“Pinocchio” by Guillermo del Toro is about life, death and Mussolini
remembers seeing Walt Disney’s animated version of Pinocchio with his mother when he was a child. He found the story fascinating because of the frightening situations the wooden puppet, who comes to life but longs to be a real boy, gets caught in.
Pinocchio gets kidnapped. He is forced to perform in a traveling show. And he must save his “father”, the woodcarver Geppetto, from the belly of an evil whale named Monstro.
“It was the first time I saw someone understand how scary childhood was for me,” del Toro said last month during a San Francisco screening of his version of Pinocchio at the SFFilm non-profit event to honor the director’s work. “I said, ‘That’s what it’s like to be a kid. “”
Decades later, the Oscar-winning director of imaginative films including Pan’s Labyrinth anddecided to present a new version of the story. It took 10-15 years to get funding because all the major studios turned it down. He laughs when he explains why.
“I would come in and say it was about death and life and the rise of Mussolini. And they would validate my parking lot and send me on my merry way.”
In other words, until Netflix decides to give the green light, airing on the streaming service from Friday. Del Toro thanked Netflix and other services for giving the green light to TV series and movies that more traditional studios are passing on.
As for Pinocchio, this version is inspired by the original 1883 story by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, with a setting transposed to the 1930s against a backdrop of the rise of Italian fascism.
We meet Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) as he mourns the accidental death of his beloved son, Carlo. One night, in a wave of grief and wine-fueled rage, Geppetto chops down a tall pine tree – which happens to be the newly adopted home of a world-traveling cricket with literary aspirations – and carves it into a puppet of a young boy.
An otherworldly spirit (Tilda Swinton) takes pity on the poor old man and, after Geppetto falls into his bed, magically grants puppet life. She appoints the disgruntled insect, Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced charmingly by Ewan McGregor), to be her guide and conscience.
Even with its humorous and charming moments, this is definitely not an animated film for children. When Pinocchio is introduced to the local townspeople during Sunday Mass, del Toro presents a scene as bizarre as a wooden puppet coming to life would be – a counterpoint to the Disney version where Pinocchio waltzes around town.
“I wanted him to land in the church, like a complete anomaly,” del Toro said.
A short, menacing Benito Mussolini also makes an appearance, arriving onscreen, del Toro noted, in a Tex Avery-inspired super stretch limo. The fascist dictator orders his henchmen to “shoot the puppet”, which sends Pinocchio to the afterlife to meet death.
Pinocchio actually makes several visits to the afterlife and it becomes a running joke – though it’s admittedly a little macabre the first time it happens.
In this version of the story, the arrival of Pinocchio is far from the wish of happiness granted to Geppetto. Pinocchio’s energy and enthusiasm overwhelms the puzzled woodcarver, and the puppet is more of a liability than a gift. Even when adjusting to the fact that his puppet has a life of its own, Geppetto expresses frustration and disappointment rather than love and acceptance.
Pinocchio, after all, is not Carlo.
The film takes us far and wide – from the couple’s mountain village, to a traveling carnival, to a fascist training camp and, of course, the belly of a giant sea monster. But the real journey of the film is an emotional one, as Pinocchio and Geppetto learn to accept and love each other. Credit goes to young actor Gregory Mann, who voices Carlo and Pinocchio and also sings the original songs featured in the film. (Del Toro helped write some of the lyrics.)
The innovation, however, is not in the story, but in the way del Toro presents it. Stop-motion animation is a labor-intensive process. The shooting of the film lasted 1,000 days. The puppets must be moved and positioned, frame by frame. And there are 24 frames per second in this nearly 2 hour movie. Del Toro said more than 60 crews were simultaneously working on the production.
Most importantly, however, del Toro said his goal was to treat animators like actors (they’re credited as such) and to show that animation isn’t just a genre for kids, but a form of entertainment. ‘art.
“Stop motion is the almost religious contact between the animator and the puppet,” he said. “No other medium in animation has this intimacy, this invocation, which reminds me of the form of [Japanese puppet] theater called bunraku, in which the puppet is an extension of the performer’s limbs and emotions.”
He told the animators that he wanted to feel what they were feeling and see that emotion translated into the characters on screen.
“I don’t want to see the puppet move — I want to see it come alive. To animate is to give it an anima, a soul,” del Toro said. “So it’s my greatest hope that you’ll see a completely different style of play than you’ve ever seen in stop motion. But I hope even better that at some point you’ll only be moved by a group actors on the screen.”
For me at least, del Toro got his wish – even when Pinocchio becomes a “real boy” but (spoiler!) retains his wooden body rather than turning into flesh and bone. At the end of the story, I forgot that the characters on screen – brought to life by a talented cast that includes Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Christoph Waltz and Cate Blanchett (like the monkey Spazzatura) – were animated puppets .
All that aside, the Mexican director’s take on Pinocchio will appeal to moviegoers who yearn for less sugary stories and who believe young viewers can handle the scariest stuff. Del Toro, who charmed the packed theater by accepting SFFilm Honors for his innovation in filmmaking, said Pinocchio is a labor of love.
“What I learned, the hard way, is that every movie is your last movie. And if you’re given the opportunity to make a movie, there’s no reason why you can’t say that I’m going to make it as beautiful as I can, as perfect as possible,” he said to applause. “If I need to die [with] this movie, I’m going to die. It’s not like I’m useful in any other area. You give it your all every time because you never know if you’ll shoot again. You never do.”