Guillermo del Toro adapts Carlo Collodi’s classic tale about the wooden boy come to life with impeccable humanity in his newest film for Netflix.
Stop motion animation has had a bit of a resurgence in this calendar year, from Phil Tippett’s macabre masterpiece Mad God to A24’s film adaptation of the webseries and children’s book Marcel The Shell With Shoes On, both of which are among the best films of 2022 as of this writing. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio joins them with ease thanks to gorgeous animation on all levels from character models to fluid movements, a wondrous score, and thoughtful storytelling that has something for both kids and adults to chew on well after the film’s conclusion.
What also propels Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio among the best movies of the year is its existence as a much more mature, closer adaptation to the original classic Italian fairy tale from Carlo Collodi in the sense that the film belongs to Gepetto as much as it does the iconic puppet. The film starts in a small Italian village during World War I, where Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) observes Gepetto (David Bradley) living with his birth son Carlo until his death under tragic circumstances.
The grief and his village sends Gepetto spiraling into alcoholism, until he’s compelled by the booze to build a surrogate son from a giant tree, which catches the attention of a Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), who blesses the puppet with life and the name Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) out of pity for the woodcarver’s loneliness, and tasks Sebastian with guiding him toward making good decisions. However, Pinocchio possesses a childlike excitement to be alive from birth which is endearing until it reaches the level of reckless abandon, as the puppet breaks everything he touches, accidentally sets himself on fire and causes oblivious mischief at Gepetto’s church.
These experiences are just the tip of the iceberg as Pinocchio’s decisions and Gepetto’s unrealistic expectations send both of them on different adventures that sees the titular puppet encountering carnival barker Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) and his monkey Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett), fascist general Podesta (Ron Perlman) and even Death (Tilda Swinton), learning important lessons along the way about recognizing evil and putting others before oneself.
There’s also lessons for Gepetto and Sebastian to learn as they embark on a quest to bring Pinocchio home from his misadventures within Volpe’s traveling theater troupe; Sebastian aims to excel as Pinocchio’s living conscience so he can earn the right to make a home inside Pinocchio’s body, but his selfishness consistently gets in the way in an often comedic fashion, such as when he starts to sing a sad song about his backstory and put the spotlight on himself, only to hilarious get crushed by a nearby object at every turn.
Meanwhile, Gepetto longs for Pinocchio to fill the void Carlo left behind, but his puppet’s disobedience disappoints the lonely woodcarver at every turn. His love for his creation wins in the end, though, and puts him on a path toward overcoming his grief. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio isn’t afraid to delve into neither Gepetto’s alcoholism nor his disillusionment over the rise of Mussolini taking over his village, and his character arc fills the adaptation with compelling and powerful humanity.
And that humanity also extends into every aspect of the film’s stop motion animation. The characters are modeled with such attention to detail that emphasizes their humanity, whether it’s the wrinkles and bags all over Gepetto’s face, or the authentic-looking tears around the eyes of a boy Pinocchio befriends in a moment of private admission. The fantasy elements also look true to life; during instances where a lie makes Pinocchio’s nose grow longer, it does so in a way that replicates the growth of a realistic tree branch. What also bears mentioning are how wonderfully the characters meander their world with realistic fluidity, and the backgrounds set a painterly stage in every new place Pinocchio and Gepetto find themselves on their journeys.
There are many elements in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio that adults can grasp, but del Toro didn’t forget to appeal to children as well, from Sebastian’s role as comic relief to important lessons about obedience and recognizing evil. There’s also a land Pinocchio explores that appears more welcoming than scary, although the wood spirits that rule said realm can elicit fear with the many eyes on their bodies. It’s also worth noting that while a lot of the jokes geared toward kids are blisteringly funny, they do distract from the punch of some plot developments, such as a scene where Gepetto, Podesta and Count Volpe debate in a very slapstick-y tone reminiscent of The Three Stooges after Pinocchio suddenly encounters a grave misfortune.
But those moments are few and far between, because Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is an entertaining, sprawling animated epic that concludes on a poignant note about appreciating the little things, the importance of doing one’s best and morality’s role in existence. Audiences of all ages will be moved by these truths, gawk in wonder at the beautiful animation, be swept away by Alexander Desplat’s lovely score, and be endeared by Pinocchio’s love for life upon his introduction, and recognize the parallels Gepetto and Pinocchio’s relationship to that of God and Jesus. It’s powerful in every aspect of filmmaking, and that’s why Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is one of the best adaptations of its classic source material, and one of the best films of the year.