There have been so many film versions of the classic fairytale “Pinocchio” over the years that even Disney must have lost count. But I guess it was the fact that Guillermo del Toro was making an animated version of an early Disney masterpiece and releasing it this coming Christmas that got the Mouse’s attention.
Director Robert Zemeckis was hired to put on his “Polar Express” hat, along with his “Polar Express” star — Tom Hanks — for a cute and occasionally quite scary (for little kids) remake of Disney’s 1940 film. It’s a blend of live-action and animation that asserts, if nothing else, the company’s intellectual property and primacy as far as the story of the wooden puppet who dreams of being “a real boy.”
Hanks dons a white wig and mustache to play Geppetto, the wood-carver, cuckoo-clock maker and tinkerer who creates this adorable puppet in what passes for 18th century Italy. Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices our insectoid narrator, Jiminy Cricket.
Casting Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy, the one who answers Geppetto’s silent wish and brings the puppet to life, means that there’s a great voice on hand to sing what became Disney’s signature tune — “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
And bringing in Keegan-Michael Key to vamp the thespian/hustler fox — named “Honest John” here, but J. Worthington Foulfellow back in 1940 — is a stroke of genius.
The opening scenes, with Jiminy narrating, Geppetto dealing with customers who want to buy items he refuses to sell, muttering to himself and Figaro, the digitally-animated cat and his (also animated) goldfish about what he won’t say he asked for of “The Wishing Star” in the night sky, have charm even if they’re thin on entertainment value. The big Blue Fairy “transition” scene is over-played in the classic Zemeckis style.
But Key shows up — fast-talking, riffing and rolling — and “Pinocchio” crackles to life. The walking, talking toy wants to be “a real boy?”
Why hope for that, “Honest John” coos, when “you can be FAMOUS…an entrepreneur, an actor, nay an INFLUENCER?”
“Everbody who’s ANYbody wants to be SOMEbody!”
Sure, he’s made of wood — pine — and he’s called “Pinocchio” thanks to that. But how’s that going to work on a playbill or stage marquee?
“Chris PINE!” would be better.
Alas, the kid won’t go for it.
He is “sold” to the traveling show run by Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), lured to “Pleasure Island” by vandalizing, hooting, hollering and rioting root-beer swilling kids and lost at sea inside the monstrous “Monstro.”
You remember how this goes, as this script doesn’t stray much from what worked so perfectly in 1940. A puppeteer (Jaquita Ta’le) with a leg-brace is introduced as a friend Pinocchio makes on his odyssey, Luke Evans plays a child-snatcher. Otherwise, the story remains the same.
This version of the story hits the parable elements pretty hard. The “little voice” called “conscience” that “sits on your shoulder,” reminding children not to lie, not to cheat, to know the difference between right and wrong, “the voice most people refuse to listen to,” isn’t just a scolding cricket.
The scariest bits are the dark, ghostly beasts that snatch “bad” kids, kidnap them so that they can turn into the braying donkeys that their misbehavior suggests is their true nature, and the sea monster “Monstro,” no longer just a whale, but a tentacled menace chasing Pinocchio and pals down, no matter how fast the puppet motorboats his feet to paddle them away from danger.
The head-spinning puppet is beautifully-rendered, and the addition of the clattering, clacking sound effect that his wooden hinge-joints make is a plus.
But his CGI animated face lacks the emotional range of hand-drawn character. The same goes for Jiminy, who frets and fumes and fears for the poor kid’s life with all the facial expressions of a real cricket. That keeps this “Pinocchio” at arm’s length. He never touches us, and I dare say, if Guillermo del Toro watches this, he’s panicking right about now. His version — judging from the still shots — could have the same shortcoming.
The only “music” credit listed here is the for the fellow who most certainly did NOT write “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “There Are No Strings on Me” or “An Actor’s Life for Me.” Leigh Harline and lyricist Ned Washington created those timeless classics. I’ll leave off the name of the credited composer, as I’m guessing he’s as embarrassed by that as I am for him.
The story’s ending is so abrupt and emotionally-dry as to seem like a deadline had to be met to beat Del Toro to the screen.
That said, it’s a good “Pinocchio,” if not a great one. Perhaps the smartest decision anyone made about it was in consigning it to Disney+, as that seems a natural home for a children’s movie with polish and intellectual property protection value, if not the heart, ambition and artistry to deserve a big screen release.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Cynthia Erivo, Luke Evans, with the voices of Joseph Gordon- Levitt, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Lorraine Bracco and Keegan-Michael Key.
Credits: Directed by Robert Zemeckis, scripted by Robert Zemeckis, Chris Weitz and Simon Farnaby, based on the Carlos Collodi story and the 1940 Disney animated film “Pinocchio.”
Running time: 1:45