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Journalism of Courage

Pinocchio movie review: Guillermo del Toro’s gorgeous Netflix film is a fantastic and frightening takedown of fascism

Rating: 4 out of 5

Pinocchio movie review: Directors Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson's stop-motion adaptation of the classic children's novel retains the story's core, but presents it in a wholly original light.

pinocchio movie reviewA still from Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. (Photo: Netflix)
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The paint hasn’t yet dried on director Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio, and another Oscar-winner — the Mexican maestro Guillermo del Toro — has released his adaptation of Carlo Collidi’s seminal children’s novel already. Co-directed by Mark Gustafson, the film is a wholly original re-imagination of a story that has, despite (or maybe because of) its overwhelmingly melancholic nature, remained relevant across generations. That, and how malleable the story is for any filmmaker to come along and mold it into whatever they want it to be.

As synonymous as he has now become for his warm-hearted affection for outcasts, there was a time when he’d make movies about children against the backdrop of war. While Zemeckis’ recent film — a remake — remained faithful to the original Disney classic in its by-the-numbers telling of a familiar cautionary tale, del Toro’s version is more reminiscent of his early movies.

Pinocchio serves as a conclusion to a spiritually connected trilogy that del Toro began with The Devil’s Backbone in 2001 and continued with Pan’s Labyrinth in 2006. Each of these movies owes a creative debt to director Victor Erice’s classic of Spanish cinema, The Spirit of the Beehive — a massively political film that the filmmaker snuck under Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime by employing symbolism and metaphor. The story dealt with a young child’s obsession with the American film Frankenstein, which is important here, because del Toro’s grand ‘take’ on Pinocchio is to reimagine the character as a version of Frankenstein’s monster.

In his film, the creation of Pinocchio isn’t a magical moment of artistic expression, but almost a lab experiment gone wrong. “It’s a house of horrors,” exclaims Sebastian J Cricket, who serves as the narrator of the story. Later, when Pinocchio disobeys his ‘father’ Geppetto’s instructions and shows up at church, the devotees shriek and shout, calling him an ‘abomination’ and a ‘demon’. The tone is slightly sinister, and somewhat symmetrical with the material, which has for so long been misclassified as a kids’ fable.

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It shows just how differently the same story can be interpreted by different directors. This thought experiment also extends to adaptations by Matteo Garrone and Roberto Benigni. This difference in interpretations extends also to the performances. Pinocchio’s Cricket conscience in this film isn’t the carnival barker that he was as portrayed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Zemeckis’ movie, but a Paul Theroux-style writer immersed in writing his memoirs after adventuring across the world.

And unlike the Zemeckis film — or any other version of Pinocchio that you might have seen over the years, really — del Toro’s gorgeous adaptation grapples with the source material’s dark themes of obedience and ostracisation, fatherhood and fascism in a more forthright manner. For instance, Geppetto’s grief at losing his son isn’t merely implied but shown on screen with unflinching clarity. In this film, Geppetto is indistinguishable from the town drunk, wasting away his remaining years pining for his lost son even after his wooden creation comes to life.

There’s something inherently macabre about stop-motion animation, which lends itself beautifully to del Toro’s filmmaking aesthetic — both the underlying sadness of his stories and his flamboyant creature designs. His personification of Death, for instance, moves and sounds like something that only he could have created. And then there are the film’s political overtones, because what are people living under an authoritarian regime if not puppets themselves, being controlled by invisible strings? Del Toro’s Pinocchio isn’t the first animated movie to tackle fascism; heck, it isn’t even the first stop-motion movie to tackle fascism, but it’s certainly the best.


Directors – Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Cast – Gregory Mann, David Bradley, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Ron Perlman, Tilda Swinton
Rating – 4/5

First published on: 09-12-2022 at 16:30 IST
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