Guillermo del Toro Wins the 'Pinocchio' War of 2022

Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson

Starring Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Burn Gorman, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton

Photo courtesy of Netflix

BY Rachel HoPublished Nov 11, 2022

Before Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio's press screening started, I overhead a couple critics talking about their expectations for the movie: to paraphrase, "I don't know, what else can you get out of this story?" And I wholeheartedly agreed. Originally published in 1881, the story of the puppet boy who comes to life has been adapted countless times, including just this year when Disney made a Tom Hanks-starring live-action adaptation of their own animated adaptation. Thankfully, us cynical critics were incredibly wrong. 

As one would expect from the director, del Toro's interpretation of the tale is incredibly dark, embracing the tone of the source material. Set in 1930s Fascist Italy, a village carpenter, Geppetto (David Bradley), tragically loses his son, Carlo (Gregory Mann), after a bomb is dropped from an aircraft — not as an act of aggression, but an exercise in lightening the plane's load. As the years go by, Geppetto is wracked with grief and unable to move on, his pain numbed only by alcohol. One night, in a drunken rage, he chops down the tree that grew next to Carlo's grave and haphazardly creates a marionette in the image of his son.

Wood Spirte (Tilda Swinton), a creature responsible for giving life, takes pity on Geppetto and imbues life into his creation with the purpose of bringing light to the old man's days. Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann) begins life as a bratty, selfish child whose antics initially draw the ire of Podestà (Ron Perlman), a Nazi officer stationed in the village to recruit and train young boys for the war effort. When it becomes apparent that Pinocchio resurrects after death, Podestà is keen on him joining the army, conflicting with Geppetto's growing paternal love for the boy. Meanwhile, travelling carnival conductor Count Volpe's (Christoph Waltz) has learned about Pinocchio and manipulates the young boy into joining the circus. 

Directing the film alongside del Toro is Mark Gustafson, an award-winning veteran of the stop motion world. With del Toro's vision and Gustafson's artistry, the two bring to life a nearly 150-year-old story through stunning visuals. Using a combination of puppetry, stop motion and CGI, Pinocchio is an animated wonder to behold. 

Behind the impressive imagery is a collection of dynamic vocal performances. Waltz, Swinton, Perlman, Mann and Bradley all turn out expressive turns, and Cate Blanchett is effectively and amusingly cast as a tormented monkey. But it's Ewan McGregor who steals the show as Sebastian J. Cricket, the refined intellectual cricket determined to write his memoirs. As the film's narrator and Pinocchio's moral compass and teacher, McGregor is equal parts sweet, noble and humorous, breaking up the darker aspects of the story.

There's a magical quality to Pinocchio that elevates del Toro and Gustafson's version. Although steeped in troubled subject matter, the pair never lose the whimsy that many of us were drawn to as children. (See: a cheeky Benito Mussolini cameo.) Where's Disney's 1940 adaptation has long been the definitive version for generations of kids, Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is the one they'll turn to as adults.

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