‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ review: dark, twisted animated epic

During “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” on Netflix, Disney’s 1940 version of the old tale doesn’t pop into mind much. The House of Mouse film I kept thinking of was “Bambi.” 

The “Shape of Water” director, in his brilliant stop-motion animated movie co-directed by Mark Gustafson, harkens back to the good old days of tough-love family flicks with a lot of tears and huge emotional payoffs.

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Running time: 117 minutes. Rated PG (dark thematic material, violence, peril, some rude humor and brief smoking.) On Netflix Dec. 9.

At least Bambi’s poor mom wasn’t done in by a bomb in World War I. That’s how Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) loses his 10-year-old son Carlo, when the small-town Italian church he’s standing in explodes. 

It’s a deeply sad and unexpected start, and with it our predispositions are blown up, too. We’re whisked into another of del Toro’s sinister worlds of magic, sleazy hucksters and hard-learned lessons.

The grief-stricken father plants a pine tree at little Carlo’s grave and in his despair, becomes a drunk. That is until one night some years later when the woodcarver desperately fashions a boy-shaped puppet from its trunk. 

“I’ll make Carlo again out of this cursed pine!” he screams into the night. “When You Wish Upon a Star,” it is not. 

Grieving Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) carves Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) out of a pine tree.

A sphinx-like goddess (Tilda Swinton) appears while Geppetto is asleep and brings his creation to life, while tasking nomadic insect Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) with ensuring that the piece of wood learns how to be good.

This Pinocchio, in contrast with Disney’s, doesn’t resemble a colorfully dressed human, but is instead 100% unabashed lumber. He’d vanish on my living room floor. And somehow, even though he’s more Ace than Gap, Pinocchio is the most endearing animated on-screen fella since Paddington. His lovability is helped along by British child actor Gregory Mann’s voice work, which is as innocent as it gets.

Pinocchio is the most adorable animated creature since Paddington.
Pinocchio is the most adorable animated creature since Paddington.

However, even though Pinocchio is adorable, the animated world he inhabits is sharp-edged, lush and dangerous. Many of Pixar’s recent movies, and as it happens its storylines, have become increasingly blobby. Del Toro’s is jagged.

It’s also sort of a musical. The composer Alexandre Desplat has written some sprightly tunes for Pinocchio and the cricket to sing every so often. But he smartly keeps them more atmospheric than theater razzmatazz. This is not a light or glittering movie.

Of course, “Pinocchio” is by no means a horror, science fiction or noir film, like past del Toro pictures. The main character’s nose still grows when he lies, and he goes on adventures, only the director sets them amid 1940s Italy during the rise of Benito Mussolini. As he did so ingeniously with “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the Spanish Civil War, del Toro explores fantasy, myth and childhood in a time of oppressive fascism; the specks of light that escape the darkness.

Pinocchio is forced to work in a puppet show, led by the Fagin-esque Count Volpe, and performs a war propaganda song for Il Duce. Some extreme events could frighten younger kids: The twig later goes off to battle, towing a gun, and there is more than one death in this telling.

Count Volpe (voiced by Chrisoph Waltz) is a villainous puppet show producer in "Pinocchio."
Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz) is a villainous puppet show producer in “Pinocchio.”

The high stakes are what make “Pinocchio” such an unexpected and reinvented pleasure and an altogether beautiful experience. Disney’s perfectly fine movie “Strange World” that’s currently in theaters also confronts the complexity of father-son relationships, but “Pinocchio” does it with deeper feeling and with real guts.

In more ways than one, del Toro’s film is more than a chip off the old block.

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