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Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

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Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion musical Pinocchio, based on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 children’s book, is like no other you have seen, not the flaccid 2022 Robert Zemeckis live/animation version nor the benign Disney version with its sweet round-faced puppet. Del Toro’s version rumbles with tough love that has the burdens we all experience. It adds Italian Fascism around WW1, with the puppet targeted for extinction by no less than Il Duce, Benito Mussolini: “These puppets, I do not like.”

It’s an odd choice of time and place, especially given the recent victory of a fascist-rooted regime in Italy, although the filmmakers couldn’t have known the return would happen. For a movement dedicated to strict obedience, this Pinocchio represents clear and present danger. When local fascist functionaries raise their arms in salute, it’s scary given their bloody history.

Carved from a pine tree that represented Geppetto’s (voice of David Bradley) lost son, Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann), Pinocchio is a rambunctious, disobedient boy, curious and affectionately rebellious—in short, the kind of independent individualist that could become a world leader. But, alas, he’s different from the rest—wooden and defiant, a fine example of people of a different color, creative innovators, and people who just don’t fit because they are misunderstood.

Del Toro, co-directing with stop-animation guru Mark Gustafson (animator of Fantastic Mr. Fox), emphasizes the early-twentieth century fascist milieu the little hero faces, with Mussolini and his henchmen determining moves citizens can take. With that encumbrance comes the chance for the little stringless puppet to become a real boy of resolve.

Del Toro imagines a world of eventual equality and inclusion as Pinocchio becomes his destined hero who loves even enemies, such as evil showman Count Volpe’s (voice of Christoph Waltz) henchman, Spazzatura (voice of Cate Blanchett), a macabre goblin monkey with a growing love for Pinocchio. Gepetto accepts a wooden substitute for his lost son, and the slightly comic but un charming Cricket (Ewan MacGregor) narrates with some sympathy and sparse wisdom.

Although del Toro could be accused of morphing a Disney-like story into a dark tale of survival, he laces the tale with thoughts like the need to love others for whoever they really are, not what you want them to be and recognizing the cycle of life to death not even a woodland sprite (Tilda Swinton) can change.

Del Toro’s Netflix musical version (scripted with Patrick McHale) is a new spin on an old story, and the tunes are forgettable. Light and airy like Disney’s version it is not. Dark it is.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Director: del Toro (The Shape of Water), Mark Gustafson (The Fantastic Mr. Fox)

Screenplay: del Toro, Patrick McHale

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Voice)

Run Time: 1h 57 min

Rating: PG

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts NPR’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics as well as podcasts Back Talk and Double Take out of WCBE 90.5 FM. Contact him at JohnDeSando52@gmail.com

John DeSando holds a BA from Georgetown University and a Ph.D. in English from The University of Arizona. He served several universities as a professor, dean, and academic vice president. He has been producing and broadcasting as a film critic on It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics for more than two decades. DeSando received the Los Angeles Press Club's first-place honors for national entertainment journalism.