geppetto and pinocchio in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ Review: Better a Puppet Than a Fascist

The beautifully animated dark fairytale can’t settle on a consistent tone

It’s honestly pretty surprising Guillermo del Toro hasn’t made an animated film until now. As a director with a deep love of horror and fantasy, animation allows for boundless imagination without the limitations of practical effects. Never one to shy away from the darkness at the heart of the fantastical, Del Toro uses this opportunity to flesh out the classic Pinocchio fairytale beyond the family-friendly packaging of its Disney counterpart. And yet, for all its stunning stop-motion artistry and more adult themes, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is never able to fully free itself from Disney’s shadow, succumbing to tonal inconsistencies as it tries to walk the line between family-friendly entertainment and the director’s more hard-hitting dark fantasy works.

Before we meet our titular wooden boy we are introduced to his human predecessor Carlo (Gregory Mann, who also voices Pinocchio), who lives with his father Geppetto (David Bradley) in an idyllic Italian mountain town during WWI. When Carlo is killed in an act of careless brutality that so defined that war, Geppetto falls into despair for decades until WWII. Eventually a blue “wood sprite” (Tilda Swinton) brings one of Geppetto’s wooden puppets to life to replace his son, and charges the cricket Sebastian (Ewan McGregor) with keeping him on the path of goodness. But the newborn Pinocchio, who knows nothing of social rules and decorum, is selfish and naïve, wreaking havoc in the town. This is especially problematic now that the community is overseen by fascist enforcer Podesta (Ron Perlman), who expects children to be model avatars of the state. When Geppetto accuses Pinocchio of being a burden, the boy runs away to join the circus act of unscrupulous Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), intending to send money back home to his father and ease the burden he has caused.

In an impressive cast of traditionally live-action actors, only McGregor rises to the occasion with his voice work as haughty raconteur Sebastian J. Cricket (the meaning of the “J” is between Del Toro and Disney’s lawyers). It’s delightful watching the actor cut loose after a long stint in dour, serious roles by really leaning into the slapstick elements of the character. A running gag where Sebastian gets repeatedly squashed, going full Jonathan Harris with his cries of “oh, the pain!”, are some of the film’s most reliable comic beats. 

The rest of the voice cast, which also includes John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, and Tim Blake Nelson, are underwhelming and rarely do justice to the quality of the animation their voices are supplementing. So often when watching animated features these days I’m left wondering how much more a cast of professional voice actors would bring to a project that marketing-friendly celebs rarely do. Only Swinton in the dual role as the wood sprite and sphinx-like Death really works because, c’mon, who else are you going to cast as an ethereal creature of mystic power? A mostly dialogue-free turn from Cate Blanchett as mischievous monkey Spazzatura (SpazzaTÁRa?) is more enjoyable for its easter-egg quality than simian simulacrum.

Only when watching the breathtaking animation coordinated by stop-motion veteran and co-director Mark Gustafson do you fully realize the tragedy that Pinocchio will only have a limited theatrical release. There is intricacy and craftsmanship on display here that truly requires a big screen to appreciate. Every facial crevice, freckle, and ripple in Geppetto’s beard is a work of art. The massive leviathan creature who swallows ships whole is presented as a kind of murderous iceburg, only a small portion above the water hinting at the terrifying, leathery mass beneath. Smaller touches, such as backgrounds that look like hand-drawn matte paintings, further reinforce the painstaking craftsmanship at work here. This is a film made with skill and passion by flesh-and-blood humans, and their fingerprints can almost literally be seen in each frame. 

The film’s reliably enchanting visuals are at odds with its tonal inconsistencies, however. Del Toro’s signature fairytale nightmare style is most apparent when the film leans into its criticism of Italian fascism. In place of the bacchanalian Pleasure Island in the Disney version is a fascist boy’s training camp where Pinocchio is sent to become a perfect soldier. These scenes — the ones that aren’t afraid to get really grim — are the film’s most effective. This more somber, fantastical tone works best with the stop-motion animation style, a medium that has always leant itself to more baroque subject matter.

So it’s jarring when the film leaves this darker tone to indulge in moments of cartoonish Tex Avery-style slapstick. Not only does it feel out of place in such a weighty story, the animation simply can’t move with the kind of speed and fluidity required to sell that flavor of gag. Nor can it sell itself as a lighthearted Disney-esque musical with its handful of cute but undercooked songs that all but disappear in the second half of the film. All of these attempts at a more mainstream, family-friendly tone merely sand down the edges of what could have been a far more hard-hitting film. 

Rating

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This review was made possible by donations to the Fall Movie Fundraiser for Indigenous Abortion Access. Missed your chance to donate? You still can!


Kristen Grote is a freelance film and culture critic. Follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd.