Film Review – Pinocchio (2019)

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It’s one of the fairy stories we all think we know, the story of a little boy carved out of wood whose nose grows to outlandish lengths when he tells lies.  That image comes courtesy of Walt Disney’s 1940 animation, one that’s lingered despite subsequent film versions.  The latest live action interpretation of Pinocchio, from director Matteo Garrone, goes back to the story’s Italian roots and comes with some surprises, especially for those wedded to the Disney version.

Woodworker Geppetto (Robert Benigni) is struggling to make a living in a rural town when he visits a travelling puppet show and decides to carve one of his own.  To his delight, the puppet, Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi), comes to life, giving him the son he’s always longed for.  That delight is short lived because the wooden boy is innocent and impulsive, refusing to listen to advice and falling prey to swindlers.  Yet, at heart, he has a good nature, which means he survives a series of adventures, learns some hard lessons and eventually finds his way back to his father again.

Threatening, sinister, brutal and grotesque, fairy stories have never lost their appeal for children and families as a whole and that’s the audience Garrone has in mind.  But he’s stayed a lot closer to the original Collodi story from the 1880s, the one that has the boy brutally hanged from a tree while a couple of swindlers steal his money.  It makes the fable feel like a family version of the director’s previous, more adult-orientated big screen fairy story, Tale Of Tales (2016) and visually it follows the same spectacular style.  CGI is almost totally eschewed in favour of prosthetics and make up, to extraordinary effect.  Pinocchio’s wooden face is a cosmetic creation, one that meant hours in the make-up chair (watch our interview with director Matteo Garrone for more) for the young Ielapi, while a matronly servant who takes on the shape of a snail is truly breathtaking.

As a vision of the story, the film sees Garrone back on the territory where he’s clearly the most comfortable, creating a striking, vibrantly coloured fantasy, but one shot through with a dark side, full of the complexities and frailties of human nature.  And, as in Tale Of Tales, he tells the story in English.  While Pinocchio was originally filmed in Italian, he’s opted to have it dubbed by Italian actors speaking English and, while there may be a practical rationale, it still retains the inevitable mis-match between what we hear and what we see, harking back to those imported children’s TV series of the 60s with their uncomfortable dubbing.  While the voices reinforce the Italian flavour of the story, they also rob the film of some of its magic and it can’t be replaced.

There’s yet another version of Pinocchio on its way, due next year, an animation from Guillermo del Toro.  He promises a darker version, although it’ll be interesting to see how that works out, given the overall tone of Garrone’s offering.  By staying closer to the original story, one he’s loved from childhood, he’s given us something opulent and fantastical, but blended with harshness and a certain cruelty.  It’s not always a comfortable combination, but it makes for fascinating cinema.


Fantasy, Fairy tale, Family | Cert: PG | Vertigo Releasing | 14 August 2020 | Dir. Matteo Garrone | Roberto Benigni, Federico Ielapi, Marine Vacth, Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini .

Watch the interview with Pinocchio director, Matteo Garrone, here.