Dir: Roberto Benigni. Italy. 2002. 108mins.

Pinocchio is Roberto Benigni's reward - from himself, Medusa and Miramax - for the success of La Vita E Bella. No small reward: its Euros40m budget makes this the most expensive Italian film ever, and its 860-screen release on 11 October is the biggest ever Italian opening. It's also the first Italian film for years to have been sold sight-unseen in scores of territories. Given the numbers and the hype, it's difficult not to approach this all-European blockbuster with high expectations. And it's difficult not to be disappointed. Benigni's Pinocchio looks great, but relies too much on the Italian actor-director's celebrated energy and joie de vivre - here pushed to the point of self-parody - and ducks the challenge of bringing Carlo Collodi's classic up to date, not in its historical setting, but in its moral and emotional relevance. Kids in the five to ten age group will be entertained, but without the attitude of a Shrek or the adventure-romance of a Lord Of The Rings, Pinocchio risks boring older siblings and leaving their parents with no more than a cloyingly sweet taste in the mouth.

So far only the Italian original - reviewed here - has been aired. The USA version, released on Christmas Day will be dubbed, with Benigni doing his own voice in English. Perhaps this will make the difference. Outside of Italy - where the size of the event will guarantee Harry Potter-like box-office takings - Pinocchio may well under-perform, more so if going head-to-head against Harry Potter et al . Still, Christmas is one of the few times of year when such a goodwill-stuffed kid's fable has a chance of catching the mood of a nation. Spring releases in the rest of the world may be less fortunate.

Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio is a product of 1880s Italy, and it is the flavour and setting of the original book that Benigni has set out to capture. So the costumes and sets - the work of the Danilo Donati, who died in the final stages of production, and to whom the film is dedicated - put an attractive fairy-tale spin on Risorgimento Italy. The Tuscan village of Geppetto the carpenter may look soft-edged and studio-built, but the sense of poverty is real. The edge between this heightened historical realism and the fantasy elements of the book - the Blue Fairy, Toyland, the stomach of the shark (not a whale, as Disney had it) - is nicely blurred; there is a feeling of a time when fable was closer to everyday life and not shut up in the ghetto of films and computer games. The wooden log that bounces through the town at the beginning, scattering mayhem, is a neat introduction both to Benigni's take on Pinocchio - as an unrestrained ball of childish energy - and to the film's magic realism.

But this is largely a factor of set design, costume design, special effects (respectable, though hardly cutting-edge) and decisions about which of Collodi's scenes to include, and with what degree of emphasis. Benigni's affection for the work of his fellow Tuscan comes through in every scene; what is missing is an objective distance from the source, a cogent attempt to ask why Pinocchio is relevant today. Collodi's Pinocchio had the 19th-century morality of the "be good or else", while Disney's 1940 war-time version chimed with an echo of these Victorian values and made a meal of the nose-growing act (dealt with only cursorily in the original book). Benigni's nose grows too, thanks to special effects; but his slapstick take is less painful than the cartoon puppet's badge of shame.

The Blue Fairy is there to prevent the film from taking too dark a turn, and Nicoletta Braschi's saccharine words of wisdom crush the film's emotional development, preventing Benigni from cranking up the adversity, as he did in La Vita E Bella, to test his character's sunny exuberance. Only once or twice - as when the puppet is strung up from a tree - does the sense of tension between the animal energy of childhood and the adult world of work, rules and everyday suffering, come through

With the exception of the wooden Blue Fairy, the cast is strong enough, peaking in Kim Rossi Stuart as Pinocchio's rapscallion friend Lampwick (Lucignolo) and Max Cavallari and Bruno Arena as the Cat and the Fox, two moth-eaten small-time crooks. Neapolitan cabaret performer Peppe Barra is good too as the stuffy, sententious Talking Cricket (the Jiminy of Disney's version), insect-sized and insect-vulnerable.

Prod co: Melampo Cinematografica; Medusa & Mario, Vittorio Cecchi Gori, Miramax Films.
It dist: Medusa
Int'l sales: Miramax Films
Prods: Nicoletta Braschi, with Elda Ferri, Gianluca Braschi
Exec prod: Mario Cotone
Scr: Vincenzo Cerami, Roberto Benigni, from "The Adventures of Pinocchio" by Carlo Collodi.
Cinematography: Dante Spinotti
Prod des: Danilo Donati
Ed: Simona Paggi
Music: Nicola Piovani
Main cast: Roberto Benigni, Nicoletta Braschi, Kim Rossi Stuart, Carlo Giuffre, Peppe Barra, Max Cavallari, Bruno Arena