The director’s first animation, a stop-motion musical for Netflix, is impressively distinctive

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Source: London Film Festival

‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’

Dirs: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Gustafson. US. 2022. 117 mins.

Netflix’s impressive run of high-quality animations continues with Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, the director’s gorgeous first foray into animation and a prickly, bracingly macabre spin on the much-adapted tale. It relocates Carlo Collodi’s 1883 story to an Italy simmering with fascism in the first half of the twentieth century, and doesn’t shy away from the monstrous elements of the sentient marionette with flammable feet and no impulse control. Co-directed by del Toro and stop motion specialist Mark Gustafson (the animation director on The Fantastic Mr Fox), the film represents the highly-polished end of the stop motion spectrum, with little of the rough and ready hand-crafted choppiness which more frequently characterises the medium. The comparative slickness of the animation does not come at the expense of the film’s enthralling emotional journey however, which takes in several visits to the afterlife, the guts of a whale and the frontline of a war, before delivering a sublimely sad closing sequence.

Manages to balance the darkness with sparks of hope, humour and humanity

Del Toro’s name in the picture’s title (presumably to distinguish this version from the year’s other, lesser Pinocchio, Robert Zemeckis’s live-action version for Disney) is an acknowledgement that, despite a starry voice cast which includes Ewan McGregor, Cate Blanchett and Tilda Swinton, the director is the main draw here. The film should be warmly received on its limited festival run, which, following a London Film Festival premiere, will take in Grand Lyon in France, Animation in Film and AFI in the US. And once it is launched on Netflix (from December 9th, following some theatrical release in November), it should connect with both existing fans of del Toro’s distinctive vision, and older family audiences (little children may struggle with the picture’s dark themes and slightly creepy character design).

The most unnerving-looking of all the creatures that the rough-hewn wooden boy encounters is Spazzatura (voiced by Cate Blanchett), the horrifying goblin monkey henchman to Christoph Waltz’s malevolent showman, Count Volpe. But it’s fair to say that even Pinocchio himself (voiced by Gregory Mann) is hardly conventionally cute – he has more in common with Jan Svankmajer’s gnarled troll-baby Little Otik than he has with the Disney incarnation. But a glorious musical sequence which follows the newly sentient puppet as he pinballs around Gepetto’s workshop, marvelling at everything from hammers and axes to chamber pots, and destroying pretty much everything he touches, cements his appeal. He’s unformed and curious, an impish agent of chaos, unthinkingly creating havoc wherever he goes. But there’s a sweetness to him too: Mann’s lovely pure voice gets the very best out of Alexandre Desplat’s rather uneven musical numbers.

Delivering moral guidance and most of the best jokes is Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), the film’s narrator. An insect and an author, Sebastian had already made his home in the tree which Geppetto (David Bradley), drunk and grieving the loss of his son, carved into a wooden puppet. It’s only slightly unsettling that he continues to reside in the now-living Pinocchio’s chest cavity. The slightly pompous but well-intentioned cricket is the comic relief in a film which doesn’t sugar-coat the ache of bereavement, the futility of war or the manifold failures of mankind, but which manages to balance the darkness with sparks of hope, humour and humanity.

Production companies: Double Dare You! Film, Shadow Machine Production

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producers: Guillermo del Toro, Lisa Henson, Gary Ungar, Alex Bulkley, Corey Campodonico

Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro, Patrick McHale

Cinematography: Frank Passingham

Production design: Guy Davis, Curt Enderle

Editing: Ken Schretzmann, Holly Klein

Music: Alexandre Desplat

Main voice cast: Ewan McGregor, David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Burn Gorman, Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Finn Wolfhard, Cate Blanchett, Tim Blake Nelson, Christoph Waltz, Tilda Swinton