The puppets themselves are very expressive particularly Geppetto, the wood carver who creates Pinocchio and is effectively his father (voiced by David Bradley). Other members of the impressive voice cast include Ewan McGregor as Sebastian J. Cricket (note – not Jiminy); Gregory Mann as both Pinocchio and Carlo (who is Geppetto’s human son) and Tilda Swinton, as the Wood Sprite, who gives the wooden boy life and also as Death, who holds his fate in her hands.
Like the Disney version, the film is inspired by Italian author Carlo Collodi’s children’s book, taking elements from it and adding others from the film maker’s own creativity. In this case, one of those elements is war, another is death itself. The striking visual style comes from the illustrations by artist Gris Grimley in a new edition of the novel and del Toro is co-directing with stop motion veteran Mark Gustafson. Visually it’s a vibrant collaboration.
The opening scenes between Geppetto and his human son Carlo, which introduce the war theme, are particularly affecting. Set during the First World War their blissfully happy relationship is ended when a stray German bomb hits the village church and kills Carlo. Geppetto plants a pine cone by Carlo’s grave from which a tree grows. Years late in booze filled fit of grief, he chops down the tree and from it creates Pinocchio. Who is just a wooden puppet until the Wood Sprite gives him life.
And so Pinocchio’s journey begins with a conflicted relationship with a “father” who initially rejects him because he is not like Carlo and who in the course of the story must learn to love the son he has created. Pinocchio himself is rebellious, despite the efforts of his Sprite appointed guide, the wannabe author Sebastian J. Cricket, who is a more intellectual creature than Disney’s Jiminy but also alarmingly prone to getting literally squashed.
Others whom Pinocchio meets include the avaricious carnival master Volpe (Christoph Walz), who forces Pinocchio into his marionette show and his bizarrely ugly monkey sidekick Spazzatura, whose grunts rather than speech are voiced by Cate Blanchett.
War rears its ugly head again. Italy, World War Two and the local Fascist official (Ron Perlman), who forces both his own son and Pinocchio into the fighting force. And then there are the poker playing Black Rabbits, who guard the chamber of Death herself – she who keeps sending Pinocchio back to the world every time he dies – because he is not human, not yet anyway.
The film is a beautiful, imaginative and original version of the story, finding and exploring big themes beneath the fairy tale. And as its PG certificate indicates, del Toro’s fascination with horror as well as myth makes it distinctly scary for small children at times – not to mention sensitive adults
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is available to view on Netflix