In the 1980s, I remember repeatedly watching a maudlin sci-fi film called D.A.R.Y.L. with my grandmother. It had to do with a robot that looked like a normal boy, and for some reason I recall him being generated in an ordinary kitchen garbage bin billowing with smoke. (Judging from the Wikipedia description, this was almost definitely not the case.) On some inscrutable kid-brained level, it always felt like I was the bonus kid that my grandma hoped for, in the way that the elderly couple who adopted Daryl wanted a de facto child of their own.
History is full of tales of humans who create a miniature version of a person — a puppet or golem or toy — that then comes to life. By means artificial or magical, they mimic the act of bringing a child into the world. Sometimes those little poppets do good, though more often than not the moral of the story is about playing God and unintended consequences (hello, Mary Shelley). Pinocchio is perhaps the most obvious of those folk tales, and yet I hadn’t really thought of it in the same terms until now.
Indeed, when ToM favorite Guillermo del Toro announced he was doing a Pinocchio remake, I barfed. Why? Why another rehash? Was our epic guy going to go down the Tim Burton route of playing public domain bingo by doing one Sleepy Hollow 3: Even Hollower and Alice in Wonderlandererer after another? Sweet Jesus, save us.
Yet Del Toro’s Pinocchio does something much more audacious — it gives us a stop-motion fairytale of Italian fascism, a sort of Nightmare Before Christmas riff on the filmmaker’s greatest film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). It also re-centers the story on Gepetto, Pinocchio’s dolorous and flawed creator, in a way that makes a lot more sense to me now as an adult than I would have understood as a 7 year old watching D.A.R.Y.L. or the Disney Pinocchio.
Gepetto is a grieving parent, wracked by guilt for not being able to save the life of his beloved child Carlo. In a drunken frenzy of shaking-hands-at-God anger, Papa G decides to create a new little boy out of the wood from a pine tree, one that symbolically sprung from a cone the dead child prized shortly before getting smoked by random and pointless Allied bombing during World War II.
Pinocchio, of course, comes to life, with the help of some crazy interdimensional sprites that definitely recall Pan’s Labyrinth — and with a mild assist by Sebastian J. Cricket (aka Jiminy Cricket), played with characteristic charm by Ewan MacGregor. The walking, talking puppet throws Gepetto’s life upside down in classic Baby Boom fashion, as the heartbroken carpenter realizes what it’s like to actually have a rambunctious child around (and not just the idealized angel Carlo of his memory).
The elfin little woodblock ends up inciting the suspicions of the local Catholic and Fascist authorities (but I repeat myself). And some bad actors, most notably a carnival promoter played deliciously villainously by Christoph Waltz, want to get in on the freak show action by exploiting Pinocchio.
I honestly don’t remember the plot of the Disney Pinocchio that I saw as a child, beyond the fact that he wants to be a real boy and that lying is bad. I feel like there might have been something about a carnival in there somewhere. But my own childlike takeaway from the film was that it was pointless to wish to be something you’re not; to go off in pursuit of an impossible goal to prove to yourself that you’re worthwhile is foolish. Considering that Pinocchio actually does become a real boy at the end of the Disney film, it’s hard to see how this is the message I took away from it. Maybe I really was already a fatalist at seven.
Or maybe it just seemed like the quest to be a “real boy” was in itself inauthentic and self-defeating. Surely many trans viewers have complex feelings about Pinocchio.
Del Toro’s version of the story hews surprisingly close to the Disney version, at least in the broad plot points. Pinocchio is an agent of chaos for old Gepetto, who is first unnerved, then annoyed by the vivacious glockenspiel. But he grows to love him as he sees the boy under threat from local authorities and realizes how sincere, if misguided, Pinocchio can be. The lad comes to realize how much he is living in the shadow of Gepetto’s grief about Carlo, and determines to not be a burden for his maker by doing a residency in Vegas (not really, but close enough).
Papa G has to come to terms with the fact that his beloved Carlo is gone, but a real boy in every meaningful sense of the term is alive and cares for him. He has to learn that you don’t choose your family, even when you carve them out of a pine tree. As the old song says, if you can’t love the one you want, honey, love the one you’re with.
Visual wizardry and gothic folk tales are the name of Del Toro’s game, and he more than delivers here. Much of the film feels like a Henry Selick version of Nightmare Alley, which is definitely a compliment. Though the plot drags a little in the middle, there are some delightful scenes in which Gepetto and later Pinocchio get gobbled up by a great sea creature that has a lighthouse inside itself, and the moments when Pinocchio visits the Other World (staffed by a coterie of jaded, card-playing black rabbits) are surreal and hilarious, in a way that evokes the classic Inside Out bit — forget it, Jake, it’s Cloudtown.
Somehow, against the odds, Guillermo Del Toro has managed to resurrect an over-familiar story and inject with his trademark concoction, equal parts dread and whimsy. Pinocchio would probably be too dark and scary for most kids under 11 or 12, but it will undoubtedly be a first adventure into the fantastic realms for young folks whose parents let this be their first encounter with a more challenging mythic and filmic landscape. What Nightmare Before Christmas meant for me as an impressionable little kid with a captivated imagination, Pinocchio might mean for a new generation.