At the close of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio,” Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor, “Moulin Rouge!”) leaves audiences with one final truism: “What happens, happens.”
It’s a simple summation for a complicated film. Adapted directly from the original 1883 text “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” del Toro’s retelling is vastly different from the Disney-ified version familiar to most audiences.
This new “Pinocchio” is decidedly a war film, playing out in the heart of Mussolini’s Italy. Geppetto (David Bradley, “The Strain”) is an honest woodworker living in a small town with his good-natured son Carlo (Alfie Tempest, “Bodies”). It’s a peaceful existence until bomber planes begin flying overhead. When a stray bomb kills Carlo, Geppetto’s bucolic life is shattered. It’s the first in a series of violent diversions that set del Toro’s “Pinocchio” apart from previous adaptations.
Following the loss of Carlo, Gepetto drinks himself into a stupor and prays to the heavens for another son. The heavens, as it turns out, are listening. A mysterious and fantastical wood sprite (Tilda Swinton, “Suspiria”) hears Gepetto’s prayers and breathes life into one of his rudimentary wooden carvings. This is Pinocchio (Gregory Mann, “Victoria”): an unpainted, half-built puppet whose temperament is as imperfect as his exterior.
While the traditional Pinocchio story focuses on the puppet becoming a “real boy” in terms of flesh and blood, del Toro pulls at a much deeper conflict. In this film, what Pinocchio needs is a sense of humanity. Empathy and decency is something learnable, regardless of a traditional human body; learning to be kind and thoughtful is what will make Pinocchio a “real boy.” At the beginning of the film, he’s still got a long way to go.
Soon after Pinocchio is first brought to life, Gepetto orders him to hide in a cabinet while the local fascist party visits their home. Pinocchio happily swings open the door only a few minutes later. “Sure,” he replies, “you told me to stay in the cabinet, but I didn’t want to.” Pinocchio’s naive shirking of societal expectations continues throughout the film.
Pinocchio’s inability to behave is maddening for Geppetto, who can’t help but compare him to Carlo. Neither puppet nor father are able to meet in the middle, and Geppetto’s initial harshness sends them both tumbling into different adventures. Pinocchio is unwittingly carted away by the circus, prompting Geppetto to set off after him by boat. Geppetto is not thrilled by his new son’s behavior, but he still has a fondness for the puppet that he can’t deny.
Geppetto and Pinocchio’s adventures are, in turn, charming and grim. The film is meticulously animated entirely in stop motion, making its world feel as strange and wonderful for viewers as it does for the characters. Alexandre Desplat’s (“The French Dispatch”) charming score adds to the softly immersive nature of the film. The musical highlight is certainly “Ciao Papa,” which Pinocchio sings during his stint in the circus. It’s simple and mournful, a tribute to the sadness that comes with growing apart from our families. Other animated films tend to use musical sequences to inject levity, but in “Pinocchio,” the score only compounds the film’s underlying melancholy.
Luckily, Pinocchio and Gepetto’s paths ultimately lead back to each other, despite time and distance. By the time the two reunite, their love for one another and understanding of the world has deepened. That is the heart of del Toro’s story — love. It’s something Geppetto struggles to give after losing Carlo. It’s something Pinocchio must learn to receive. And it’s something that is stronger than fascism, greed and even death.
Del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is certainly darker than most Pinocchio retellings. Pinocchio only exists because of Carlo’s death. Carlo only died because there’s a war raging. The war is only raging because of the fascist party, which threatens Pinocchio’s livelihood as well. Despite danger around every corner, Pinocchio cannot die — a side effect of his unnatural existence. Every time he is fatally injured, he is only briefly sent to the afterlife before returning to earth. It’s a dark topic, but del Toro handles it gracefully. The afterlife is beautiful and quiet. Death is not scary, only strange. And in the end, it too is neutralized by love. Such high-level themes are unusual for fairytale retellings, setting “Pinocchio” apart in its maturity and earnestness.
“Pinocchio” is a film determined to leave audiences wiser than it found them, a goal which it most certainly achieves. Del Toro argues that life is one long cycle of love and loss, and that love tends to persist. Love is immortal, a fact that makes eventual goodbyes a little easier to swallow.
Before the film ends, Sebastian J. Cricket has one addition to his closing statement. As he calmly reminds us, “And then, we are gone.”
Daily Arts Writer Lola D’Onofrio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.