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Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio review – pure poetry in stop-motion

The director's first animated feature, a bold musical reimagining, is a spellbinding cinematic song of life, death and innocence

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is not just another retelling of Carlo Collodi’s iconic – and already 21-time adapted – 1883 novel. For a start, the Mexican auteur’s stop-motion debut – co-directed with Fantastic Mr. Fox’s Mark Gustafson – lands Collodi’s tale in Mussolini-era Italy, positioning this as the third in a thematic trilogy about coming-of-age under the shadow of fascism with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. And then, in an opening montage to rival Up, we meet the kindly woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) and his beloved boy Carlo (Gregory Mann), their love shining like the sun until an unexpected, tragic moment of wanton destruction steals the boy’s life.

Shattered, bereft, addled by alcohol and wracked with grief, one lonely night Geppetto resolves to carve his son anew from the pine his lost son’s once treasured cone grew. In a fervour of wild creation, lightning strikes, and in a manic desperation that marks but one of several ways Del Toro draws striking parallels between the tales of Pinocchio and Frankenstein, the deed is done. By morning, a benevolent Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) has granted the wooden puppet – also poignantly voiced by Mann – life, so that he may fill Geppetto’s remaining years with joy. We know the bare bones of the story that follows, but from this devastating, devastatingly human beginning, it is clear that we’ve never seen it told this way.

The real triumph of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, beyond its emotional framing as a grieving father and a rootless son’s journey towards accepting and embracing one another for who they are rather than who they could never be, is its conviction that this should be a fable that celebrates individualism and disobedience. You’ll find none of Collodi’s “woe to boys who refuse to obey their parents” or Disney’s “a boy who won’t be good might just as well be made of wood” moral prescriptivism here. When Pinocchio sees a fascist enforcer like Ron Perlman’s icy Podesta, he asks “Who controls you?”, and when face-to-face with Il Duce himself, he sings about the diminutive leader’s bowel movements in cherubic tones while shaking his pine posterior. His rebellious streak and fierce uniqueness is his great strength, even if his differences initially, cruelly, peg him as an outcast – if there’s one thing people fear more than those they don’t know, it’s those who have the courage to know themselves.

This fundamental reconfiguring and recontextualising of Collodi’s well-known narrative is the best demonstration of Del Toro’s flair for interweaving fantasy and reality to heighten our understanding of their symbolic resonance since Pan’s Labyrinth. By dropping a literal puppet whose humanity is borne of a steadfast refusal to conform into a moment in history where men treated boys like puppets of war while themselves having their strings pulled by higher powers, we see the futility of war and its cannibalistic monstrosity plain. As a story “of imperfect fathers and imperfect sons,” it speaks to a whole generation of young men and boys indoctrinated by a warped version of paternalism represented by fascists like Mussolini.

Elsewhere, Pinocchio’s episodic encounters as he ventures out into the world and homeward again in search of his father remain, as in other adaptations, the structural core of Del Toro’s retelling. However, here, any risk of breaking the narrative rhythm or stifling the storytelling is subdued by the injection of entrancing, woodwind-led, Vaudevillian musical numbers composed by Alexandre Desplat and co-written by Del Toro himself. Possessing a classical quality that runs refreshingly counter to most modern animation studios’ more radio-ready ditties, there’s a timelessness in the orchestration that adds to the sense that we’re witnessing a future classic in the making.

We’re invited to marvel at each new, twisted protrusion that grows from our charmingly crooked hero’s lie-elongated nose, to gawp in awe at the Harryhausen-esque monstrosity of the tale’s infamous dogfish, and to enjoy grim gallows chuckles at the Charon-like card playing rabbits of the afterlife. But it’s the eyes of a scared child conscripted into a war they’ll never understand, the visibly rattling bones of a father beset by grief and addled by alcohol, the bombs dropping like fallen angels through blazing skies – each designed, crafted, and then painstakingly placed by dell Toro and co-director Mark Gustafson's genius stop-motion team – that stay with you as the credits roll.

That this deeply personal project for Del Toro – who lost his father in 2018, a decade into his attempts to bring this film to life, and his mother a day before the film’s world premiere – begins and ends at a grave is a profound distillation of the Mexican auteur’s acute, career-long sense of our shared mortality. His Pinocchio is a tale as indebted to and reverent of the unifying power of grief and death as it is to their progenitors, love and life. This is why, despite this by no means being a children’s film, it is nevertheless a film that children should see.

Sebastian’s simple, softly delivered closing observation, “What happens, happens, and then we’re gone,” possesses a philosophic clarity that gives Del Toro’s bold reimagining of Pinocchio’s age-old tale a wrenching yet hopeful coda. Ultimately, it is our impermanence that makes us human – our stories in time will outlive us all. This great yarn, a virtuosic combination of music, stop-motion, and heartfelt meaning, reaffirms Guillermo del Toro’s place among the greatest of storytellers. It’s an instant classic, surely destined to endure as the definitive telling of a tale you only thought you knew.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is released in UK cinemas on 25 November and Netflix on 9 December.

Where to watch

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