Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio has been in the works for so long that I can barely fathom its release is finally imminent. Containing all the stunning beauty that only stop-motion animation can bring, this version of Pinocchio is dark, disturbing, and deeply moving. I have not felt this strongly amount a stop-motion movie since the very first time I watched Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas. Forget everything you think you know— this is more Pan’s Labyrinth than cutesy Disney. Despite having dozens of cinematic interpretations at this point, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is officially my favorite existing cinematic depiction of the wooden puppet tale.
Geppetto is a man deep in the throes of sorrow, mourning the loss of his ten-year-old son Carlo during the rule of Mussolini and the Fascist Party. Carlo is named as such surely in reference to the author of the original text on which all Pinocchio lore has been based, Carlo Collodi. Tragically, the story opens as Geppetto dusts off snow from Carlo’s gravestone, already showcasing the stunning attention to detail and imperfections that come with stop-motion. We dive headfirst into Geppetto’s story, watching with baited breath as he raises Carlo to be a wonderful, curious boy always filled with a sense of adventure. As the two hunt for “the perfect pinecone,” one that lacks imperfections and flaws, they also work on a project together to restore the altar at the town church. Tragically, an explosion claims little Carlo’s life, and leaves a devastated, drunken Geppetto behind. Sebastian J. Cricket recounts Geppetto’s story, musing that “the world moved on, but Geppetto did not.”
Enter: Sebastian J. Cricket, a budding cricket author sporting a wizened mustache, on the hunt for a place to settle in to pen his memoirs. One would assume the “J” stands for Jiminy, although that is never explicitly stated. He takes root in a “cursed pine”, his new sanctuary. Unfortunately, this tree overlooks Carlo’s grave. In a raving bout of grief, Geppetto violently chops down the pine tree to create a puppet in Carlo’s image. The passionate cricket narrates, a commonality in many Pinocchio adaptations to be sure, and yet here he brings a level of personality and unabashed charm to the role. As voiced by enthusiastic Ewan McGregor, Sebastian is one of my favorite characters in the film.
Pinocchio has a signature look to him, but mainly he actually looks made out of wood. He only has one ear and no trousers, with weirdly expressive eyes and a sharp-pointed nose. A bit of fairy-tale magic injects the wood with a soul; this movie’s take on the Blue Fairy is almost sphinx-like, and other spirits are represented as floating, glowing eyeballs. Tasked with “bringing joy to this heartbroken man,” Pinocchio must learn to love and obey Geppetto; Sebastian is assigned to help keep Pinocchio on the straight and narrow path to success. Once Pinocchio comes to life, he may not be the type of lad that people will be expecting. He is curious, childlike, and acts like a newborn. In fact, every single thing and experience is new to Pinocchio, and he’s not afraid to sing about it. Yes, this Pinocchio is also a musical, but there is nary a “Wish Upon a Star” found here. The tunes go deep into character and emotion. Pinocchio sings about the love he has for his father, tempted by the idea of being a star.
Sebastian maintains a particularly hilarious amount of bodily harm during his time trying to aide Pinocchio, and with each splat and smush of his little body, he slowly wins over the audience. It is clear he has a lot of love for Pinocchio, even as he continues to make questionable decisions. Branches grow out of Pinocchio’s nose when he lies, and must be either snapped off or shaved down by Geppetto. Their relationship is even more paramount than the one Pinocchio shares with Sebastian—in fact, it’s the film’s lifeblood. Pinocchio’s status as a living puppet is news broken to most of the town quite early on. In this way, screenwriters del Toro, Patrick McHale, and Matthew Robbins carve a path ahead for complicated questions, weaving in echoes of Frankenstein and Edward Scissorhands. What does it mean to be a burden, or to be so different from everyone else that they are scared of your potential, or want to use it for military purposes? It’s enough to drive one mad.
Designs for various characters are completely unique, and signify del Toro’s mark on the lore at large. The Blue Fairy is mesmerizing, and villainous Count Volpe is a hook-nosed circus ringmaster of horrors. Monkey Spazzatura and even Monstro are eye-popping. I hated Spazzatura at first, but walked away loving her. Our core Pinocchio, Geppetto, and Sebastian J. Cricket are lovable indeed, and their movements feel fluid, brimming with personality. In the hilarious first scene where Pinocchio comes to life, he twists and jerks his body around eerily, evoking the titular baddie of Mama. Their voice actors too do a magnificent job at forming their characters into complex individuals with clear points of view.
Del Toro co-directs with Claymation legend Mark Gustafson, of Fantastic Mr. Fox, Return to Oz, and The PJs, resulting in a captivating visual style. Perhaps most intriguing of all is the approach to death itself—as Pinocchio is an omniscient puppet, he cannot die and cross over like other mortals. Rather, he must converge at a waiting room containing skeletal bunnies and celestial horrors until he can return to the comfort of his body and essentially be “reborn” numerous times over. The visualization of this strange place is Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio in experimental mode, and it just plain works.
Pinocchio has always been a dark fable, and del Toro’s version functions on this level as well. I personally loved Sebastian’s various life advice and mottos—“I’ll try my best, and that’s the best anyone can do” is quite the mantra. As morbid as it may sound, my life has been changed completely by the untimely death of my mother in recent years to pancreatic cancer. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio insists in the grimmest of ways that every life will have an ending to it. Often being unexpected, one can never plan for the exact time of their death, but can conversely simply do their best at trying to live life. This Pinocchio goes to the darkest depths of our existence, and places emphasis on living life to the fullest and leaving a legacy. Both are key, and these facets especially will speak most directly to anyone who has lost a loved one recently. The movie’s closing words feel written from the heart, and are a good way to close out this review: “What happens happens, and then we are gone.” Whatever the case, del Toro’s passion project is definitely a veritable feast for the senses.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio opens his eyes for the very first time, in limited release theaters now, and exclusively to Netflix on Friday, December 9th.