Slightly ashamed to admit I've never seen Disney's Pinocchio. Although I imagine I could assemble two thirds of it from all the clips they used to show on children's TV. So I have only the most general impression of the story: old woodcarver, wish upon a star, fairy, evil circus, whale's belly, turned into a real boy. Nose gets longer when he lies. Cockroach acts as his conscience. 

I guess that's how folk tales work. You know the idea without necessarily knowing the story. Guy creates monster out of dead bodies and it kills him. Bloke lives in the woods, wears green, steals from the rich. Chap from the north pole, wears red, puts presents down the chimney.

Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio (one N, two Cs) has been slightly promoted as a darker take on Disney's original; which makes me think that Disney's original must have been very saccharine indeed. No sooner has the puppet (voiced by Gregory Mann) come to life than he starts singing a song about how wonderful the world is, and he perpetually delivers Pollyanaisms  "Oh boy! Church! I love Church! Oh boy! I love school! What's school?" (There is a  Mitchell and Webb sketch in which Geppetto deposits the puppet into a wood chipping machine. "Oh boy! A wood chipper! I love wood chippers!" One sympathises.)

So. Geppetto (two Ps, two Ts, voiced by David Bradley) makes a puppet. A supernatural creature -- wood spirit, rather than fairy (voiced, inevitably, by Tilda Swinton) brings it to life. The puppet boy is rejected by the local people, despite the fact that, being a stop-motion movie, they are kind of puppets as well. He naively joins a travelling circus. Geppetto comes after him, but is eaten by a whale. Pinocchio escapes from the circus and rescues Geppetto. They all live happily ever after.

There are two new ideas. The first is that the action is set in 1940s Italy, with lots of specific period detail, occasionally making one think of the Godfather or a wine advertisement. After he escapes from the travelling circus, Pinocchio is recruited into a Young Fascists training programme. (This kind of replaces Disney's Pleasure Island.) It works quite nicely for the magic fable to be taking place in a real historical period rather than a fairy-tale olden days, and Pinocchio's relentless sunniness is offset by the evil going on around him. (You wouldn't, I think, make a whimsical cartoon with Hitler in it.) 

And the second twist is that this Pinocchio is immortal: which makes the Fascists think he would make a rather useful soldier. (This feels like the sort of thing Alan Moore would have come up with: Captain America vs Pinocchio, anyone.) 

There are quite a few references to catholicism in the film: Pinocchio can't understand why the people like the gigantic crucified Christ but dislike him, considering that they are both made of wood. (There is a very bad joke in which the crucified Christ mistakes Geppetto for God. I am sure that wasn't in anyone's mind.) When Pinnochio is knocked down by a truck after his first misadventure in the circus, he finds himself, not in a Catholic purgatory, but in a weird underworld populated by card playing rabbits from whence he is reincarnated by the spirt of death (Tilda Swinton, again).

There is, inevitably, a lot of emphasis on the whole father/son thing. There is a longish prologue about Geppetto's idyllic relationship with his real son, Carlos, who was killed in a World War I bombing raid, while helping install the wooden Jesus in the church. Geppetto spends twenty years getting drunk and feeling sad, and makes the puppet from the pine tree on Carlos's grave in a fit of bitterness. So Pinocchio is kind of a substitute, never quite good enough for Geppetto, until the third act when everyone realises that he can't be Carlos and as to be himself and Geppetto can't stay in the past but has to move on and look forward etc etc etc.

The characters are mostly engaging, and there is always something happening on the screen. Ewan McGregor voices the cricket character ("Sebastian J") and brings a welcome touch of irony and levity to the proceedings. The musical numbers are unobjectionable. I did enjoy the shamelessly scatological song and dance routine Pinocchio performs in front of Mussolini, which results in him being killed for the second time. The escape from the belly of the whale, in which Pinocchio tells increasingly blatant and transparent lies to provide everyone with an unlikely escape route was both funny and exciting.

The one thing I know about Pinocchio is that he eventually becomes a Real Boy. In this version -- and I suppose I should have seen it coming -- it transpires that it isn't his wooden body that prevents him from being "real" but his immortality. Life is meaningful because it is finite. While saving Geppetto and Sebastian from the whale, Pinocchio is killed for a third time, and demanding to be sent back to earth immediately, loses his immortality. So he is a real boy, even though he is still made of wood. He has to watch Geppetto and Sebastian peacefully passing away before going to make his own way in the world. Maybe it's a little bit too "Tin Woodman", but it avoids the sentimentality of the old ending. I believe in the Italian original the price of being human was going to school and being good for a whole year.

Quite a lot of people seemed to think this was a major masterpiece. I found it quite endearing. Probably should give Walt's version a look at some point for comparison. (I believe I get old cartoons thrown in for free with my subscription to Andor.)


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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Andrew Ducker said...

"Fairy tale, but Fascism" does seem like Del Toro's wheelhouse. See also Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth.

As for whimsical movies about Hitler, have you seen Life is Beautiful?

Mike Taylor said...

Or JoJo Rabbit?