There are a number of moments throughout Guillermo del Toro’s new stop-motion animated retelling of Pinocchio that are so dark and steeped in sorrow that they make it easy to forget how the musical feature’s also a celebration of love with an emphasis on resisting authoritarianism. Though it’s very much an imaginative and visually dazzling fairy tale, del Toro’s Pinocchio never makes any pretense of trying to downplay that it’s also an anti-fascist morality play aimed at a wide audience.
For all of his wisdom and love of sharing stories, it’s difficult for Geppetto (David Bradley), an elderly carver known for his artful craftsmanship, to put into words what all his son Carlo (Gregory Mann) meant to him before the boy’s untimely death in a church bombing. Set sometime between World War I and World War II, Pinocchio presents Carlo’s death as just one of the countless casualties that can be attributed to Italy’s descent into fascism under the rule of Prime Minister Benito Mussolini (Tom Kenny). It’s Geppetto’s grief for Carlo that drives him to drink, and it’s the drink that helps Geppetto both spiral and numb the pain of having to live without the one person who truly gave him purpose. But that same grief is also what inspires Geppetto to drunkenly, ragefully cut down a pine tree he first planted in Carlo’s memory and then set to feverishly carving its wood into a macabre likeness of his dead son.
Because he’s so brand new to the world of the living, Pinocchio (also Mann) has no way of knowing how his ability to walk and talk will terrify his father and other flesh and blood humans when they first meet him. Pinocchio’s also too naive to know that Sebastian (Ewan McGregor), the talking cricket living in his chest and watching over him at the behest of the magical Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), is every bit the oddity that he himself is. What Pinocchio does know, though, is that he’s absolutely mad about the prospect of going into the outside world and experiencing life and everything it has to offer him for the very first time.
Compared to many other filmmakers’ takes on Carlo Collodi’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, the relative grimness that defines this Pinocchio’s backdrop feels undeniably of del Toro’s imagination. But so, too, does the way the movie holds Pinocchio himself up as a wooden avatar for everything it means to be born into wartimes and how that can make it difficult for people to grow up as happy, whole people.
Dark as this Pinocchio is, it cleaves surprisingly close to Disney’s 1940 telling as it follows the wooden boy on his way to his first day of school, and he winds up being led astray by traveling circus showman Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his hench monkey, Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett). In Pinocchio, Volpe and Spazzatura see an opportunity to make untold fortunes with a new show built around a stringless, dancing puppet, and in them, Pinocchio sees an opportunity for adventure. Where this Pinocchio really starts to come alive and diverge from adaptations viewers are likely familiar with, though, is when it abruptly kills its protagonist rather early on and introduces a fascinating new twist on the classic narrative involving multiple resurrections.
More than simply inviting viewers to contemplate the nature of their own mortality, Pinocchio’s story frames the puppet as the ultimate example of the kind of innocence warmongers like the Mussolini-supporting Podestà (Ron Perlman) so often seek to corrupt and mold for their own uses. In the Podestà’s eyes, Pinocchio’s inability to die could make him the ultimate soldier capable of turning any war in Italy’s favor, which is a horrific idea in and of itself. But Pinocchio also takes the time to illustrate how, in the bigger picture of things, the Podestà’s vision for the undying puppet boy is no different than the state’s plan for all the young, guileless children being taught to embrace Mussolini’s ideology.
It’s more than fair to call this Pinocchio dark and gritty in a way that might at first make people mistake it for something trying excessively hard to differentiate itself from a beloved piece of the animated canon.
But one of the more surprising things about Pinocchio is how, in spite of its heavy themes and sobering moments of reality, it’s still a heartwarming storybook of a movie at its core. Every time that it seems as if Pinocchio’s about to settle into an all-encompassing self-seriousness meant to impress upon you how important its messages about resistance or workers’ rights are, the movie falls right back into one of its lighthearted songs that’ll get stuck in your head. And you won’t mind them being lodged in there because they’re reminders of what a truly special, impactful work of art Pinocchio is.
Pinocchio also stars Burn Gorman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, and Tim Blake Nelson. The movie is now streaming on Netflix.