It’s difficult to know how much withering denunciation is too much when discussing Pinocchio. Not the magical 1940 work of animation that was Disney’s sophomore effort after Snow White, but the 2022 remake that pulls in a bunch of big-name talent and oppressively omnipresent CGI to no purpose I can figure out. I’ve mentioned before that it’s stupid to ask why a film gets made because the answer is to make money. Pinocchio makes me question even that wisdom. Sometimes, apparently, movies are made because they are on the 10-year-plan, or the studio bosses perhaps took a month off and returned to find principal photography and a week of post-production work already finished and didn’t have the heart to tell the director and actors that they hadn’t actually greenlit the thing.
Every decision about Pinocchio baffles, from its bad jokes to its new characters who add almost nothing to an ending so abrupt that it defies reason. I write about movies almost constantly, and did not know about this thing until a week before it debuted unceremoniously on Disney+ despite Tom Actual Hanks starring in it under director Robert Zemeckis. All of these things, stared at long enough, could drive me mad, and I’m sure they are going to be trod over by every last F- review Pinocchio is going to receive. So, as I have so often before, I want to talk about what it means for animation, that peculiar magic that is an illusion of life, as Disney themselves have called it.
Pinocchio simultaneously drips with effort—every scene marked by computer-generated actors and effects—and a complete dearth of creativity. It actively resists being written about. And yet, it deals in one of the stories that is most emblematic of Disney’s art form, and most thematically resonant with it. To “animate” is to impart movement to the nonliving, which is not just the key to the medium Disney’s animators were pioneering at the time of the original film, but also happens to be the actual text of the film (spoilers)! There is a reason that “When You Wish Upon a Star” has been the score behind Disney’s studio logo for decades. It is a film, and a story, that is core to what Disney is.
Am I talking too melodramatically about a slap-dash cash-in movie about a puppet boy? Probably.
The era of Disney’s corporate leadership under former CEO Michael Eisner is often referred to as a “renaissance,” and it isn’t entirely unfounded: The company was losing at the box office to one of its own former animators, but ended the ’80s with the success story that has defined its releases pretty much ever since. It also kicked off a spectacular era in TV animation under the company’s banner.
But kids of the ’90s will recall that not everything the company did had lofty artistic merit, nor did every project they touched turn to gold. While their lower-budget animation house, Disney MovieToons, was responsible for one of the most affecting films I’ve ever seen from the Mouse House, it otherwise almost exclusively made garbage. Much of that garbage was composed of direct-to-video sequels in the wake of Aladdin 2: The Return of Jafar’s success.
The animation standards for things like The Fox and the Hound 2 or Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas being lower than the otherwise sterling Disney canon was less a problem than the pure mercenary attitude behind it all. Eisner has been quoted as saying, during those years, that Disney had “no obligation to make art,” or history or a statement, but that making money often meant making those other things. It seems the guy was right: Disney made money hand over fist during that period, climbed back to box office dominance with some of its most well-regarded films ever, before eventually largely abandoning the art of 2-D animation in favor of the 3-D revolution. Eisner is gone now, but Disney making art or history or a statement has never felt more incidental: For every Moana there is one more in the parade of live-action/CGI remakes of classic Disney films. More than a decade after he stepped down as CEO from the company, nothing seems more out of the Eisner playbook than these remakes.
Pinocchio 2022 recreates, nearly beat-for-beat, the story of the 1940 original, with some cute differences in things like the framing device or the addition of the odd new character. This describes nearly all of the remakes: Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast and Dumbo and The Lion King and any of the ones I’ve missed. The difference is in the execution. Roger Ebert once said that computer graphics look real but feel fake, and he may as well have been describing any of these movies.
There is no consistent style to anything in Pinocchio: Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Jiminy Cricket, Keegan-Michael Key’s Honest John and the eponymous puppet boy himself all look like they’re from different films. Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is diminutive in this movie, when in the 1940 film he was life-sized, and it means that he never reads as if he’s in the scene with the few human actors with whom he interacts. And so many scenes were really, really dark. The look of the movie was the entire point of the 1940 film, which remains a spectacle even today: Something as simple as a moment when a crooked coachman schemes to kidnap children or Monstro the whale’s eye opening menacingly at the passage of a school of fish are stylized, vibrant and evocative. Nothing in the remake conveys any of that emotion, least of all the title character himself, who is fashioned to look exactly like the 1940 original in a film that in no way accommodates his cartoonishness.
There are other bizarre choices and sandings down of the original’s edges, since our children can’t handle things like tobacco or the image of a child shapeshifted into a donkey wailing for his mother. Nobody smokes on Pleasure Island and they dubbed in a line about the frothy mugs being root beer. The ones who are kidnapping the donkey-fied kids and shoving them into crates bound for the salt mines are smoke monsters—did that somehow make it easier to depict them throwing the CGI donkeys into crates, not having to have live-action humans working against a green screen? Or do we not want to believe humans are responsible for human (or, uh, donkey-human) trafficking? A new minor character who befriends Pinocchio early in the film and shows up briefly in the third act affects the plot not at all. Pinocchio’s off the hook for his decision to play hooky in the beginning, anyway: He actually goes to school but gets kicked out because they refuse to teach puppets! The lies that cause his nose to grow are the only bit of misbehavior the kid gets up to in the movie. He doesn’t even truly need to grow as a character. I’m down to discuss the patriarchal overtones of the original story and how it preaches bending to adult authority, but that’s not what’s happening here: Nothing is.
I don’t know what this movie is doing, and I don’t think anybody involved knew, either. The final scene in the original shows Pinocchio becoming a real boy. It’s subtle, kind of quiet and deeply affecting. The scene is some lines and colors on paper that are being fed to your brain quickly, so that it fools you into thinking you’ve just seen a puppet become a real boy.
I’ll spoil the last scene of the remake because it is so emblematic of everything wrong with the whole thing, and the whole enterprise behind Disney’s CGI remake cash-ins. In the Pinocchio remake, the last scene is Pinocchio and Geppetto walking off, hand in hand, from the beach after surviving Monstro. There is no quiet denouement or homecoming. As they walk away with their backs turned to the camera, there is the suggestion that the wooden joinings of the boy change into the smooth joints of a real boy, but we don’t see Pygmalion behold his Galatea and feel anything about it. Jiminy dorks around some more and the credits roll. There is zero emotional payoff.
I wonder: Did they do test screenings of the transformation and decide morphing him into a child actor was too jarring? Were they unable to reconcile his miniature size with a transformation into life-size boyhood? Did they try to do a CGI human boy and it just looked wrong? Any one of those things could be a possibility, which speaks to how little the concept of a remake works to begin with. Disney’s other “live-action” remakes have been lazy at best or ill-considered at worst, but this one, compared to its revered precursor, is deficient, incomplete, antithetical to its source material.
Please let it be the last of these.
Kenneth Lowe had strings but now he’s free, there are no strings on me! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.