Carpentry in Motion

I liked GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO, co-directed with Mark Gustafson, better at any rate than the episodes of Guillermo Del Toro’s Cabinet of Curiosities he co-wrote, and better than NIGHTMARE ALLEY, CRIMSON PEAK… you have to go back to PACIFIC RIM, which I felt was successful enough on its own terms but lacked weirdness. PINOCCHIO has weirdness, isn’t quite satisfactory, but the good parts outweigh the weaker, for me.

Gustafson was head of animation on THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, so he gets the Henry Selick role here of doing most of the work I guess but without his name in the title. The film looks great. Apart from the lovely stop-motion judder, the characters at times almost seem like human actors wearing big caricatured heads (especially Gepetto).

The design is also very lovely. It doesn’t have as strong a sense of Mediterranean light and landscape as Miyazaki’s PORCO ROSSO, but it’s gorgeous enough.

Beware of reviews kneejerking into “it’s a darker version” terrain. It doesn’t have anyone metamorphosing into a donkey, as the Disney film, most horrifyingly, does. And Pinocchio does not murder the cricket with a hammer, as he does in Carlo Collodi’s source novel. But Del Toro and Matthew DRAGONSLAYER Robbins’ revision of the story does have a lot of stuff about death, and it’s okay with death. An unusual message for a children’s movie, but a decent one.

The film has some miscalculations. It’s a mistake to include songs unless they can compete with Leigh Harline’s Disney ditties, and how could they? These are mostly not very memorable, and while the voice artists can sing, they can’t necessarily sell a song.

There are other aspects in which the film falls short of its illustrious predecessor (I haven’t seen the Comencini, Benigni, Garrone or Zemeckis). The animation of Pinokes in that original film is so damned characterful — he’s a real boy all right, whatever he may be whittled from. Del Toro’s puppet can do all sorts of non-human contortions (but the Disney sprog could do those too, with his free-spinning knees), and is more of a creature. But he’s not a tenth as endearing.

A lot of this has to do with voice acting. Young Gregory Mann is fine as our wooden hero, probably as good as little Dickie Jones was for Uncle Walt. But the best kid voice work is more than professional — it includes some of the inarticulacy of extreme youth: speech impediments, hesitations, human flaws, oddities of pitch. Think of Thumper.

Voice artists have different qualitifications from onscreen actors, though some people can do both well. I remember seeing ANTZ and being struck by how most of the famous cast were a waste of money. Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone and Christopher Walken make some sense as voice artists, because they have extremely distinctive voices and delivery. Gene Hackman and Sharon Stone might just as well have been anyone with a SAG card.

Here, Ewan McGregor got the bulk of my disappointment. He’s no Ukelele Ike. Del Toro has reimagined the cricket (nameless in the book, here called Sebastian) as a pedant, a fusspot, a Professor Yaffle type. MacGregor can’t do this, he can’t even suggest it. Or he hasn’t been encouraged to force himself. I think Del Toro thought casting a Brit would do the work for him, but casting a Scot with a more or less working class accent doesn’t get you where you need to be. Nothing about the voice says cricket, or fusspot, or anything much. Maybe they were hoping for the ropey Alec Guinness impression, or something comparable.

David Bradley is a fine Gepetto, and his voice is loaded with character. It’s odd, having decided to make Gepetto have an English accent, that they have random background puppets talking with Italian accents. A very Disney thing to do (see ALADDIN), and one with creepy toon-racist subtext concerning who’s allowed to sound like “us.”

Cate Blanchett has been hired to go “eep eep” as a monkey, which I can’t help thinking may be a misuse of her talents, but not as bad as NIGHTMARE ALLEY.

The movie begins by telling us about Gepetto’s flesh-and-blood son (produced God knows how, since no mother is cited), Carlo. We’re told that he dies aged ten, and we spend the next ten minutes morbidly waiting for it to happen. It’s a mistake, I think. Threatening a child’s life, said Truffaut, is almost an abuse of cinematic power. Telling us a child fatality is going to happen and then making us anticipate it is no better. Presenting it as a straight shock would be kinder.

One missed trick, to my way of thinking. Collodi’s puppet begins life as a talking log, and is then hewn into humanoid form. I love that. It seems to me more weird and authentically Del Toroesque than anything here. And his wood sprites are straight out of Miyazaki/MONONOKE.

Fiona mused that the film might usefully teach children about fascism, but I’m not sure it goes far enough. Fascism is really just a colourful backdrop here. One almost feels sorry for Mussolini, attending a puppet show and getting roasted. The kids’ boot camp is better, though I was waiting for the inmates to be transformed into mules, a decent metaphor for ideological brainwashing, I’d have thought.

The difference between Collodi and Del Toro’s worlds seems to be that Collodi seems magic everywhere, in every encounter. Animals talk, weird stuff happens, just generally. Sebastian seems to be the only talking animal here, apart from the bunny undertakers in the afterlife. Magic is limited to the woodsprites and the sphinx of death. There are RULES, we’re continually told. Del Toro’s world has cruelty in it, Collodi’s is continually vicious. Mind you, if you’re going to modify that to make it less irrational and unpleasant, I’d dial back the slapstick. Watching an old man, even an animated one, fall down, is seldom ging to be funny, and having Gepetto carelessly step on Sebastian and run off, heedless, makes the old fellow seem rather inhuman.

I loved the rabbits of death, in their kingdom walled with coffins, though.

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO stars Obi-Wan Kenobi; Argus Filch; William Monmouth; Hermann Gottlieb; Hellboy; Pete Hogwallop; Mike Wheeler; Carol Aird; Buster Scruggs; Col. Hans Landa; Thora and Thessaly Thacker; and Spongebob Squarepants.


5 Responses to “Carpentry in Motion”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    I remember reading the book — at least, a non-Disney edition — as a kid. I recall that the hero was introduced as a haunted piece of wood that talked and had an eye to look back at you.

    Noting how this Pinocchio occupies a world where EVERYBODY is a puppet. That raises some questions about what’s really involved in becoming real, beyond resculpting.

    A favorite adaptation:

  2. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I think Guillermo del Toro’s concept of making Pinocchio about fascism is silly because the author died in 1890. It seems like a redo of “Pan’s Labyrinth” with Mussolini taking over Franco so it feels rote. It’s a pseudo-historical update that tells us nothing about Mussolini, nothing about Pinocchio and nothing about today. An example of “literary paper” storytelling…I mean sure someone writing a literary paper about Collodi’s Pinocchio anticipating fascism is one thing, but incorporating that at the expense of everything is weak.

    I think Michael Powell and Jean Cocteau are maybe the only film-makers who have countered Disney’s imperialism over fantasy and fairy-tales. Powell’s The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffman are powerful realizations of material that would likely have been Disney-fied had his definitive versions not existed. Cocteau’s La Belle et la bete was ripped off, weakly for the animated version providing it insulation.

  3. I could imagine the fascist updating working, although yes it’sa Pan’s Labyrinth self-plagiarism, but as it’s a film at least partly for children, you would need to show the evil in action before we meet Mussolini himself.

    The Tin Drum seems to be lurking in back of this as well, but it’s not intelligent and politically meaningful in the same way.

    There’s a small but rich non-Disney realm that includes Starewicz, Herz, Demy, as well as Powell, Cocteau and others.

    Oddly enough, making everyone a puppet didn’t seem to hurt it, for me. This Pinocchio is far less focused on the quest to become real.

  4. Andreas Flohr Says:

    In the Italian 70ies TV-Series „The Adventures of Pinocchio“, directed by Comencini, the boy is real – then turned in a real donkey and drowned, his buddy Lucignolo is a young street criminal. No kiddie stuff. With Nino Manfredi as Gepetto, Mario Adorf as circus director and Gina Lollobrigida as the fairy queen.

  5. Wow, great line-up. I intended to watch that when I discovered Comencini, and I don’t know what happened to my intention.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: