Guillermo del Toro is one of my favourite film directors – and Disney’s Pinocchio one of the formative films of my childhood. So when I first hear the news that the Mexican director is planning to deliver his own version of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale, it’s naturally something I eagerly look forward to – for a very long time. Indeed, it turns out that del Toro has actually been working on this astonishing stop-frame animation for something like fifteen years.
As the release date finally approaches, I look everywhere for a cinema in Edinburgh that’s planning to show del Toro’s film on the big screen, but alas, with the Filmhouse out of action, it cannot be found. So Netflix it must be. As it turns out, some visions are so powerful, so perfect, that they can blaze out of a small screen like meteors. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an astonishing film, that has the audacity to take everything we know about the story and give it a thorough makeover. What’s more, the changes that he makes (he co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick McHale) all seem to enrich the original, making it more logical, more explicable.
Revelation number one: when we first encounter woodcarver, Geppetto (David Bradley), he has a real son, Carlo (voiced by Gregory Mann). But Carlo dies tragically when Italian air force planes unload their bombs onto the church, where Gepetto is working on a huge crucifixion. This backstory helps flesh Geppetto out and makes his subsequent actions more believable – especially when Pinocchio is forged from the very tree planted to mark Carlo’s grave.
Revelation number two: the Pinocchio that Geppetto eventually carves in a drunken rage looks nothing like a ‘real boy’. He’s a strange, spindly, half-finished marionette, generally shunned and mistrusted by the people in his home village. Contrary to the original tale, it’s the villagers who have to learn to accept Pinocchio, rather than the other way around.
Revelation number three: this version is set in Italy in the 1930s, under the rule of Benito Mussolini. Pinocchio’s adventures on the ‘Donkey Island’ are exchanged for scenes where he unwittingly becomes a poster boy for fascism. (It’s nakedly clear what del Toro is saying here. And it makes perfect sense, because to take on Disney’s most iconic scenes would be a pointless exercise. If you can’t better a scene, do something entirely different, right?)
There’s more, much more, packed into the film’s two hour run. We meet Sebastian J Cricket (Ewan McGegor), an ambitious, self-aggrandising would-be author, who only agrees to take on the task of being Pinocchio’s ‘conscience’ in the hope off getting a book deal. There’s Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), the greedy, venal owner of a travelling freak show, who spots an opportunity to make lots of money and who bullies his monkey assistant, Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett) at every opportunity. And wait till you see what the animators (and Tilda Swinton) have done with the infamous Blue Fairy, rechristened here as the Woodland Sprite. More than anything else, there are fundamental changes to the character of Pinocchio himself. He’s no longer the obnoxious, pig-headed lout of the novel, but a sweet, misguided misfit, desperately trying to be liked. A scene where he can’t understand why all the villagers hate him, but adore the other wooden figure nailed to a cross on the church wall is a stand-out.
It’s not just the levels of invention in the story that make this such a unmitigated triumph. It’s the loving attention to detail: every character, every set, every painted landscape; it all pulses and dazzles with imagination of the highest calibre. There’s so much to see here, it’s clearly going to need repeated viewings to really take it all in. And watching it makes me wish that dear old Ray Harryhausen was still alive to see where modern technology has brought the art of stop-motion animation.
Many films have the word ‘masterpiece’ attached to them, but few deserve it as thoroughly as this one. All you need to do it hit the Netflix button, so… no pressure.