“Pinocchio”, by Guillermo del Toro: the waltz of the puppet

Made in stop motion, the first animated film by the Mexican filmmaker offers a fresh look at this imperishable and eclipsing initiatory tale, thanks to its extra soul, its few pitfalls. Our review.

After presenting an anthology series in the style of Alfred Hitchcock at the approach of Halloween, exploring in eight episodes the innumerable potentialities of horror cinema (Guillermo del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiositiesavailable on Netflix), the decidedly very prolific Guillermo del Toro today unveils his new feature film on the American streaming platform, the first to be deprived of a theatrical release (at least in France), this nearly one year after the French release of his last film, the fascinating and tortuous – but uneven – Nightmare Alley.

Guillermo Del Toro is trying his hand at yet another adaptation of Adventures of Pinocchio (1881), initiatory tale by Florentine journalist Carlo Collodi brought to the screen many times – starting with the Disney studios animation classic released in 1940 – including live action, like the television adaptation by Luigi Comencini (1972), of the film by Roberto Benigni (2002) or, more recently, that of Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah, Dogman), in which Benigni slipped this time into the skin of good old Geppetto. Garrone’s film, wobbly and a little bland, deliberately rushed into the technological breach to give birth to an entirely digital Pinocchio, mixed with flesh and blood actors.

Then, no later than last September, the Disney+ streaming platform unveiled a tasteless and uninspired remake of Pinocchio, yet directed by Robert Zemeckis, pioneer, among other things, of motion capture films. Today, Netflix is ​​putting a coin back into the machine and skillfully raising the bar.

©Netflix 2022

No strings attached

Without forcing his talent too much, the Mexican director proves once again that he is the only one pulling the strings and that, far from being the puppet of the studios, nothing can hinder his artistic vision. With this Pinocchio co-directed by Mark Gustafson, Guillermo del Toro brings the famous wooden child back to the kingdom of animated cinema and adapts the tale of Collodi as he pleases, relieving his film of the cumbersome imagination left by Disney. Shot in “stop motion” (frame-by-frame animation), the film has this remarkable plasticity that recalls, among other things, the Fantastic Mr. Fox (2010) by Wes Anderson, which we also owed the animation direction to Gustafson.

Pinocchio also recalls, in other places, the alchemy between Henry Selick and the macabre universe of Tim Burton (The Nightmare Before Christmas). The Oscar-winning director of The Shape of Water here incorporates the technical prowess of stop motion into its own palette, thus giving birth to a truly magical, hypnotic, bewitching cinematographic object.

Del Toro does not hesitate to orchestrate the encounter between the original fable and his own visual universe, thus placing the film in this interstice which is dear to him between a cold and dark reality (after Franco’s Spain of the Pan’s Labyrinth or the Great Depression in Nightmare Alley, the director places Pinocchio in 1930s Fascist Italy) and a fantasy world populated by creatures that are more human than they appear. This belief in the evocative power of the tale, a bit naive, but deeply generous, constantly irrigates Del Toro’s cinema.

1670489386 751 Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro the waltz of the puppet
©Netflix 2022

With animation, the director basically appropriates an ideal form to reiterate the age-old story of Pinocchio, a little boy prone to lies born here from the insatiable grief of an old carpenter, Geppetto, with regard to his young son, Carlo (a nod to Collodi), a collateral victim of the First World War. Born from the despair of Geppetto and well helped by the appearance of a chimerical spirit (the penetrating voice of Tilda Swinton), a sort of angel of death a thousand leagues from the Blue Fairy that we used to see, this Pinocchio differs from its previous adaptations by taking the form of a disarticulated puppet, with barely sketched human features, almost terrifying at first sight in its way of contorting itself in all directions. This Pinocchio, like Frankenstein’s monster, has its place in the gallery of freaks loved by the filmmaker.

At the end of the tale

The puppet is then won over by a curious conscience, hungry for knowledge and still devoid of any moral conception. But, unlike previous versions of the character, Pinocchio here carries with him the memory of Geppetto’s son and the burden of having to literally walk in his footsteps. Del Toro obviously does not escape the great episodes of the adventures of Pinocchio and Geppetto’s quest to find his creation, until their expected reunion in the bowels of the sea monster. The story settles fairly quickly in a predictable mechanics interspersed with musical interludes – the music is by Alexandre Desplat – anecdotal and not very memorable (hard to do better on this point than the 1940 cartoon).

Cleverly, Guillermo del Toro gives thickness to the story by bringing a poetic touch and by remodeling in his own way, in audacious settings and full of details, the main stages of the story. It is for example Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), the little cricket in charge of guiding Pinocchio in his tribulations, who takes up residence in the very heart of Pinocchio after having settled in the hollow of the tree at the foot of which Carlo rested , before Geppetto cuts it down to carve his creature into it. It’s Pinocchio repeatedly sent to the afterlife, confronted with Death (again voiced by Tilda Swinton) and tirelessly sent back among the living.

It is also the puppet theater in which Pinocchio is recruited as he prepares to enter school for the first time, here transformed into a traveling circus – in the wake of Nightmare Alley – led by the intractable Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz). Or the enchanted island, on which the children are transformed into donkeys, which here becomes a training camp to the glory of Mussolini, this time transforming the children into puppets, it is the case to say it, from the fascist propaganda.

In short, Guillermo del Toro orchestrates a merry-go-round of symbols – love, life, death, rebirth, etc. – in an ode to non-conformism, in the image of his filmography, in a kind of call for disobedience at the height of a child in the face of the creeping temptation of fascism and identity withdrawal. Finely executed, this Pinocchio manages to deflate its few faults and ease of writing in favor of a contemporary fable less moralizing and infantilizing than deeply moved by the forces of the imagination. Of the most recent adaptations of Collodi’s tale, this one is undoubtedly the most accomplished.

Pinocchio, by Guillermo del Toro, 1h57, with the voices of Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, etc. Available on Netflix on December 9, 2022.

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“Pinocchio”, by Guillermo del Toro: the waltz of the puppet

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