In Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Guillermo del Toro presented a stunning Angel of Death (designed by sci-fi/fantasy author Wayne Barlowe), a four-winged giant with a sightless skull-like face whose wings bore rows of eyes. Del Toro’s latest production (fully titled Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio) also bears a stunning embodiment of death, this time a masked sphinx credited to artist Guy Davis and others, also with the quartet of eye-possessing wings which, according to the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel, is the correct number for the higher tier of angels.
Del Toro’s adaptation of the 1881 book by Carlo Collodi isn’t any more faithful to its source material than Disney’s version. Still, it is recognizably the story of the world’s most famous wooden boy, and it’s a stunning work of stop-motion animation infused with a very particular del Toro vision.
One of the most jarring changes to this telling of Pinocchio is that del Toro’s version is set in Italy under Mussolini, founder of the National Fascist Party. Del Toro has previously set stories in fascist eras—The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) are set during the Spanish Civil War and directly afterward, in the years following the victory of Franco’s fascist Falange. Mussolini appears as a character in this Pinocchio, a gnomish cretin voiced by Tom Kenny, SpongeBob SquarePants himself. However, the innocent wooden boy’s encounters with fascism—which become increasingly disturbing throughout Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio—aren’t even the darkest parts of this story.
The story opens with Ewan MacGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket narrating the tale of Italian woodworker Geppetto (David Bradley), the loving father of a boy named Carlo (Gregory Mann). Tragedy takes Carlo away from his father, leaving Geppetto destroyed by grief. One night in a drunken fit, he hammers together a distorted wooden effigy of the boy he lost. As in the 1940 Disney film, Pinocchio, a blue fairy grants the puppet life, but here the ‘wood sprite’ (voiced eerily by Tilda Swinton, also doing the voice of Death) is an otherworldly seraph with a motionless mask over her face, and once again with four wings dotted with eyes—not a Hollywood granter of wishes but an Old Testament bringer of ancient arcana.
Pinocchio, also voiced by Gregory Mann, arises on his own power and gleefully begins smashing Geppetto’s workshop and possessions to bits. Pinocchio, it is clear, is far from a perfect child, and even the constant counsel of Sebastian won’t be enough to keep him from regularly parading into disasters. The audience also gets Pinocchio’s view; he’s an energetic new arrival eager to engage with everything while also perplexed by many things around him—often understandably (he’s less than a couple of days old before he has questions about fascism, grief, and death, and no one seems to have answers). In one scene in a church, he asks why people in the congregation adore one wooden boy—a carving of Christ on the cross—while they treat him with fear and disdain.
It’s around this point that Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio starts to turn into real del Toro territory. After Pinocchio is hit by a car, we cut to four half-skeletal rabbit pallbearers taking his soul into the underworld—it’s an image even more unsettling than the creatures in Hellboy II or that eyeless cannibal in Pan’s Labyrinth. Pinocchio subsequently meets the leonine Death and learns that since he isn’t really alive—he isn’t a real boy—he can’t really die. Death is such a frequent theme in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio that it could easily be seen as the main one, especially toward the end.
Given another chance at life, he causes new headaches for Geppetto by skipping school and joining a traveling carnival run by Count Volpe, a perfect combination of stop-motion puppetry and an actor’s vocal performance, this one provided by Christoph Waltz.
Soon the wooden boy encounters Mussolini, ditches the carnival, winds up training in a military camp for Italian fascist youth, and ends up in the gullet of a monstrous fish that resembles the WWII naval mines menacing the sea. This is the same fish that swallowed Geppetto, who was searching throughout Italy for his wayward creation/son.
When Pinocchio tells lies, his nose does indeed grow (and branch out and sprout), but Del Toro isn’t interested in drilling lessons in proper behavior into a young audience. Pinocchio’s misguided actions and the occasional cruelty of his friend Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) – he tricks Pinocchio into setting his own feet on fire – are driven by the patriarchal characters that try to pummel a code of conduct into the puppet. In del Toro’s telling, those characters are conspicuously allied with the Italian fascists.
Pinocchio prefers performing on stage over going to school —he is a living marionette, after all. Meanwhile, Candlewick’s childhood in a nation awash in master race gibberish has traumatized him. For all the trouble that Pinocchio’s rushing around and colliding with everything causes Geppetto and others, it’s the most genuine expression of who he is. He’s not quite as set on becoming a real boy here as he was in the Disney version because he’s already real enough. Still, there are lessons to learn, and he’s got Death itself as a teacher, giving him hints about the operation of the cosmos.
Again, the animation is astounding—there’s a wonderful moment when Geppetto awakes, hungover, on the day Pinocchio has come to life, and there’s a weave in his step that causes his foot to hit the remains of a bottle on the floor. Del Toro’s crew shows extreme care in not only showing these puppets in fluid motion and action but also in revealing the engaging details that make them distinct characters. Characters occasionally burst into song, cute little numbers that make little difference in the story. Geppetto sings to Carlo, and that song reappears in a different form when Pinocchio appears on the stage. Comically, in many scenes, Sebastian J. Cricket begins a tune only to be interrupted by another character talking or an action scene before he gets to the second verse – a brief moment of levity amidst the danger and naivity.
There is enough fabulous character design, physics-defying animation, and general del Toro oddity to Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio to capture his special effects fans and hold them to this stop-animation format. As the film approaches its conclusion, one wonders if its constant reminders of life’s end aren’t there to terrify but are instead partial answers to the questions an innocent Pinocchio and a more world-weary Geppetto were asking at the beginning.