In “Look Both Ways,” when Jake (David Corenswet) talks to animator Natalie (Lili Reinhart) about live-action/CGI remakes of animated classics, she says that the whole concept is disrespectful. It is as if the makers of the live-action adaptations are saying that CGI realism can capture the magic of the story in a way that meticulously hand-drawn animation can’t. In doing so, they put themselves in a spot because they are essentially trying to describe a dream, but without any of the visual flourishes. This sentiment has now been iterated and re-iterated for as long as live-action remakes of animated films have existed. Yet here we are with another Disney live-action/CGI remake, which joins the likes of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Maleficent,” “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Christopher Robin,” “Dumbo,” “Aladdin,” “The Lion King,” “Mulan,” and “Cruella.” Yes, I am talking about “Pinocchio”.
The live-action/CGI adaptation of Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film of the same name (which is based on the 1883 Italian book “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi) is directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis, along with co-writer Chris Weitz. The story starts with Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) trying to save himself from the cold. He finds Geppetto’s (Tom Hanks) shop and seeks refuge there. That’s where he finds out that Geppetto, a woodcarver, and toymaker who lives with his cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo, is working on a puppet that resembles his long-lost son. He puts the finishing touches on it and names it Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). While going to sleep, Geppetto sees a wishing star and makes a wish. Based on that, the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) arrives and brings Pinocchio to life. She says that if he proves himself brave, truthful, and unselfish, he’ll fulfill his dream of being “a real boy.”
For some reason, it has become customary for these remakes to insert new characters and weird plot beats, thereby messing with the weight of some of the central characters. “Pinocchio” has the titular doll, Jiminy, Geppetto, Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), Gideon, Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd), and The Coachman (Luke Evans). But then there’s Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), along with her marionette, Sabina, and the friendly seagull, Sofia (Lorraine Bracco), who are there just to pad the runtime. Additionally, Zemeckis and Weitz decide to separate Jiminy from Pinocchio for long periods of time, which reduces the number of interactions between them and damages their dynamic. The Blue Fairy appears only once, and, unlike the previous version, she doesn’t get to check on how Pinocchio is using the powers gifted by her. And Honest John doesn’t poach Pinocchio away to The Coachman, which makes him look like a one-off thug. All this for what? To build a half-baked platonic romance between Pinocchio and Fabiana/Sabina.
That brings up the topic of the purpose behind producing these remakes. Is this some kind of money laundering scam? Has Disney rushed to make a Pinocchio movie because Guillermo del Toro is making one, and they know it’s going to be better? Has Disney run out of original ideas? Even if that’s the case, why do they need to worry? They own Marvel and Star Wars, i.e., two of the most popular franchises in the whole wide world right now. So, why do they have to go back and remake certified classics? If anyone says that “Pinocchio,” or any of the live-action remakes for that matter, are passion projects of their respective directors, I will be the last person to believe that. Because where is the passion? Zemeckis is the man behind “Romancing the Stone,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” the “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Death Becomes Her,” “Forrest Gump,” “Contact,” “What Lies Beneath,” “Cast Away,” “The Polar Express.” So, what happened here?
Yes, Zemeckis hit some kind of a slump after “Beowulf.” But even then, he has given us “Flight” and “The Walk.” And I think it’s wrong to say that he isn’t the right person to mix motion-capture or CGI with live-action because, as mentioned before, this is the man behind some of the most defining leaps in VFX and CGI in cinema. So, credit where credit is due, the CGI in “Pinocchio” is impeccable. There are moments where the eyelines between the live-action actor and the CGI character don’t match, or the CGI double seems out of place, or some of the objects feel weightless. But the positives outweigh the negatives by a mile in that department. That said, visually speaking, Zemeckis’s direction is devoid of any flair. Despite having Don Burgess as the cinematographer and Mick Audsley and Jesse Goldsmith as the editors, he fails to make a single moment or frame stand out. Everything feels too safe, too meek, and too bland.
The one thing that could’ve made “Pinocchio” a tiny bit bearable is the ensemble cast. But they are horrible. I don’t want to mince words here because this is a talented group of actors. And it’s infuriating to see what they’ve been reduced to. Hanks has no screen presence whatsoever, and every time he screams “Pinocchio,” he makes you cringe. Gordon-Levitt is trying too hard to sound like Cliff Edwards (the voice of Jiminy Cricket from the 1940 film), and it’s annoying enough to not want him as Pinocchio’s or anyone else’s conscience. At one point in the film, Keegan-Michael Key gets to make a Chris Pine joke, which is probably a reference to his role in “Into the Woods.” That’s the only good part about his portrayal of Honest John. Luke Evans is certainly committed to his bit. The less I say about Lamaya, Ainsworth, and Lloyd, the better. Cynthia Erivo, Angus Wright, Sheila Atim, and Jamie Demetriou’s presence in the film is a joke.
In conclusion, all I want to say is that there’s no good reason to watch “Pinocchio.” So, instead of wasting your time on this, go and watch the animated film by Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske, Norman Ferguson, T. Hee, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, and Bill Roberts. If you are feeling a little experimental, you can check out Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio.” It features Roberto Benigni, who directed and starred in the 2002 film of the same name. That received mixed reviews. But, hey, you can give it a go. Finally, if you are a patient person, wait for Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” which is not only stop-motion animated (thereby respecting the medium of animation) but also set in 1930s Fascist Italy. Or go build your own wooden doll. Even that will be more productive than watching this Robert Zemeckis directorial.