Rated PG

Starring David Bradley, Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Tim Blake Nelson, John Turturro, Ron Perlman

Critical Rating: ***** of *****

Austin Family Family-Friendly Rating: **** of *****

 

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is a marvel of stop-motion animation, a true feast for the senses that captures the spirit of the oft-retold children’s story and brings it alive with Del Toro’s signature visual ingenuity. The film feels vital and imaginative in a way that’s been lacking in the animated offerings from the past year (save for Richard Linklater’s Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Childhood).

 

First, though, a note about the tone of the film – while this Pinocchio is a wildly entertaining and colorful adventure, it also delves into a topic not usually explored by animation: fascism. It does so in such an ingenious way (playing with the very idea of what it means to be a puppet) that adult audiences will likely respond to Del Toro’s film as much as children. It must be noted that the film is sometimes quite dark (though never in a graphic manner), and one could make the argument that it’s not suited for the youngest of children. But then I think back to my own childhood, and how Henry Selick and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – perhaps the most famous stop-motion film of our time – sparked my imagination in a way few other movies could. Nightmare is an unusually ghoulish and gothic children’s tale that nevertheless made an immensely positive impression on me, and I can’t help but think this iteration of Pinocchio might play a similar role in the lives of children who see it.

 

This is all to say that the appropriateness of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio may vary depending on what you feel comfortable showing your children – but my instinct is to say that this kind of daring, visually striking form of children’s entertainment is exactly the kind of material that can awaken a young person’s creativity.

 

This retelling of Pinocchio is narrated by Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor), who recounts his days with Geppetto (David Bradley), an elderly Italian carpenter mourning the loss of his son Carlo during a World War I air raid bombing. In a drunken stupor, Geppetto builds a wooden puppet as a replacement for his son, which the magical spirit Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) imbues with life, creating the rambunctious and jovial Pinocchio (Gregory Mann).

 

Where this Pinocchio begins to stray from prior adaptations is in the specifics of what happens next: as Benito Mussolini rises to power in Italy, local townspeople have nefarious plans to take advantage of the immortal wooden puppet. The Italian military official Podesta (Ron Perlman) considers Pinocchio the ideal super-soldier, while the circus ringmaster Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) sees Pinocchio as his starring attraction, culminating in Pinocchio unknowingly spreading fascist propaganda in a touring show that is ultimately performed for Mussolini himself. In both cases, Pinocchio is being used as a tool for the authoritarian state, which stands in stark contradiction to Geppetto’s anti-war beliefs.

 

In the midst of all of this, Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio somehow also manages to be a winning musical, with a handful of songs that beautifully complement the action of the film. It’s a tricky tonal act pulling all of this off, but Del Toro is up for the challenge.

 

For whatever reason, there’s something about stop-motion animation that lends itself to great, imaginative filmmaking. Perhaps it’s the care and precision put into every single character movement, but somehow the great stop-motion films of the last thirty years (The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, Fantastic Mr. Fox) feel more thematically complex and densely layered than other contemporary animated films. The filmmaking craft is more exacting, and the result is something that leaves an imprint on one’s mind, regardless of the viewer’s age. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio would be a very deserving winner of this year’s Best Animated Film Oscar – it already feels like a classic.

 

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.

 

Jack Kyser is a graduate of Austin High School and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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