For those of you, like myself, who have seen the plethora of nostalgic-sweet Pixar films and upbeat princess musicals recently produced and questioned were all the genuinely odd, gloomy children’s movies—like there used to be, we swear! —have vanished, Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie is a heartening response.
It is hoped that his Pinocchio (available on Netflix on December 9) would serve as a reminder to parents that their children are capable of handling—and may even require—the creepier, more challenging material to counteract the sweets.
Del Toro’s stop-motion animated movie is based on Gris Grimly’s 2002 adaptation of the traditional fairy tale, which del Toro was undoubtedly drawn to for its gloomy, haunted-carnival aesthetic. For this particular version, stop-motion is the ideal format because it perfectly captures the unsettlingly just-shy-of-human physicality of the animated wooden puppet. In both Grimly’s homey, throwback old-fashioned creation and del Toro’s more contemporary wiggle, there is a sideways whimsy to be tapped into.
This Pinocchio adaptation deals with mortality in a somewhat disarming way. Geppetto is lamenting the death of his son, who we witness perish in an air attack, and David Bradley, the Harry Potter actor—not the former senator—gives him a vivid and growly voice. Italians, including Geppetto, are oppressed by Il Duce during World War II. This indicates that something fatal hovers in the air, not just around Geppetto, who is grieving and drinking, but also around the majority of people.
How lucky that a Wood Sprite, played by Tilda Swinton with a hint of terror, should appear and transform Geppetto’s insane creation—a wooden boy he cut out of a tree that stands over his son’s grave—into a joyful, carefree young boy. Or, little-boy-almost. He is a creature of abnormal origin who is herky-jerky and somewhere in between, and Geppetto initially welcomes him with the appropriate terror. Pinocchio, who is bravely voiced by Gregory Mann, is undoubtedly frightening when he first appears, but he soon grows on you. With his contagious joie de vivre and passion for the world, which has largely become a nightmare, how could he not be?
Those familiar with the 1940 Disney Pinocchio film will only recognise a few of the tale beats. As a travelling writer, Ewan McGregor portrays a talking cricket who goes by the name Sebastian. In this movie, Pinocchio is captured by a cunning puppeteer named Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), who is a more sly, evil invention than Disney’s Stromboli. The most notable difference, perhaps, is that Pinocchio gets conscripted into Mussolini’s youth army instead of going to Pleasure Island and becoming a donkey, where he is tragically taught to attack and murder in a tragic violation of his guileless idealism.
The largest, most mature difference might be that Pinocchio continues dying—shot, he’s driven over by a car, etc.—which forces him to the underworld where he meets Death (also voiced by Swinton) and learns that he is immortal. For very young children, this might perhaps be a step too far, but for older children or those who are more adventurous and strong-willed, there is something poetic—even reassuring—about the way Pinocchio answers these enigmatic questions about life.
The entire movie, which is full with peril and lilts with profound sorrow, explores the gaps between life’s joys and its awful sufferings. It looks at our grim time and attempts to pull some measure of kindness and hope from it. Or, more accurately, it demonstrates what forces like fascism or rapacious opportunists can’t completely snuff out. (For those fortunate enough to live, at least.)
Maybe that’s a narrow-minded perspective on reality—an exploitation of its genuine, practical apprehensions in a sentimental attempt to broadly declare life’s beauty. But del Toro carefully controls how heartfelt his movie is. Nothing is, in my opinion, too sweet or scary. But is being a bit afraid the worst thing for young audiences? To persevere through the challenging parts in order to reach the quiet satisfaction and, yes, ultimate inevitabilities of what follows?
I don’t have kids of my own. Therefore, it’s completely likely that I’m grossly underestimating the terrible impact Pinocchio may have on the group of people it was probably designed for. Depending on each child, it probably varies. Some viewers will undoubtedly be overly sensitive to the film’s frights, while others may be just sensitive enough to seek its mature and reflective murmur.
The film’s beautiful design, including its creative and fluid animation and its skillful and passionate voice performances, should be admired by everyone. An wicked monkey who changes his mind is portrayed by Cate Blanchett! Shouldn’t that be sufficient justification to take the risk? After all, Netflix ensures that you’ll never regret purchasing tickets. The fact that you can always pause a movie and switch to something safer if you need to is one small benefit of the couch-bound age of streaming.