As we lurch through the rollercoaster that is 2022, the fact that it’s also the Year Of Two Pinocchios might sound comparatively minor. But, in a cinematic context, the might of Disney and Netflix going head to head over one particular fairy tale isn’t insignificant – especially when one is spectacularly better than the other.
Only a month ago, Disney launched their latest live action remake of a cartoon classic, this time re-telling the story of the wooden puppet who wanted to be a boy. Robert Zemeckis was at the helm, the film went straight to Disney+ and its general reception was lacklustre. Now we have the story according to Guillermo del Toro, which had its world premiere at the London Film Festival and lands at Netflix in early December. And the two versions are so radically different that comparisons are spurious. The essential tale remains the same: woodworker Geppetto has mourned the loss of his young son for years but, when he creates a wooden puppet, it’s brought to life by the magic of the Blue Fairy. Called Pinocchio, he’s headstrong but naïve, easily influenced by people who want to exploit him and, despite the efforts of a cricket to keep him on the straight and narrow, runs away to the circus. And Geppetto sets out on a quest to bring him home.
We’re more than familiar with special effects and CGI in del Toro’s previous works, but he’s chosen a new vehicle for his vividly imaginative form of storytelling. Stop motion animation. Don’t think Aardman and their claymation, though. This is altogether something else, drawing heavily on the illustrations of Gris Grimly in the 2002 edition of the original Carlo Collodi story. The director had wanted to make a darker version of the fairy tale for around ten years and the result captures all the individuality of Grimly’s artistry, combining it with more than a touch of the grotesque as well as del Toro’s own trademark style and a tone that’s decidedly on the dark side. That it’s a passion project is very clear: a staggering attention to detail has been lavished on the film – Pinocchio’s (voiced by newcomer Gregory Mann) angular elbows and knees squeak when he walks, while Geppetto’s (the voice of David Bradley) thinning hair flops as his head moves. There are other inspirations too, most notably in the design of the Blue Fairy and her sister (both voiced by Tilda Swinton) which has Ray Harryhausen’s name all over it.
It’s a story rich in themes, with the relationship between father and son at the top of the pile, as the wooden Pinocchio yearns to be human and a true son to his adopted father. It’s complemented by a recurring parallel between the wooden boy and the crucifix in the town church and del Toro’s wrapped it up in a political setting – 1930s Italy, ruled by Mussolini’s fascists – which raises questions about loyalty, patriotism and, most importantly for Pinocchio, the difference between truth and lies. Most of the characters remain the same, although the Italian background introduces a local Podesta (political leader) voiced by Ron Perlman and the villain of the piece has changed from the foxy Honest John to something more demonic in the shape of Volpe (the voice of Christoph Waltz). While they’re all effective, easily the best piece of voice casting is that of Ewan McGregor as the pompous Sebastian J Cricket, who is charged with being Pinocchio’s conscience and resides inside the puppet’s torso. The warmth of his voice gives the puffed up would-be writer real heart, as well as some hugely endearing moments of comedy.
Del Toro has achieved the near impossible – taking an almost over-familiar story, placing it in a different world and giving it a whole new style of magic, one that can’t help but give you a lump in the throat. This is how it’s done. And you won’t see anything else like it.
Animation, Fantasy | Cert: 12A | London Film Festival, 15 and 16 October 2022 | Netflix from 9 December. Cinemas tbc. | Dirs. Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson | The voices of Ewan McGregor, Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Tilda Swinton, Ron Perlman and Christoph Waltz.