“I want to tell you a story,” says a tiny, six-legged creature. “It’s a story you may think you know, but you don’t.”
Guillermo del Toro has never shied away from infusing the harsh realities of life and death into the journeys of his young protagonists. His fascination with the intersections of childhood innocence and macabre whimsy are what make him the ideal co-director of Netflix’s newest Pinocchio adaptation, a work that marvelously marries the filmmaker’s flair for dark fantasy with the equally strange fairy tale elements of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 The Adventures of Pinocchio. Like all successful marriages, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio brings out the very best of both parties. The stop-motion musical is an artistic triumph that colors Collodi’s cherished storybook characters with humanity and depth to craft a mature tale about rebellion, mortality and the love between a parent and child.
Narrated by Sebastian J. Cricket (an odd but noble raconteur voiced by Ewan McGregor), the film begins years before the marionette has been brought to life, when Geppetto’s (David Bradley) days are brightly lit by the presence of another golden boy, 10-year-old Carlo (Alfie Tempest). Despite the looming threat of fascism, the pair share a picture-perfect life. Carlo is a dutiful son who enjoys spending time at school, church and in the arms of his sweet papa. Geppetto is the adoring father, a parent whose love can only be expressed by way of song: “My son / My son / You are my shining sun… You are everything to me.”
Tender images of companionship and laughter come to a haunting end when Carlo is murdered in a senseless act of war. We fast-forward to Mussolini’s Italy, a gloomy existence where Geppetto spends his days cursing the sky and searching for the warmth of his late son at the bottom of a bottle. On one especially intoxicated night, the woodsman furiously carves a lopsided puppet. When this Frankenstein’s puppet is granted the gift of voice, movement and thought, we embark on a magical adventure where Geppetto must relearn how to be a father and Pinocchio (Gregory Mann), what it means to be alive.
This rendition marks the 22nd film adaptation of the Italian novel, and while it remains true to the grisly nature of Collodi’s original stories, it boldly departs from its dated moral lessons. In The Adventures of Pinocchio (and notable renditions thereafter), Pinnochio’s many escapades are structured as cause-and-effect narratives that serve to caution children against defiant behavior. In Disney’s 1940 animated feature, an evening of fun and relaxation on “Pleasure Island’’ nearly turns the wooden boy into a salt-mining donkey. In the original serial La Storia di un Burattino, delinquent behavior leads him to a gruesome death. These values of compliance and servility are reversed by del Toro’s fascist setting. In his Pinocchio, disobedience is a virtue—not a crime.
This is especially apparent when observing the protagonist in contrast to his on-screen antithesis, Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard). Candlewick is the human son of the Podestà (Ron Perlman)—a high-ranking fascist official in Geppetto’s small village—and behaves more puppet-like than Pinocchio ever could. The young boy wants nothing more than to make his father proud, but, unfortunately for him, that means becoming a fascist youth. Candlewick is placed in precarious situations where parental expectations are both emotionally and politically charged. A teary-eyed Candlewick, in a soul-sucking dormitory of a fascist youth camp, reminds us of two things: The importance of living for yourself—your dreams, your goals, your notions of right and wrong—and the importance of encouraging those around us to do the same, especially the children in our lives.
Candlewick’s desire to please and obey is sharply juxtaposed with Pinocchio, a character whose playfulness, curiosity and zest for life are a breath of fresh air in the dreary authoritarian world he finds himself in. Unlike the human child, our wooden protagonist has no concept of tradition or country. His cultural and political naivety often serves to highlight the irrationality (and sometimes, hypocrisy) of the rigid institutions around him (whether it be Mussolini’s government or the Catholic church). The character’s inquisitive spirit is most evident in an early sequence of the film: After being thrown out of mass by close-minded church-goers who find horror in his unholy animation, Pinocchio is completely puzzled by what he has experienced. Back in the church, he reflects, “Papa? There’s something I don’t understand.” “Everybody likes him,” he says, looking up at an enormous wooden crucifix, “They were all singing to him. He’s made of wood too. Why do they like him and not me?” The question comes from a place of innocent bewilderment, yet effectively confronts structure and tradition. Why do we do the things that we do? Why are we so resistant to change and the unfamiliar? Why can’t we be more open and brave…like Pinocchio?
These moral examinations are given a sense of urgency in death—a theme that informs so much of the film’s mind and soul. Where previous adaptations are preoccupied with life—with the puppet’s extraordinary consciousness and the hope that he may someday become a “real boy”—del Toro’s Pinocchio is interested in what our mortality can teach us about being human. In the film, death is never too far away from the protagonist or his loved ones. Death touches Carlo, then remains close to Pinocchio throughout his epic journey.
The beauty of del Toro’s Pinocchio is that death isn’t treated with the usual dread and cynicism we typically see in the Western world. Here, death is mysterious, ethereal, soaked in gorgeous blue light. Death is not something to be feared, but respected and accepted when the time comes, because the notion that we will someday—maybe unexpectedly—leave this earth is what makes our time here so beautiful.
In Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, filmmakers del Toro and Mark Gustafson have taken a classic tale and created something fresh, surprising, moving and absolutely worthwhile. I don’t typically advise listening to crickets, but believe Sebastian J., because the story of Pinocchio has never been told quite like this.
Director: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson
Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Patrick McHale
Starring: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett
Release Date: December 9, 2022 (Netflix)
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.