful and this urgently angry.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is playing in select theaters now. It debuts on Netflix on December 9.

Guillermo del Toro and Pinocchio are a match made in heaven. One is our greatest teller of disobedient fairytales. The other is the original fairytale lesson on the perils of disobedience. Put them together in a visually stunning stop-motion movie (set in war-torn fascist Italy) and you get a bewitching animated masterwork that’s one of…

Guillermo del Toro and Pinocchio are a match made in heaven. One is our greatest teller of disobedient fairytales. The other is the original fairytale lesson on the perils of disobedience. Put them together in a visually stunning stop-motion movie (set in war-torn fascist Italy) and you get a bewitching animated masterwork that’s one of…