Refurbished Pinocchio Proves Classic Fairy Tale Is Alive and Well

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Refurbished Pinocchio Proves Classic Fairy Tale Is Alive and Well

Let’s be real: Any contemporary adaptation of Pinocchio will come with strings attached. In the recent cavalcade of productions based on the 19th century Italian tale, none comes more entangled than Robert Zemeckis’ live-action retelling of Disney’s 1940 classic. Yet, by skillfully manipulating the lines of reality, Zemeckis creates a film worthy of its visual efforts, one with a mostly real purpose: To update the film for contemporary audiences.

The familiar plot remains. Geppetto (Tom Hanks) is a lonely clockmaker and sometimes puppeteer who wishes for a son above all things. One magical night, the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) answers his wish and bestows the gift of life on the puppet Pinocchio. But life isn’t enough. Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth), in his naivete, wants to be “real” for his father.

Realness is earned, however. The Blue Fairy tells him that if he can become “brave, truthful and unselfish,” he will be a real boy. But that will take time and trials, so she christens Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon Levitt) as his conscience to guide him into civilized boyhood. This sends the young puppet off on a string of three loosely connected adventures. He’s abducted by Honest John (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) into indentured servitude in Stromboli’s (Giuseppe Battiston) traveling puppet show. Pinocchio then must learn to be honest and stand up to peer pressure or be turned into a donkey on Pleasure Island. His finale sees him use his ingenuity to get his family out of the belly of Monstro, the sea beast. Once the family is safely reunited, the magic is complete and the family can walk into the light feeling whole at last.

Disney’s 1940 original is brutal. Its menacing villains and high stakes make Pinocchio’s punishments violent and threatening. This is because the morals begin posed are equally rigid and severe. Where the original feels overly didactic and moralizing, Zemeckis takes the opportunity to lighten the danger and present new visuals and ethics better suited for today’s audiences.

As the visionary behind Death Becomes Her, The Polar Express and, most significantly, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Zemeckis has become a master of blending digital animation, human performances and classic storytelling. With its complex worlds composed of humans, animate objects, talking animals and faeries, a live-action adaptation of Pinocchio requires a hybrid approach to filmmaking technology. The material seems tailor-made to Zemeckis’ expertise, and he flexes those skills with gusto.

That starts with design. Along with production designer Doug Chiang, Zemeckis has gone to great lengths to recreate the hand-drawn feel of the original interiors. It’s not that they appear animated, but that you can genuinely sense the handiwork that went into making them. It packs the sets to the hinges with charm—especially Geppetto’s workshop, where the heart of the story beats. The animated creatures and puppets seamlessly blend into the ornate sets. There’s just enough whimsy to their realism to keep them cartoonish. Honest John and Gideon have natural, fur-like textures and clownish expressions. This may be disturbing to some. Not to worry, Zemeckis is keenly aware of how uncanny it can be to see objects and animals come to life. He enjoys pointing it out. In fact, he could have pointed it out more. In trying to keep his Pinocchio from being as severe as the original, Zemeckis shies away from fully embracing the unsettling nature of the story as >other recent versions have done. Nevertheless, whether in shock, envy or adoration, Maestro Zemeckis has once again successfully conducted a production that sees CGI and human actors interact as if everything were alive.

Gordon-Levitt had the unenviable task of delivering a believable yet animated voice for Jiminy Cricket. Never once seeming unnatural, Gordon-Levitt floats through the high register of the classic cricket while catching faint gusts of Matthew McConaughey under his umbrella of choices. The result is an intelligently structured vocal performance that lends a vital believability to the magical world of the film. But no one brings a more grounded and heartfelt performance than frequent Zemeckis collaborator, Il papà dell’America, Tom Hanks. The opening minutes with Geppetto—more or less alone in his workshop, wishing for a little boy—are a profound and heartbreaking character study. Hanks transfers all the emotion of Geppetto’s new backstory into the lifeless puppet and us, the silent audience, animating both into an adventure. Though later scenes require more cartoonish aspects of his character, Hanks never lets us forget that Geppetto is human.

Such an earnest focus on Geppetto brings a welcome sense of realism to the fairy tale, but some moments of fantasy keep Pinocchio from fully coming alive. We can still see the joints where Zemeckis fits different ideas together. For example, Pinocchio doesn’t know if it wants to be a real musical. Sometimes Geppetto and the Blue Fairy speak in metered verse. Being a Broadway angel, Cynthia Erivo blesses us with her voice, but awkwardly contends with a strangely written character that doesn’t feel fully real or fantastic. Zemeckis also seems unsure how cartoonish this live-action version should be. Though animated with 3-D hyperrealism, the characters still abide by 2-D physics. Honest John and Gideon act like weasels from Roger Rabbit. Pinocchio runs on water like Dash Impossible’s wooden ancestor. Once a terrifying whale, Monstro now has silly tentacles.

Each chapter is slightly tweaked to help build towards Zemeckis’ new idea for the ending, so they can’t quite stick the landing without help. All the new characters added, like a helper seagull and flirty puppet friend, or adjustments to existing ones do little but improve the transition from one story to the next. For this ending to work, some amount of fantasy must be okay to remain in the world.

Once we’re washed ashore after the sea of choppy changes and perilous threats of pointlessness, things come full circle. Papa Hanks is here, as is the proper amount of sincerity. Pinocchio will always be a moral tale, but those morals are malleable. Zemeckis isn’t subtle about this. Though the foundational morals of the 1940 film remain intact, they’re more private and less violent. This version could have embraced the darkness within the text to tell us something meaningful about living in dark times, but concludes very much in line with the contemporary rose-colored Mouse House Philosophy of self-government, forgiveness and tolerance. Despite the splintering liberalism of its ending, Zemeckis has retold Pinocchio in a way that shows why the classic deserved to be remade. Its visual style brings the fairy tale alive with depth and texture, while its ending effectively shows that boyhood doesn’t need to come as a result of corporal punishment—that magical transformation doesn’t have to always be physical—and it doesn’t always have to be the child’s responsibility to change. Even though it may lack some nuanced darkness and some of the writing feels a little “on the nose,” as Jiminy himself says, with this family-friendly picture, Zemeckis blends state-of-the-art technology with more up-to-date morals to prove Pinocchio a real and alive text.

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Robert Zemeckis, Chris Weitz
Starring: Tom Hanks, Cynthia Erivo, Giuseppe Battiston, Luke Evans, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Keegan-Michael Key
Release Date: September 8, 2022 (Disney+)

B.L. Panther is a culture writer, scholar and Pisces from Northern Illinois. B! writes for outlets such as Honey Literary Journal and The Spool, where they’re also the cohost of The Meh-thod Podcast discussing great actors in less-than-great films. A champion hermit, they enjoy reading, the indoors, afternoon naps and doing nothing at all.

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