Between 1911 and 2022, there have been 22 adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” Four of them were released between 2019 and 2022, and five, if you see Marta from “Knives Out” as a contemporary take on the character of Pinocchio. However, the Italian adaptation by Matteo Garrone, the Russian one (which was made famous due to its English dub featuring Pauly Shore), and the American one by Robert Zemeckis are fine, bad, and downright garbage, respectively. That was the case because none of them even tried to do anything new with the popular fantasy tale and sugar-coated some of the darker undertones in the original text. So, by the time “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” rolled in, feeling a sense of fatigue was predictable. But throughout its festival runs and limited theatrical releases, the film has received nothing but praise. And I am here to add to it because directors del Toro and Mark Gustafson have truly made an all-timer.
Based on the screenplay by del Toro and Patrick McHale and the story by del Toro and Matthew Robbins, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” takes place in 1930s fascist Italy. It starts off with Master Geppetto (David Bradley) and his son Carlo (Gregory Mann) living out their days as peacefully as they can during wartime. But when aviators casually drop a bomb in their city, Geppetto’s life turns into a nightmare as he resorts to alcohol to cope with the death of Carlos. Years later, Cricket (Ewan McGregor) enters the story and settles into the pine tree that’s planted near Carlos’s grave. However, that tree is uprooted by a drunk Geppetto and turned into a wooden doll of sorts. While Geppetto goes to sleep, the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) appears and instills life into the doll, naming it Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann) and giving Cricket the responsibility to be its consciousness since he has already made his home in Pinocchio’s heart (chest). And when the sun rises on Geppetto and Pinocchio, they commence a journey filled with horror, beauty, and more.
From the outset, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” makes it clear that fascism and Benito Mussolini aren’t going to be background elements. The propaganda is on the streets via aggressive posters, and propagators of said propaganda are everywhere, especially in the church. They are out there proudly overlooking poverty and Roman saluting their way through every conversation because as long as the dictator is prospering, everything else can go to hell. But that’s not where del Toro, Gustafson, McHale, and Robbins stop with their take on the classic fairytale. They go a step further by commenting on how children and entertainment can be turned into effective tools of fascism. They show us that the conversion process can be smoother if artists and ordinary citizens prioritize validation from dictators and their minions over their basic needs and rights. And, like every good movie out there, the writers highlight the importance of education, democracy, integrity, camaraderie, ethics, mortality, and selflessness as the means to counter fascism. If that doesn’t make this the greatest Pinocchio adaptation, I don’t know what will.
Well, to be honest, I do know what makes this the greatest Pinocchio adaptation. Spoiler alert: It’s the animation. Yes, the 1940 Disney film is considered a classic. But that doesn’t mean it has to remain so till the end of time. At least in my case, if real-world fascism doesn’t make this world implode, I’ll be showing “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” to future generations for its relevance, its handcrafted nature, and its overall balance of whimsy and realism. As mentioned before, the subtext is brought to the fore with the attention-to-detail in terms of the production design, cinematography, editing, art direction, set decoration, puppet art, and, well, everything that you’re taking in visually. The frames all around Italy and those in the afterlife are beyond stunning. Sound design plays a major role in making every single scene seem so full of life. The score by Alexandre Desplat is magnificent. The character designs look like they’ve jumped out of old books while having a uniqueness of their own, which eventually makes them so memorable. And the way del Toro and Gustafson orchestrate all these elements is nothing short of masterful.
The cast of “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is evidently stacked. Cate Blanchett as Spazzatura, Burn Gorman as the Priest, John Turturro as the doctor, and Tim Blake Nelson as the Black Rabbits who work for Death don’t get a lot of screen time or voice acting time to leave an impression. While Gorman, Turturro, and Nelson are recognizable, Blanchett isn’t. So, even though I love all four of them, I am guessing that casting them is kind of a fun gimmick. Finn Wolfhard, as Candlewick, is as amazing as he always is in everything that he has done career-wise in such a short span of time. Ron Perlman, as the Podestà, brings all the authoritarian gravitas that he can muster to give us a truly nightmarish villain. Tilda Swinton as the Wood Sprite and Death is hypnotic and soothing, thereby channeling her characters’ nightmarish and eye-filled designs. Christoph Waltz as Count Volpe is magnetic, seedy, and oddly charming. But this movie truly belongs to McGregor, Bradley, and Mann, as they absolutely break, mend, and steal your hearts with their performances. Mann deserves an extra round of applause because this is his third acting role, and he’s working with literal acting veterans and still holding his own!
In conclusion, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is one of the best films of the year and one of the best movies of all time. It’s pretty cliche to term any piece of art that echoes anything that’s happening during the time of its release “relevant,” “important,” or “timely.” But del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s film is all that and more because it is coming out during a time when propaganda films and shows are being made in copious amounts from almost every country that’s being run by a fascist regime. If you are failing to identify which films and shows are doing propaganda for their respective countries, then you must understand that the storytelling and production values have become sleek enough to sneak under the radar and garner mainstream attention. As for using kids for propaganda, well, you’ll see only a handful of international leaders propping up children with zero political acumen to further their nefarious agendas. And it’s evidently vile and disgusting. So, an eye-opener that can reach the masses is necessary. In my opinion, this new take on Pinocchio can serve that purpose while also being a damn good viewing experience.