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Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

This week our writers reviewed Guilllermo del Toro's stop-motion reimagining of the Disney classic. This story of the wooden boy who wanted to be real is one we are all familiar with, but this version has the dark touch of del Toro's signature directing style. The film has a whopping nine Oscar nominations and has already collected a handful of accolades for its animation style. With a star-studded cast behind it, does del Toro's musical dark fantasy rival match, or even surpass, the Disney version?

Warning: contains slight spoilers!

A wooden boy is stood looking proudly up with his arms crossed. He is stood in a wood with hazy light, so it looks like it might be dawn.
The new version of Pinocchio

Sophie N

As a complete sucker for some good ol’ stop-motion animation, as well as the unique darker undertones that thread throughout Guillermo del Toro’s fairy-tale retellings, I was excited when I heard that the two were coming together in this newest Pinocchio adaptation (seriously, there were three in the last year alone!) So... does it live up to the hype built around it?

Put quite simply, yes – at least, in my very humble opinion. First of all, the whole thing is gorgeously animated, with strong, unique character designs that put one in mind of other stop-motion classics such as Laika’s Coraline. However, there are also undeniable elements of del Toro’s signature darkness; instead of the classic Blue Fairy, that many viewers may associate with the Disney version, we are instead given a wood sprite, whose design is more reminiscent of a sphinx or the spirits seen in Pan’s Labyrinth. The fact that these sprites are voiced by the ever-enigmatic and captivating Tilda Swinton only serves to solidify this character as an otherworldly being. Christoph Waltz is brilliant as the charismatic yet cunning Count Volpe and David Bradley was a stand-out for me as the voice of Geppetto, whose grief-stricken motivation for creating Pinocchio is more reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein rather than a simple ‘wish upon a star.’ Cate Blanchett was also a fun surprise as the voice (if you can call it that) of Spazzatura the Monkey. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Ewan McGregor’s Cricket, nor was I sure what accent Finn Wolfhard was going for, but altogether, the strength of the performances coupled with amazing character design make the film’s two-hour runtime fly by.

Interestingly, the full title of the film is Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, and the director’s mark can be seen throughout. del Toro once again chooses to frame this narrative against the background of real-world conflict: Pinocchio’s struggles to become a real boy are taking place in Fascist Italy, under the reign of ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini. This lends itself to some interesting explorations of what makes a ‘real boy’, during a time of great political upheaval. However, this did lead to one of my main issues with the film: at times, it didn’t seem to know what kind of story it wanted to tell. Did it want to be a fantastical story of boyhood and magic? A cautionary tale of the dangers of lying and pretending to be someone that you’re not? Or was it a poignant exploration of what it truly means to be human? It could be said to be all three, but at times, it lacked the deeper exploration needed to further cement this as its intended purpose. It seemed that as soon as one idea was introduced, the film would switch tone again, leaving the viewer a little unsure of where exactly they stood. However, as the longest stop-motion film ever, perhaps this was for the best. The character of Pinocchio himself was also incredibly grating at times, though I feel that this was completely intentional – a means of marking out the imperfection of Geppetto’s failed attempt at a perfect (re)-creation. As Sebastian J. Cricket says, “you must try your best, and that’s the best anybody can do,” and del Toro has indeed succeeded in creating a new, fresh take on an old classic. I’m excited for whatever he’s got planned next.

A scene from the film. On the left is Geppetto, an old man wit a grey beard who is holding some carpentry equipment. On the right is Pinocchio, a wooden boy with a big grin, who is tapping Geppetto on the nose. Both characters are stop motion so look like they are made of clay.
Geppetto and Pinocchio


Whilst isolating with Covid, I was apprehensive about how dark this film could get, given that Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities is fantastic but was intense and depressing to watch during isolation. However, though this is a fairly dark and sad film, this is a film a family could watch together. I think the mature and poignant themes would go over the head of most kids, so it would be important for parents to discuss them together.

Geppetto is the most benevolent yet fleshed out character David Bradley has played, especially compared to the villainous Walder Frey. Geppetto is an excellent and realistic example of a struggling parent and shows how difficult it is to be consistently ‘nice’ to your child. I was rather shocked seeing this character descend into alcoholism after grieving his son and the scene where he creates Pinocchio is pretty frightening. There’s definitely parallels to Victor Frankenstein experimenting on the Creature.

I know that in the original Pinocchio story, Pinocchio is very naughty to the point he’s borderline sociopathic. Here, Pinocchio is cheeky but in the way most kids are. He sometimes felt like an allegory for neurodivergence in children as his naivety and newness to the world meant he took everything literally. My heart broke whenever Pinocchio thought Geppetto no longer wanted him after lashing out at him. Pinocchio’s innocence felt like a stark contrast to the overall cynical mood of the film, and it was refreshing. Pinocchio was very comforting with his sweetness and optimism. I did also enjoy the film’s exploration of fascist Italy; it reminded me of the political undertones in Studio Ghibli films. Although the army training segment with Candlewick felt wedged in and was my least favourite scene of the film, I think the realistic setting added to the magic of the film and highlighted how kind the Geppetto/Pinocchio family were. From this contrast, I think children can learn about the difficult elements in our world whilst knowing there is still so much joy and hope despite our struggles.

What upset me most in the film wasn’t necessarily the existential musings on the nature of death, or the depiction of fascist Italy, but instead how Count Volpe treats the monkey Spazzatura. I know no Italian, but apparently the monkey’s name translates to 'garbage’ in English, which is heart-breaking already. It reminds me of how Quasimodo’s name means ‘half-formed’. Something about Count Volpe and Spazzatura was really tough to watch. It is possible because we were led to believe Spazzatura was on Volpe’s side, but once he eventually helps Pinocchio it’s made apparent the poor creature is the outcome of intense abuse. Volpe’s animation style, especially with his massive nose, was the reason why I was unsure about how dark the film could be. I actually found him rather amusing in the beginning, though of course the full extent of his villainy and cruelty came out in the film.

I have found many children’s films very disappointing and lacking in the past decade. Even though we have made leaps and bounds with representation, to me it falls flat because there is a general lack of nuance and depth. Of course, that is incredibly hard to achieve in children’s films, especially if commercial success is desired. But I do miss films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame that took risks and examined the corruption in our world. Pinocchio is a triumph which balances these heavy themes with both humour and warmth.

Guillermo del Toro is leaning over a table looking happily at a small clay figurine of Pinocchio. They are in a church setting as you can see a crucified Christ in the background
del Toro and his creation


At its heart, this is a beautiful and brutal commentary on fathers and sons. What better analogy for the challenges of shaping your child than that of the tale of Pinocchio.

Carlo Collodi’s novel nor its Disney adaptation have resonated with me before. This version by the sublime Guillermo del Toro almost succeeds. He’s no stranger to exploring the father and son dysfunctional dynamic, as anyone who’s seen the first two Hellboy movies will attest. I say first two because we want the final part of del Toro’s trilogy you studio cowards, not another paper-thin reboot.

I think the reason this film almost wins me over is because now being the father of a young son, I get it more. That weight of expectation, of wanting them to be the best of you but sometimes seeing the worst, of not wanting to repeat the past (yours and others), continuing to try your best in the face of despair, resistance, and inevitable failure. That struggle is told well not just via Geppetto and Pinocchio, but also fascist official Podesta and his son Candlewick, which shows where expectation can lead.

Shifting the story to turn of the century Italy, where everyone was a puppet of Mussolini, is a clever touch. This is particularly evident with Pinocchio asking Podesta “who controls you”. The party’s ideology of creating a perfect past to which you must return mirrors what got Geppetto into his mess at the start. It is a shame that the political theme is left to wither on the vine. The same can be said with the religious musings too. There were some subtle iconographies at play – the carving of Christ missing a left arm at the film’s start and Pinocchio missing a left arm at its end, and the temptations visited upon him by Count Volpe (nobody’s as good at being bad as Christoph Waltz).

There are some fun literary and cinematic nods too. Death will look familiar to fans of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. I think I spotted the Pale Man and Faun from Pan’s Labyrinth in the church’s stained glass window. The underworld rabbits reminded me of Watership Down.

It’s very Frankenstein-like too. Pinocchio’s creation isn’t cute, being born out of Geppetto’s grief-fueled drunken rage rather than love. The naive Pinocchio is even rejected by his maker for not being a perfect facsimile of his ‘real’ son – named Carlo after the original writer. The sea beast is very Lovecraftian.

The stop-motion animation is a triumph. As del Toro has said, “you don’t have to believe they are real people, you just have to believe in them as characters”. Which, for the most part, you do. The overall look is wonderfully fantastical, gothic and in the case of the character visuals particularly nuanced. Their bodies look lived in, not rendered.

Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J Cricket was a letdown. His narration that bookends the movie got me teary. But he’s wasted in between. His slapstick antics – while a nice allude to his arc in the novel which I won’t spoil here – fall flat. He’s given so little to do that at the end he even questions his right to the wish he was promised for keeping Pinocchio on the straight and narrow. Last and certainly least, the songs. Couldn’t name one, couldn’t hum on, couldn’t be bothered to Google one.

Overall, while the characters could have acted as real as they looked at times, the film’s central themes kept me interested despite the overlong run-time. My favourite take on the story so far.

Edited by Harriet


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