Let’s talk about animation.
Animation is often regarded as a child’s medium, meant to keep them occupied while adults do, well, anything else. (Bob Chapek, the recently deposed CEO of Disney, argued the same. Oh, the irony.) There are several problems with that reasoning. The most glaring one is that it severely discounts animation’s rich storytelling capabilities, ignoring its capacity to transcend the barriers of live-action features. The only proper limit that animation has is the imagination of its creators.
Few creatives in Hollywood are more imaginative than Guillermo del Toro. His films astound in their wholehearted embrace of the fantastical, whether it be aesthetic or thematic. His gift, one of many, is his realization of earnest emotional truth, no matter the story’s circumstances. Animation seems the perfect medium for del Toro, where his vision can soar unencumbered by on-set production practicalities.
Del Toro uses that vision to revive one of the most famous characters in the history of media: Pinocchio. While originating from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 Italian novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, most audiences likely regard the character by its iconic Disney iteration. Del Toro’s version of the wooden boy draws inspiration from artist Gris Grimly’s rendering. It abandons the cherubic face and small yellow hat of Walt Disney’s production for pine-colored sharp edges, deep grooves, and fragile construction.
Del Toro transports his Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) to a stop-motion recreation of 1930s fascist Italy. Artisan Gepetto (David Bradley) crafts him in a spate of drunken grief over his son Carlo’s death during a bombing of their church. Sensing Gepetto’s misery, a Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton) imbues the wooden boy with life and assigns the anthropomorphic insect Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) to be his guide. Pinocchio’s rambunctious nature and childlike disobedience rattle the war-torn community. They, including the still-grieving Gepetto, don’t know what to make of his songs or his rapid-fire reactions to the expanding world around him. They follow their instincts to shun, mold, and exploit him for financial and political gains. Despite the challenges, Pinocchio, with Gepetto and Sebastian’s help, discovers his humanity; the bad, but especially the good.
As much sense as it makes, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is still an astonishing sight to behold. Del Toro and co-director Marc Gustafson use stop-motion to animate Pinocchio’s world, seamlessly blending real-life modeling and visual effects. The aesthetic has an earthy, rudimentary charm, stunningly reflecting the austere circumstances of war-torn Europe. Every character model is exquisitely designed and detailed, whether a background townsperson or a spiritual deity. They, and the world they inhabit, move with a bouncy yet fluid rhythm, pushing stop-motion into the fanciful territory that is del Toro’s artistic trademark.
Pinocchio’s journey is as ethereal and whimsical as you would expect from del Toro. Wonder wafts through every frame of the film, almost always jaw-dropping in its spectacle. Pinocchio’s atmosphere is more than just dreamlike vibes. It’s a story of self-actualization, even when you’re unsure who you are. Pinocchio was made to be a real boy, but he constantly comes up against different interpretations of that mandate. Is he a source of comfort for a man consumed by grief, or is he an exploitable meal ticket for a dastardly showman? Or does his immortality make him the perfect soldier? Pinocchio earnestly explores the ups and downs of those possibilities until he discovers his own interpretation.
Pinocchio’s adventures in substituted grief, artistic and financial exploitation, and the brutalities of war are all deeply compelling in their own right. Each vignette is deeply felt and fearless in exploring the inherent darkness girding their charms. There are times, however, when they don’t fit comfortably in the same space. While Pinocchio has no weak narratives, Pinocchio’s time training as a soldier feels out-of-place, sitting a step above the intimate interactions with Gepetto, Sebastian, and the villainous Count Volpe. It feels incorrect, and even callous, to regard it as superfluous, especially when its themes and character moments resonate so beautifully. And yet, narrative unease settles in.
Until it doesn’t. Del Toro blows whatever story misgivings one might have to pieces in the film’s final act. Del Toro crafts a finale that is not only thrilling and exciting but emotionally devastating in the best way. He crystallizes Pinocchio’s experiences into a moving meditation on what it means to live and love and the sacrifices accompanying both. The film’s denouement is shattering in its loveliness, possessing a life-affirming empathy that few films could achieve, regardless of medium.
Imagine seeing Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio and thinking that animation has nothing to offer adults and little to offer children than a pleasing diversion. It is a disservice to art and an insult to audiences’ intelligence to regard animation in such a way. Pinocchio likely couldn’t exist as a live-action project and is infinitely better because it isn’t. Del Toro utilizes every technique to create a startlingly alive film in every sense of the word. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it bears repeating: animation is a boundless medium for everyone. Believing the opposite will rob you of so much, including one of the year’s best films.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is available on Netflix.