Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is what it is in every way because it proudly wears all of its provenances and influences on its model-material and wooden sleeves.
Throughout fact, the tautological phrase—which is associated with resignation and accepting one's flaws—recurs in the last few minutes of the movie. This baggy, occasionally raggedy, but frequently gorgeous adaptation of Carlo Collodi's episodic tale about a living wooden puppet, first published in the late 19th century, is like an affirmation that life is messy and fantastic, much like this masterfully performed stop-motion animation.
The 1940 animated film by Walt Disney smoothed down and removed the more horrifying and brutal aspects of the original story. (But not completely! Over the years, the donkey transformations have psychologically damaged a lot of kids.) Many of the spooky elements from Collodi are included in this adaptation, which was co-written by del Toro and Patrick McHale (from the animated series Adventure Time) and co-directed by del Toro and Mark Gustafson (the animation director for Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox). It isn't any more "faithful" to the original than the Disney adaptation or the majority of the numerous and diverse film, TV, and stage productions with "Pinocchio" in the title.
That is a plus. Through a kind of thematic jujitsu, the directors have transformed what is frequently perceived as a morality story encouraging children to obey into an allegory about "imperfect fathers and imperfect sons," to use the voiceover narration by Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), a tale that promotes acceptance of people for who they are. In other ways, it even glorifies disobedience, especially when fascists are the ones being defied; a current lesson for young children today. These fascists are of the vintage, Benito Mussolini-worshipping sort from the 1930s and 1940s, and they are actively involved in the action because the scene is set in Italy at the outset of World War II. Even Il Duce, or Il Dulce as Pinocchio refers to him, makes a cameo as a distinguished guest at the puppet production our pine-derived hero (fantastically spoken by British child actor Gregory Mann) has been forced to participate in.
The writing by del Toro and McHale contains many inventive ideas that work well, are strong, and shine, like the shifting of the time period. It's also creative to divide the life-giving Blue Fairy into two distinct magical beings painted in various hues of blue: one is a kind forest sprite, and the other is Death, a sphinx-like figure that keeps reviving Pinocchio. (Both characters are voiced by Tilda Swinton using a distorted effect that sounds like a malicious vocoder.)
The same is true of the prologue, which depicts Geppetto (David Bradley, who will have a busy autumn in 2022 between this, Catherine Called Birdy, and Allelujah) and his first-born, flesh-and-blood son Carlo (also Mann), coexisting in an almost unhealthy state of happiness before Carlo is killed by a stray bomb on a church during World War I. That last action highlights how much of a story sadness and loss have always been at the core of, going all the way back to the original text where the Blue Fairy, like so many mothers who pass away after childbirth, is ostensibly killed.
The way the movie makes references to one of its filmmakers' work beyond Collodi is neither necessarily good nor negative. Del Toro appears in almost every frame, as if having his name in the title weren't enough. The movie occasionally feels like a greatest hits collection of del Toro tropes, from the supernatural creatures with unsettling peepers scattered about their bodies—like one of the most famous monsters in Pan's Labyrinth with eyes in its hands—to the carnival settings that call to mind his last film, Nightmare Alley, and the watery realms that call to mind The Shape of Water and other back-catalogue efforts. The self-quoting will certainly be adored by the auteur's ardent admirers, who are uncountable; yet, more critical, less indulgent viewers might find it annoying, a sign of grandiosity or even just laziness.
I fall somewhere in the middle. This movie is just up my alley because I'm the kind of critic who virtually never meets a stop-motion animation piece she doesn't enjoy, especially if it's just on the verge of being too frightening for kids. I also love any Pinocchio version. The maraschino cherry on top of the sweet spot is the fact that the filmmakers purposefully chose to intentionally make the animation a little bit stuttery, paying attention to the technique instead of smoothing it out as it so easily might have been given modern technology.
Plus we get delectable uncanny valley sprinkles in the character designs for the living, non-wooden characters, folks who are emotive but not too expressive, always making us aware of the fact that we’re witnessing a stop-motion puppet performance. The best one is Count Volpe (creamily spoken by Christoph Waltz), a slinking, gangly impresario who is a mash-up of the Fox and Mangiafuoco in the Collodi text, a character with magnificent hair like a hedge of angry copper beech that won a battle with a lawn mower.
His monkey mini-me facilitator Spazzatura (the word meaning rubbish in Italian) is a less effective piece of design, appearing as it does like a reanimated marmoset corpse, but perhaps that was totally intentional. It is delightful, though, that Spazzatura’s numerous grunts, shrieks and simian cackles, and a few odd phrases in genuine English, are voiced by Cate Blanchett. This may be the best case of a prominent, feted actor hired to do animal noises since George Clooney did the voice of Sparky the gay dog on South Park.
Where the film is more troublesome is in the editing and pacing, a shortcoming it shares with too many Netflix-produced features. Although, again, it’s wonderful that room is made for strange digressions and sight gags like, for example, sequences with card-playing bunnies that resemble Cassius Marcellus Coolidge’s renowned paintings of dogs playing poker, it’s not that amusing that we needed to see it two or three more times. I feel tempted to argue there’s a leaner, stronger film inside here that could have been coaxed out, but in the light of the film’s message about embracing people as they are, maybe we shouldn’t be condemning this film either. It is what it is, and that’s wonderfully imperfect.