Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio: Sculpted to Life

<em>Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio</em><em>: </em>Sculpted to Life

In June 2023—six months after the release of his Oscar-winning, stop-motion, antifascist-fable version of Pinocchio—Guillermo del Toro found himself speaking to an audience at the Annecy International Animation Film Festival. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, an underground-comix-influenced, hand-drawn-looking cartoon feature, had just premiered at the festival, and two big-budget animated studio pictures released earlier that year, The Super Mario Bros. Movie and Spider Man: Across the Spider-Verse, were dominating the box office. As he has been known to do, del Toro seized the moment to make a grand, hopeful statement about the potential of cinema—in particular, the animated part, which had enraptured him as a child in Guadalajara, Mexico, and inspired him to become a filmmaker. He said he hoped that the popularity of those three cartoon features would give filmmakers more latitude to “Trojan-horse a lot of good [stuff] into the animation world,” adding, “I believe you can make an adult fantasy drama with stop-motion and move people emotionally. I think stop-motion can be intravenous. It can go straight to your emotions in a way that no other medium can.”

Del Toro knew this was possible because he’d just done it with Pinocchio, a movie that is perfectly fine with being unsuitable for younger children. Cowritten with animator and artist Patrick McHale from Carlo Collodi’s source novel, and directed along with animator Mark Gustafson, it respectfully acknowledges the best-known prior film version, Walt Disney’s 1940 adaptation, even as it subverts and critiques it, diving headfirst into metaphor and parable in service of a couple of del Toro’s recurring themes, the corruption of innocents and the mechanics of fascism. Pinocchio is not merely a movie about a puppet, told through a clever variant of puppetry. It’s a film about the idea of puppetry. It wants audiences to consider the possibility that whenever people open their mouths, other people’s voices come out, even when they don’t realize it, and that, to paraphrase another puppet master, Don Vito Corleone of The Godfather, they’re dancing on invisible strings held by some big shot. Slightly older children who were not raised exclusively on the sanitized and shrink-wrapped snark-toons that have dominated multiplexes since the 1990s will likely find it fascinating, and appreciate that it respects their ability to process complexity and ambiguity. But for the most part, it’s a movie for adults whose childhood memories aren’t all golden, and who understand that nations and cultures can be parents too—and often bad ones. This is all conveyed in the film, set in 1930s Italy, through its entrancing account of a little wooden boy; his creator and father figure, Geppetto; and his guardian, Sebastian J. Cricket. It’s an adult movie in the truest sense, meaning that it’s filled with ideas that the youngest minds won’t understand or perhaps even pick up on.

Del Toro is no wilting lily when it comes to dark subject matter, and parts of this Pinocchio are tough to watch without flinching. But where the 1940 version was extravagantly mean—Disney’s early run of animated features, bracketed by 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, was wondrous and terrifying in equal measure—this version is coolly matter-of-fact, in an old-world-folktale sort of way. It treats suffering as an unavoidable element of life, even if you’re a puppet, and it heads off audience trauma with droll wit (after Pinocchio burns off his feet in Geppetto’s fireplace, he excitedly tells his papa, “I like my old legs—and I like them on fire!”). Like so much of del Toro’s filmography, which encompasses everything from his Spanish-language fables Cronos (1992), The Devil’s Backbone (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to Blade II (2002), the Hellboy films (2004 and 2008), and other unabashed pop entertainments, the core of Pinocchio is its fascination with parents and children—mainly, though not always, fathers and sons.

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