Sussing out the intended audience for a Guillermo del Toro film can be challenging. Other than “Shape of Water,” which was clearly targeted at people who get sexually aroused every time they drive by a Long John Silver’s. GDT’s “Pinocchio” has 100% less merman fetishism but still can’t possibly be for literal children. Can it? Are kids these days really into mocking Mussolini and heavy-handed religious iconography? Is that what they’re doing on their TikToks?
As a template, the story of Pinocchio is splintery, flimsy, and wooden. Every incarnation features a sad old carpenter, Geppetto (David Bradley), who carves the titular puppet son (Gregory Mann). There’s typically a cricket (Ewan McGregor), a whale, and some kind of fairy/spirit/goddess. This is GDT, so of course the fairy/spirit/goddess is voiced by Tilda Swinton and looks like a biblically accurate angel had a baby with a Sphinx. The crux of Pine Boy’s journey is also always the same: He fights with his pops, gets wrapped up in a sinister sideshow led by a baddie (Christoph Waltz), and faceplants into mortality.
That’s the boilerplate, the lines that must be colored inside. The embellishments are what either shoot the story into the sky like a nose fueled by fibs or drown things inside a whale’s tum tum. GDT’s wrinkles are pretty gnarly. Geppetto loses his son in WWII. Pinocchio dies like a bunch of times and keeps playing a weird game of “resurrection bingo” with Swinton’s angel-sphinx. There’s a song about Mussolini that involves copious use of the words “poop” and “fart.” Crucifixion is a recurring theme. Whether it is “good” or “successful” entirely depends on what the intention was here. And that is a bigger mystery than why some animals in the movie get to talk but others don’t.
Unquestionably, the stop-motion animation is divine. The painstaking art form is always the good kind of haunting. Beyond that, making a definitive judgment is challenging. The biblical contemplations and refutations of fascist ideology are absolutely not going to land with the same kids who are being targeted by the film’s songs, all of which feature repetitive, pre-K lyrics. And yet, unlike “Pan’s Labyrinth,” this isn’t a movie targeting adults while featuring children so much as it is targeting children while featuring troubling adult themes. Imagining either group wanting to watch this more than once is about as laughable as a song about Mussolini that involves copious use of the words “poop” and “fart.” A+ song there, if it’s not clear.
Your mileage on this one will likely depend on whether you think baseline Pinocchio-related material is inherently magical or not. Other than Spielberg’s “A.I.,” the fairy tale has never felt particularly resonant. The Disney version likely dosed kids in the 1940s with nightmare fuel about growing a tail but only really stuck in popular culture with Jiminy Cricket. Famously, ever since, we have all always listened to our consciences. Anyway, this one is as advertised: A retelling of a fairly inert fable infused with all the good, bad, and gothically macabre of GDT, intended for kids but not really. Is that what somebody out there was looking to watch?
Grade = B-
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Eileen Jones at The Jacobin says “He makes a sickening stew of ingredients that don’t go well together. Some harsh Collodi elements, plus del Toro’s own preoccupation with the cruel intertwining of traditional Catholicism, Fascism, and dysfunctional family structures, are put in queasy-making combination with gooey sentimentality that even Walt Disney at his sappiest might’ve considered excessive.”
K. Austin Collins at Rolling Stone says “The visual details overwhelm the movie’s flaws. The gunky innards of the dogfish, the chimera-like Death’s crystal-sharp features, the painstaking texture of a mere pine cone — this is the stuff that makes Pinocchio sing. The story’s detours don’t entirely pan out. If you’re watching the movie for its vision, you won’t need them to.”
Kambole Campbell at Little White Lies says “By changing the cautionary tale to be against assimilation and categorisation, plus its invigorating update of traditional technique, the film carves out a space not just as the best Pinocchio film of this year, but among the finest films the director has made.”