One of the most enduring stories in cinema, Pinocchio fascinates filmmakers like few other fairytales, with new versions of the tale – from Disney’s classic take to Spielberg’s AI to the version currently in development starring Tom Hanks – constantly being developed. Making your version of Pinocchio stand out among the crowd is no mean feat, but Gomorrah and Dogman director Matteo Garrone achieves this with a mix of faithful adaptation of the original and some truly bizarre visuals. It’s hardly a perfect film, but it is a great lesson in how to adapt an overly-adapted story and find space for originality.
By this point, we’re all familiar with the basic story beats of Pinocchio; Gepetto builds puppet, puppet comes to life, puppet wants to be a real boy, this desire pushes him into mischief and misfortune. Garrone’s take hits these expected beats, but his commitment to honouring the original story from 1883 – published in multiple instalments – means the storytelling here is very episodic. The overarching plot of the lost Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) trying to re-find Gepetto (Roberto Benigni) frames the individual adventures, but there’s no strong emotional through line, leaving a lot of pressure on the cast to make sure the vignettes hit home.
Benigni is perfectly cast, joyous and mournful and just a little bit manic, without ever slipping into caricature. It’s a far more contained performance than the one he gave in his own disastrous adaptation of Pinocchio back in 2002, and far, far better for it. In fact, Benigni would be the highlight of the whole film if it wasn’t for the absolutely staggering make-up work. Pinocchio himself is a marvel, with his wooden prosthetics so convincing that you’ll find yourself forgetting that a real boy is under the make-up, while the different animals that Pinocchio meets on his adventures are strikingly realistic.
There are few Disney-esque cutesy creatures here, iconic characters like Jiminy Cricket and the Fox and the Cat instead indelibly creepy practical creations, melding human and animal forms. Some look fantastic, especially the Snail and the Crow Doctor, but others, like a tuna with a human face, lean too far into the grotesque and unnerving, their disconcerting visages distracting you from the story at hand. This Pinocchio is still aimed at kids, despite Garrone’s previously very adult body of work, but some of these creatures might prove too scary for youngsters.
The storybook version of Italy in which Pinocchio takes place is gorgeously realised, soft golden hues contrasting with the opportunistic criminality and grinding poverty waiting around every corner. It’s just a shame that all of this technical bravado isn’t matched by the writing, which never quite gives the characters the depth they need to shine. Pinocchio’s apparent desperation to be a real boy feels tacked on and arbitrary, while the emotional finale is so abrupt that it’s more surprising than heartwarming. With a top-form Benigni and some unforgettable design work, there’s still plenty to recommend here, but Garrone’s stringent avoidance of Disney-esque sentimentality, though laudable in theory, ends up stripping the power of this most evocative of fairytales.