Directors: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson (US. Mexico. France). Year of Release: 2022
Italy, 1916. An old man is paying his respects at the grave of his 10 year old son. After a voiceover informs us that the boy was killed by a bomb dropped during the Great War, we are invited to re-enact the tragic history. Geppetto, a carpenter, brings up the young Carlo in the absence of his missing wife. He sings his son to sleep with a song that his wife wrote about how much she loved her son. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel faintly nauseous.
Geppetto takes Carlo to his main job, working on a statue of a crucified Jesus in the local church. When he hears the sound of oncoming bombers, Geppetto suggests that they make their way home. Carlo follows, but then dashes back into the church to retrieve an unblemished pine cone that he has recently found. Geppetto looks back to see a falling bomb – ironically dropped not in anger but to lighten the ballast. Carlo is not so lucky.
Geppetto becomes less interested in carving the statue of a God who has forsaken him. He gives up on his work and turns to drink. In an attempt to recreate his lost son, he cuts down a tree and tries to hue it into the puppet of a young boy, which he names Pinnochio. In doing this, he disturbs the pompous insect, Sebastian J Cricket (no Jiminies in this version), who had been living in the tree. In the lack of anywhere else to go, Sebastian follows Geppetto into his home.
That night, the house is visited by a benign sprite. Geppetto is in a drunken stupor, so Sebastian is left to negotiate. The sprite decides to give life to Pinnochio, and asks Sebastian to provide moral guidance. He Is not so sure, but agrees to a deal which says that if Pinnochio manages to separate the rough from the smooth, the cricket will be granted a wish. In the morning, Pinnochio is just about as irritating as a young boy can be, continually asking questions and being a bit of a dick.
Geppetto is visited by the neighbours, who – this being Italy in the 1920s – are keen for a bit of discipline. They greet each other with raised right arms, and long for the imposition of order. This is barely understandable to the young puppet, who has not been inducted into the world of doing what you’re told. He tries to follow his father’s advice, but does not really understand the concept of obedience. The local Fascists have his number.
Pinocchio tries to do his father’s bidding and go into school, but it all looks so boring. He lets himself be lured by the local circus impresario, Count Volpe, and his sidekick, a sort of monkey called Spazzatura. Volpe promises money to Pinocchio’s father (which is never sent because of “tax deductions”) in return for Pinocchio, the humanized puppet, pretending to be a real puppet and dancing with mannequins controlled by Spazzatura.
Volpe sees which way the wind is blowing, and the circus performances become more supprtive of Italy’s fascist government. Volpe is excited that their final performance, in Catania, is to be visited by Il Duce himself. Pinocchio, who until now has been complying with the nationalist and militarist rhetoric, decides to rebel. With the assistance of Spazzatura he ridicules war and literally farts in Mussolini’s face. Mussolini orders his troops to kill the puppet.
This is where Pinocchio learns that, as a boy who was crafted rather than born, he is, in fact, immortal. When he is “killed”, all he has to do is spend some time playing cards with the rabbits who work in limbo, then wait with the sprite’s less benevolent sister for her egg timer to run out. This is not ideal – as he died in the hands of fascists, he is immediately conscripted to a boot camp training young soldiers – but it is better than the alternative.
Pinocchio allies with the son of his Fascist persecutor and they make a stand against division and war. This sign of solidarity makes an important gesture for the kids, but is, to be honest, a little too full of virtue signalling to generate much dramatic tension. We get it. War is bad, fascism is even worse. We should aspire towards something better. But when Pinocchio tries most to speak to a younger audience, the film is at its most performative and bland.
There are some things in this film which didn’t connect with me, in particular the sentimental songs, which just keep on coming. These songs are neither profound nor particularly melodic. They just feel more like a tilt towards the mainstream in which del Toro had so far shown no particular interest. Similarly the childish superficiality that the film occasionally exudes may win del Toro a more family audience, but they don’t make the film more interesting.
Having said all this, one shouldn’t be too precious. What’s not to like about a film which tries to address a younger audience with the message that Fascism and war are bad, and you should question any orders? Inasmuch as it’s a kids’ film (which it very much is), Pinocchio imparts an important message. And it contains enough sophistication to reel in the adults as well. If you’re not taken in by the content, the stop motion animation is absolutely breathtaking.
Push comes to shove, this is definitely a film to watch, even if you have your problems with it. Rather a film that takes chances and sometimes fails than one which remains conservative and bland.