Guillermo del Toro’s inventive take on “Pinocchio” is a cinematic artifact of unparalleled craftsmanship. Every frame possesses life just as it re-orients the overly familiar tale of a puppet magically brought to life with elements of actual historical events and devastating emotions. It’s so beautiful and beautifully made that it brought tears to my eyes several times.
Set in Italy during WW1, wood craftsman Geppetto (David Bradley) loses his son Carlo (Alfie Tempest) in a tragic case of friendly fire during aerial combat. After a decade of mourning, a bitter and enraged Geppetto chops down a pine planted to commemorate his son’s life and crafts a wooden boy.
The tree, though, is occupied by a beatnik cricket named Sebastian (Ewan McGregor). In the aftermath, as Geppetto sleeps an uneasy drunken sleep, Sebastian emerges from the pine only to be encountered by a Wood Sprite, who grants him life and names him Pinocchio (also Tempest).
Geppetto awakens to the shock that his strange totem to his son has come to life. He must deal with how the community treats the wooden boy, the fringe-dwellers who want to exploit him, and ultimately deal with the burden of being a creator (in its many facets).
From the historical vantage of Mussolini’s Italy, caught in the rising tide of fascism, it’s hard not to think of Pinocchio as an inversion of the “Pan’s Labyrinth” parable. Ofelia undergoes a series of trials with shadow creatures who ultimately act as interpreters of the horrors of our reality.
Pinocchio harmonises with “Pan” because this magical puppet is the prism through which we interpret humanity. On a micro level, it’s about the profound grief of losing a child, the crushing loneliness that ensues and how God, as always, is in absentia.
On a macro level, it delves into the art of fascism and how it wickedly plays on fear, suffocates freedom with perverse order, and provides perceived safety and unity until the boot is literally and figuratively on your neck.
Ron Perlman lends his authoritative thrum to Podest, an Italian army figure acting as a steward to the town who is willing to look beyond the boy’s existence if he can control and exploit him as an instrument of war. It’s all here in “Pinocchio,” and when it’s not in the foreground, such as the occasionally engorged wooden nose, it’s always there in the larger tapestry.
The circus is a kind of purgatory for del Toro. Both here and in “Nightmare Alley,” it’s an explicit physical space that serves as something of a moral weigh station. A series of tasks/tests are presented to the protagonists, who are either liberated or ensnared. The show, after all, must go on.
In “Pinocchio”, it’s a gateway drug, an intoxicant with a steep price, with roots that run deep and hold firm. Christoph Waltz is sensational as Count Volpe, the first character that creates a spontaneous lifelike quality within the confines of exaggeration.
Volpe looks at Pinocchio, the puppet without strings, with dollar signs spinning in his eyes like a poker machine feature. Waltz’s mellifluous voice mesmerises Pinocchio as he courts him to become a star in a space where he can belong.
It’s not just the physical space either as the circus troupe is also a haven. del Toro’s travelling ‘freak shows’ are groups of people unified in their outsider status. Like many of his other films, these are exaggerated fraternities where fellowship is forged in the scorn of the status quo.
Cate Blanchett lends screeches and raspberries to Volpe’s ape assistant Spazzatura, who has been regretfully groomed to find a meal ticket like Pinocchio for the circus.
Sebastian J Cricket has had a terrific make-over, with the well-travelled brogue of Ewan McGregor. Reinterpreted as an intrepid traveller, a throwback to a British Romantic poet who has lived a life on the road and is ready to retire his (tiny) memoir in this blooming pine tower overlooking the picturesque Italian countryside. Sebastian is not a conscience for Pinocchio as much as a harbinger of the dangers of the world simmering beneath the shiny distraction.
“Pinocchio” is also a tale of fathers and sons and the dread of squandering second chances, but I wasn’t expecting it to so explicitly delve into the relationship between creator and creation.
The desperation of this rendering of Geppetto is primarily due to the beautiful and regretful performance of David Bradley, who brings gravel and graft to the old craftsman. His vocal devastation nearly bursts out of the marionette in the wake of Carlo’s tragic death.
There’s not a doddering and sweet ambivalence here; Geppetto has lived a life and suffered. Like Disney’s 1940 “Pinocchio” – its most comparable adaptation – it will have parents rolling the dice on whether their children are ‘ready for it’.
In the best way, it’s that kind of film that starts to peer through the veil that shelter the innocents from the horrors of the world. There’s a moment where the durable Pinocchio is hurt and feared dead, which felt like the purest encapsulation of this kind of awakening – as well as being a hat tip to “Stand By Me”.
When he awakens to hear the crowd of people surrounding him talking about the lifeless wooden frame, he exclaims: “A dead body, where?!”. Yes, it’s a magnificent, macabre thing. Still, it feels as consumable as a fairy tale, a moral right of passage.
Norman McLaren famously defined animation as ‘the art of manipulating the invisible interstices between frames’. Well, del Toro’s “Pinocchio” exists in the perfectly imperfect renderings of his imagination and the tactile manipulation of a chorus of artists in every damned frame to give this work unmistakable and unforgettable life.