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Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pinocchio’ adaptation takes on mortality, how individualism fights fascism

Although a slightly darker take on the Carlo Collodi story, Del Toro’s stop-motion marvel shines with sincerity.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio - (L-R) Gepetto (voiced by David Bradley) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann).
Netflix © 2022

The 1883 Carlo Collodi children’s tale Pinocchio has withstood the test of time to the point where Disney has made both animated and live-action adaptations. At this point, most of the world is familiar with the main story threads. An older man named Geppetto constructs a wooden figure of a boy he names Pinocchio that hopes to become real one day. There are some cautionary tales about the ills of show business and the consequences (notably physical) of lying. But ultimately (at least in the 1940’s Disney version), the story revolves around the beautiful innocence of children and how capitalism can take advantage of this.

One might think, “what is there left to say,” given that director Steven Spielberg even projected this story into the future with 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. The wooden boy’s wish is realized, and everybody goes home happy. This is where the imaginative mind of the directors Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson comes in to give this well-known story a breath of fresh air — visually and from a timely storytelling perspective. Rather than choosing to begin the story right before Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) builds what would be his living masterpiece, the 2022 version of Pinocchio establishes a relationship with his son Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann).

It’s a rather dangerous time in Italy as the world was engulfed in WWI, and the country itself was under the hand of Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. While helping out at a local church carving a crucifix statue, tragedy strikes and claims Carlo’s life. This sends Geppetto down the path of uncontrollable grief to the point where he loses the color of life itself. In a drunken rage, he imperfectly builds Pinocchio (nails are sticking out of him and such). Once The Wood Sprite (voiced by Tilda Swinton) bestows life upon the wooden figure, Pinocchio (whom Mann also voices), he greets the world with unbridled curiosity and exuberance.

Del Toro and co-writer Patrick McHale introduce acceptance, mortality, and individualism themes. At first, Geppetto is frightened at the sight of suddenly alive figurine, but then gets this idea that Pinocchio can be a replacement son to supplement losing Carlo. However, you can’t just supplant someone’s free will just because of grief’s chokehold. The concept of autonomy is examined in different ways through each character — with Geppetto, it’s loving someone for who they are. In Pinocchio’s case, it’s fighting to stand out in an environment that actively snuffs out any type of free thought.

There’s no coincidence a “stringless” puppet seems to have the most courage out of people who attach themselves to an authoratian hivemind. Pinocchio still has some guidance by the way of Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor) who serves as the narrator of this story. Sebastian even looks at Pinocchio as a empty home for him to complete his memoir, but comes to discover there’s more to him than carvings and jagged edges.

As Pinocchio goes throughout the story, he meets particular characters who try to twist his inviting nature. Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his aptly mistreated monkey sidekick, Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett) work a traveling puppeteer show that could sure make a ton of money if Pinocchio was apart of it. On the other side, the Podestà (voiced by Ron Pearlman) is a government official who wants Pinocchio to join the facist young soldier collective. Podestà’s young son, Candlewick (voiced by Finn Wolfhard) just wants to make his father proud — however, never gains any type of affection from him .

So, del Toro and McHale use Pinocchio’s personality and presence as a way to descent. Although parents and older people serve as elders, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are always right. Sometimes, questioning authority is needed for the greater good — a message this version of the tale really drives home. It’s not to say that everything is necessarily heavy in del Toro’s version. While the tone sometimes can way down the story, there is time for laughter and reprieve. It’s just that themes like death and aging can seem so heavy. With a particular twist in 2022’s Pinocchio, the character really starts to reason why those things can be looked upon in a beautiful manner.

The intricate nature of stop-motion animation and details on the puppets of these characters magificantly take the audience into another world. Every smile, injury, and crinkle of skin enhances the enjoyable work of the voice cast at large. If you’re going to do this story again, you might as well do it in a way that audiences can carry something different from the experience. Del Toro’s passion for this project shows with no strings attached.