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Newsletter: In Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, A Parable Comes Of Age

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is an allegory for a world that’s too fractured to be sugar-coated for young eyes, writes Rahul Desai in #CineFile.

Newsletter: In Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, A Parable Comes Of Age
Still from Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. Netflix
  • Rahul Desai

Last Updated: 07.45 AM, Jan 19, 2023

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This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on December 12, 2022. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)

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HEAR THAT? That’s the sound of a million kids growing up in a hurry while watching Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s Pinocchio. Make no mistake, this gorgeously conceived stop-motion animated musical is very much a children’s movie. It’s also the modern-day equivalent of parents sitting their little ones down and gently telling them that Santa Claus is a jolly binge drinker. That he still exists, but those cheeks and paunch aren’t as cute as they imagined. In other words, the truth is exposed, but with the tenderness of a white lie.

Pinocchio being a puppet is no longer only a parent-child metaphor. It’s finally an allegory for a world that’s too fractured to be sugar-coated for young eyes anymore. Keeping the story innocent, utopian and bereft of all cultural meaning would be a disservice to all the children who need to be more prepared for the perils of adulthood. Looking at life through rose-tinted glasses runs the risk of mistaking blood for water. (Case in point: Robert Zemeckis’ dreadfully virginal live-action Pinocchio earlier this year). By being based in Mussolini’s Italy, del Toro’s film thrives on the irony of an actual puppet showing more life than the human puppets in a fascist and fearful nation. This Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) is a miracle not because he’s wooden and magical, but because he’s an independent-minded dissenter who exists at the intersection of propaganda-fuelled art and divisive politics.

By simply existing, he questions things like commercial entertainment, war and freedom. He is essentially the only puppet without strings — and his relationship with woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley), which has forever been the soul of the story, is lent perspective by the presence of two other toxic father-son equations: a podesta brainwashing his boy, and a ringmaster berating his pet monkey. Most of all, in the bravest and most organic adaptation move yet, Pinocchio is hinted to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ himself. The symbolism across the film is potent, replete with playful crucifix and resurrection references, as well as the power of immortality. It’s a loaded statement about the divinity — and the stigma — of representing love in an age of commodified hatred. To explore these very adult themes without alienating children is special, because it at once doubles up an exploration of adolescent themes without alienating adults.

The fantasy of the original novel is retained. But a lot of it is shaped by — and infused with — slivers of dark reality. For instance, Geppetto loses his son Carlo before creating Pinocchio, but his grief is inextricably connected to the world he lives in: Carlo dies in an accidental missile strike on a church during World War I. Geppetto grieves for his boy, but not in a sweet-old-sad-sack sort of way: He becomes a raging drunk for 20 years. (The seeds of fascism are sown early too: Geppetto is called a ‘model citizen’ by locals in his happier days with Carlo, a term that becomes shorthand for the venom the Mussolini puppets later spew in the name of hyper-nationalism). The blue fairy, named the Wood Sprite, appears to give the heartbroken old man a second chance at fatherhood. But she is the good sister of Death herself, who keeps sending Pinocchio back every time he ‘perishes’ down on Earth; she reminds him that immortality is a burden, because living forever also means having to see — and suffer through — the death of his loved ones.

There are other ‘slight’ alterations to the setting. Count Volpe — a combination of Mangiafuoco and the fox — is the greedy ringmaster who hijacks Pinocchio and turns him into a famous circus act. But Volpe is in service of Mussolini himself. The Inglourious Basterds nods emerge from not just Christoph Waltz’s voicing of Volpe, but also Volpe’s desire to impress the Italian dictator with a propaganda performance that goes horribly wrong (where Pinocchio compares Mussolini to poop). Pinocchio’s immortality, too, is used smartly: It gets him recruited into the fascist army. The monstrous dogfish swallows Geppetto and Pinocchio, of course, but the ocean is full of unexploded bombs and mines that play a role in their dramatic escape. Even the Happily Ever After here is bittersweet — customised to suggest that stories may end but life goes on. Ultimately, there is no escape from loss.

But perhaps the most pointed update is the narrator, Jiminy Cricket. He is an uppity aspiring author named Sebastian J Cricket (Ewan McGregor) here. Sebastian is still Pinocchio’s conscience — he literally lives inside of the wooden boy, and he’s promised the Wood Sprite to protect Pinocchio. But more importantly, he’s a self-absorbed wordsmith who, over time, wakes up to the world around him. He sets out to write his own memoir, but ends up telling Pinocchio’s many-splendoured story instead. He abandons the personal in pursuit of the political, social and everything in between. In a way, his arc mirrors the legacy of Pinocchio as a story over the decades. Most adaptations have stayed safe and self-involved, with film-makers often turning Pinocchio into a narrow tale of moral rectitude and technical showmanship. Even Sebastian opts to be Pinocchio’s guide only in return for a wish (to be published and famous). But del Toro’s Pinocchio is selfless in terms of the moment it chooses to address. Like J Cricket, the film slowly widens its lens and broadens its heart, sprinkling all the fictional fun with dashes of factual fury. It is so affected and provoked by this world at large that it can’t help but wish life — life with all the contradictions and cruelty of living — onto the wooden puppet. Pinocchio has so often been a window into history. For once, it’s history that becomes a window into Pinocchio. Who needs a memoir, after all, when memory itself chooses to come of age?

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