Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Pinocchio is an incredibly charming lark from Guillermo del Toro


What can you do to make Pinocchio seem new again?

It's a question director Robert Zemeckis couldn't figure out a good answer for in Disney's live-action Pinocchio remake from a few months back. Roberto Benigni's attempt to inhabit the role of Pinocchio in the early 2000s was a misguided folly. Aside from launching an amusing internet meme, modern takes on this wooden boy don't offer much. One might understandably wonder if there's no fuel left in the Pinocchio movie tank, but any old story can feel fresh and new if given the right execution. Just look at how Greta Gerwig injected so much life and vibrancy into Little Women just three years ago. Leave it to Guillermo del Toro to prove that not all 21st-century Pinocchio films are doomed with his stop-motion animated take on this material. Simply titled Pinocchio, this feature is an absolute delight that truly makes one feel like they're discovering the story of this puppet come to life for the very first time.

Many positive reviews of animated features aimed at youngsters emphasize how good it is that these films can also resonate so deeply with adults. With Pinocchio, I was struck by a sense of joy for the kids who end up watching it. How wonderful that they'll get to grow up with a movie that doesn't talk down to them and confronts elements that do play into the lives of adolescents, such as religion, war, or death. Here we have a feature that doesn't just tell kids to be themselves but to always challenge authority. Best of all, it's a telling of Pinocchio that doesn't feel beholden to the past. Pinocchio isn't obsessed with referencing pop culture entities from my childhood, it's here to tell a standalone yarn that can belong to a new generation. What a gift to the youngsters of 2022 and beyond.

Of course, Pinocchio isn't made just for kids in mind. Directors del Toro and Mark Gustafson (not to mention co-screenwriter Patrick McHale) seem to have made this movie primarily for themselves above all else. This is especially reflected in how del Toro has maintained all his primary thematic motifs even when making something that's rated PG, namely a distrustful attitude toward religion, a despisement of social conformity, children navigating an overwhelming world of devious adults, and, of course, an adoration for weird fantasy creatures. Even the use of celebrity voice-overs, a common staple of American animated family movies, reflects more of del Toro's interests than what a focus group might want. 

Many of the folks assembled here are either actors from prior del Toro works or people (like Tilda Swinton) that you can't believe haven't worked with the filmmaker before. It's a superbly-arranged voice cast, with Ewan McGregor being an especially fun choice for Sebastian J. Cricket. His pipes are perfect for providing both some fatherly advice and extremely soothing bursts of narration. It's also quite fun how some of the casting choices seem to have a subversive edge. The casting of Cate Blanchett (who previously appeared in del Toro's Nightmare Alley) as a monkey who almost exclusively communicates in basic primate noises almost feels like a joke making fun of rampant celebrity voice-casting in movies like Sing or the Ice Age sequels. Whether or not that underlying commentary is intentional, putting Blanchett in this kind of role reflects the unique creative impulses at play in this version of Pinocchio.

Of course, what really makes this animated musical sing (no pun intended) is the visuals. Stop-motion animation is always such an impressive medium, all the effort and time that goes into every frame is palpable. The warped and freaky visual sensibilities of del Toro are a great fit for this style of animation, with the instantly tactile nature of stop-motion lending incredibly believable textures and weight to every one of the freaky creatures that populate this story. It's also a nice touch that the animation isn't striving for realism, as seen by how bursts of fire are rendered on-screen, for instance. Pinocchio leans into the innate unreality of stop-motion animation and is all the stronger for it. Simply put, it all looks fantastic and wonderful. If you wanted to just mute the dialogue, you could still have an incredible experience watching Pinocchio just absorbing all the richly-detailed backgrounds and amusing character designs. 

Pinocchio is a tremendous treat and, even better, it doesn't just represent the creative sensibilities of del Toro. Patrick McHale, who co-wrote the film's songs, channels amusing ditties like "Potatoes and Molasses" from his unforgettable miniseries Under the Garden Wall in penning the intentionally simplistic but endlessly charming tunes that populate this story.  Merging that kind of wit with del Toro's empathy for outsiders and an avalanche of glorious stop-motion you need a roadmap to figure out Pinocchio is something special? A shame Netflix won't be putting this out on the big screen in a more prominent capacity (though at least they ensured this long-in-development feature existed) considering just how stunning this movie looks in a theater. Experiencing Pinocchio in such an environment really makes you appreciate its countless charms.

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