Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio ★★★
Availability: Showing in a few theaters in major cities; streaming on Netflix; see JustWatch here for future expanded availability.
Del Toro as Pinocchio
Father-son dilemmas, individualism, Fascism, meditations on death and the human condition. Maybe not your childhood recollection of Carlo Collodi’s morality tale. It is, however, Oscar-winning fantasy director Guillermo del Toro’s take on the 140 year-old Italian story of the wooden puppet who wanted to be a real boy.
What's a father to do? Geppetto (voice of David Bradley) with his son,
"newborn juvenile delinquent" Pinocchio (voice of Gregory Mann).
The first 30 minutes of del Toro’s stop-motion animation (with co-director and master animator Mark Gustafson) revels in its own creations: Father (old enough to be a grandfather) Geppetto; first son Carlo (in this version, Geppetto has lost a “real” son); the puppet who comes to life; and the iconic setting of an Italian hill town. The newly made boy wreaks havoc on Geppetto and his home, enthusiastically breaking everything in sight. A newborn juvenile delinquent.
What if “obey” means adherence to a Fascist regime that sends boys to war?
Left, the Podesta at the boys' war-training camp. Pinocchio at right, the Podesta's son on Pinocchio's right.
Enter the 1920s Italian Fascists, complete with posters of “Credere, Obedire, Combattere!”—Believe, Obey, Fight! Del Toro’s primary theme emerges: what it means to “obey.” The moral of Collodi’s story (written in the 1880s just after Italy’s unification as a country) is that children must obey their fathers. But what if “obey” means adherence to a Fascist regime that sends boys to war or stifles their emerging selves? Few may grasp the “Obedire” poster, or the play-on-words when Pinocchio refers to Il Duce as “dolce” (a sweet). But the meaning of the Podesta (the Fascist town magistrate; the word means “power”) and the Fascist-enabling, creepy priest are clear (Del Toro also raised the issue of fascism in his Oscar-winning 2006 feature, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” setting it in 1944 Spain). Here he takes more than one shot at organized religion, one of which shows the naïve, unchurched Pinocchio cavorting in front of the altar, imitating Christ on the cross.
Count Volpe (the "fox," Christoph Waltz voice) is delighted to get Pinocchio (center)
into his carnival. Volpe's cowed monkey, Spazzatura, left (Cate Blanchett voice).
Between the Fascists entering the picture and the soap-opera-like finale of Pinocchio tending to the graves of Geppetto and Carlo, del Toro has a ball with his penchant for the fantastical. He introduces the traveling carnival (as he did in his 2021 “Nightmare Alley”), a Fascist boys’ training camp, an underground world inhabited by spirits, card-playing rabbit gravediggers (who provide the high points of humor in the film), and the monster whale/shark who will ingest several of the cast.
Del Toro sets his "Pinocchio" in Fascist Italy during the Mussolini years.
(as did Italian director Pietro Marcello in his 2020 retelling of the Jack London story,
"Martin Eden"). Posters of Il Duce are at bottom left and right in this scene
in which Pinocchio is required to portray the loyal soldier boy on stage.
Christoph Waltz is the voice of the delightfully evil Count Volpe (“volpe” means “fox”), the greedy puppet master of the carnival show who entices Pinocchio away from home and school. Clinging to Volpe’s shoulder is Spazzatura (meaning “garbage,” voiced by Cate Blanchett), the cowed monkey. The two are another “father-son” dyad, here with a patriarch whose commands to “obey” are abusive. The Podesta and his young son offer one more example of the overbearing father and intimidated son. These parent-child relationships underscore the premise that obedience to illegitimate authority is a false ambition.
Because a wood sprite and her sister, the spirit of death (both voiced by Tilda Swinton) have given the wooden Pinocchio life as well as the possibility of more lives, the specter of death is constant; Pinocchio “dies” a few times along the way. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), who tries to keep Pinocchio on the straight and narrow, is repeatedly smashed, only to resurrect himself, ala Wile E. Coyote.
Del Toro and Patrick McHale’s script is laden with a few too many “lessons."
Most of the film’s sub-themes work because they’re in service to an over-riding critique of Fascism and invalid authority, while converting Collodi’s Victorian-era tale into a contemporary paean to individuality. Even so, del Toro and Patrick McHale’s script is laden with a few too many “lessons”: one should be accepted for who one is and not be treated as “other” (Pinocchio is a spirited boy); capitalism is an over-bearing patriarchy with rigid social classes (Count Volpe, Spazzatura, the rabbits). In another reversal of the original (and of Victorian-era values), it’s not only the boy/puppet who must be socialized. Fathers, especially when mothers are absent, must learn to love unconditionally—a lesson Geppetto takes to heart. And then there’s Pinocchio, in the throes of an existential moment, raising the question of what it means to be alive, weighing immortality against love and duty: if death is a fiction, can we be fully human?
If death is a fiction, can we be fully human?
It’s a gorgeous film, one that creates characters and settings as only the best—that is, del Toro—can do. That talent can at times get out of hand, as it does in the film’s final third, with its overly long and frenetic Jonah-and-the-whale action sequence. At its core, this “Pinocchio” is a study in authority, with the director at center stage, positioning himself as the “other,” as someone who goes his own way, unwilling to sublimate himself to stifling institutional systems. Not a puppet, but not unlike Pinocchio.
Director: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
Starring (all voices): Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton
Country: United States, Mexico, France
Runtime: 117 minutes
Oscar Nominations: Best Animated Feature Film
Other Awards: 64 wins (including BAFTA Best Animated Feature) and 123 nominations