Movie Review: Del Toro puts pathos and politics into his “Pinocchio”

Guillermo del Toro is not here to protect your tiny tykes from the grim realities of the big bad world. Like Walt Disney before him, he acknowledges the dangers and tragedies of life, and that life itself is fleeting.

Wars happen. Some people are cheats, and many are cruel. Fascist leaders are false prophets, guns kill and everyone, eventually, dies.

“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinnocchio” is darker than “The Disney Version,” any Disney version. But not by much. Like Walt, del Toro wants to play up the darkness and dangers of Collodi’s novel — the scary parts — as well as the moral lessons of a boy taught not to lie.

“Lies, my dear boy, are found out immediately! They are like a long nose, visible to all but the teller of the lie.”

This stop-motion animated jewel is just the latest of scores of adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s classic 19th century fairytale. The Mexican Oscar winner and his team go back to the original story, deeper into its “origins,” and update it by setting it in post “Great War” Italy, when that country had its first taste of the perilous pitfalls of fascism.

Yes, we’re all tired of pop culture reminders of the fascist threat facing freedom lovers the world over. If you’re more “triggered” than tired of this trend in film, TV and music, maybe stop voting for lying fascists and it’ll all go away.

Geppetto, voiced by veteran character actor David Bradley, is a doting widowed single-father when we meet him, the town wood-carver who makes and sells toys and is so good at his job that he’s entrusted with carving a new giant crucifix for the church. He dotes on his boy Carlo, who marvels at the planes they see passing overhead and dreams of fighting in World War I until Dad sets him straight.

Carlo is killed when the church is bombed, and Geppetto crawls into a bottle, an embittered recluse just medicating his way to the end. In a drunken fury, he carves out a rough, pinewood puppet, alas out of a tree he rage-chopped down that was the home to Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a world traveler and our narrator, who tells us that he’s just settled down to write “The Stridulations of my Youth,” his memoirs.

But Geppetto’s mournful state has earned the pity of a wood sprite (Tilda Swinton), and with the cricket’s urging and his agreeing to look over and instruct the puppet boy, Pinocchio is brought to life.

The rough-hewn little fellow clumsily dances and crashes his way through Geppetto’s shop, singing “Everything is new to me,” and we realize Geppetto and the cricket have their work cut out for them.

You know the way stations of this story — a stab at “school,” that first lie (in church, here), the temptations of a traveling carnival barker (Christoph Waltz, who steals the movie), escape, a giant whale and so forth.

How co-director (with Mark Gustafson) del Toro and co-writer Patrick McHale flesh out this familiar fable into a two hour movie is with grand and glorious action beats and a decent-sized dose of life in Italy under Il Duce, whose Mussolini graffiti is glimpsed on walls and whose dogma is personified by the local fascist capo, Podesta (“Hellboy” Ron Perlman, perfect).

The fascist just sees a seemingly “immortal” little wooden boy as “a good little fascist soldier” in the making. Let’s ship him off for training. ‘The carny? He sees a gold mine, and he is sure to put the wooden boy under a binding contract.

“I think you misunderstand our relationship, my little firestarter.”

I laughed and laughed at everything the vulpine Count Volple (Waltz) said. But make no mistake, this is a dark movie that doesn’t sugar-coat even the grimmest dilemmas.

The film’s gorgeous look is realized via wooden texture of the puppet and the settings. There’s an often overcast earth tones production design that gives it a somber subtext. And playing down the whimsical “Pinocchio on stage” chapters sets the stakes. We will see death (off camera), animal abuse and fascist salutes and goose-stepping. Mussolini has a cameo, a “strong man” depicted as a pudgy runt.

Theology? Pinocchio looks up at his creator’s wooden carving of Jesus and asks. “Why do they (the locals) like him and not me?”

The lessons within the story have to do with people fearing the unknown, love and devotion equating with sacrifice and lies giving everyone around you splinters.

Oscar winning composer Alexandre Desplat wrote the songs, with lyrics by Roeban Katz & del Toro, and if they aren’t quite instantly forgettable, they are one area this “Pinocchio” falls well short of Disney’s 1940 masterpiece.

As might be expected of a filmmaker known for horror and “Hellboy,” del Toro’s “Pinocchio” more readily compares to the stop-motion animation of Henry Sellick, of “Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Coraline.” It’s dazzling and amusing — we see Geppetto fishing for their dinner inside the whale — if not quite as playful as either of those films or the grand whimsies of Wes Anderson (“The Fantastic Mr. Fox,””Isle of Dogs”).

But none of that takes anything away from the best animated film Netflix has ever made, and the best animated film of 2022.

Rating: PG for dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor and brief smoking

Cast: The voices of Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, John Turturro, Ron Perlman, David Bradley and Christoph Waltz

Credits: Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson, scripted by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale, based on the book by Carlo Collodi. a Netflix release.

Running time: 2:10

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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