The story of Pinocchio has – in many forms – fed material to filmmakers for decades upon decades, but 2022 seems to have a special affinity for the immortal wooden boy whose nose grows when he lies. Only two years after the release of Matteo Garrone’s more ‘realistic’ take on the tale, we’ve had the instantly-memed Pauly Shore version, a horribly lifeless-looking Disney+ version, and now the easy pick of the bunch; Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s beautiful stop-motion take, breathing a new life into this endlessly remade tale. A long-time passion project for del Toro, it fits his sensibilities almost perfectly, marrying folklore and fascism with gorgeous visuals on its side.
Always a story made up mostly of vignettes, del Toro’s Pinocchio (co-written alongside Patrick McHale) hits the expected beats, from carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley) carving a wooden son that comes to life (and here stays decidedly wooden, never looking like a ‘real boy’) to the escapades at a corrupt circus and a jaunt in the belly of a giant fish. Del Toro’s USP for this instalment, then, is in the particular setting, moving time forward from the original tale into Fascist Italy, where Mussolini’s influence is felt around every corner, bringing real danger to a fantastical world in much the same way as del Toro’s masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth.
Even outside of the ‘Il Duce’ posters and Ron Perlman-voiced local authoritarian stooge, fascism seeps into the very DNA of this Pinocchio, from the highest levels of government to the pettiest complainers in town, del Toro exploring how it starts, grows, and flourishes. It adds a bracing charge to the story – the moment in which Pinocchio (voiced by newcomer Gregory Mann) transforms into a donkey doesn’t appear here, but there is instead a scene in which he goes through military training, a brilliant touch that makes del Toro’s thesis clear without beating you over the head.
It’s not all authoritarian doom and gloom, though. Though this Pinocchio skews a bit too eerie and strange for the very youngest audiences, this is still a fun and funny family-friendly caper packed with exciting set-pieces. Ewan McGregor provides the lion’s share of the laughs as Sebastian J Cricket, who here acts as less of a moral compass to Pinocchio than he does as a slapstick doofus, always on the receiving end of some physical misfortune, but Christoph Waltz is a lot of fun too as the villainous Count Volpe, a slick and manipulative baddie with some extraordinary hair.
Every character is magnificently hewn, all the stop-motion puppets full of irrepressible life amidst a litany of gorgeous and imaginative backdrops – this is, by a distance, the best-looking animated film I’ve seen this year. The care put into the design by del Toro and Gustafson is jaw-dropping, whether it’s the dusty little details of Geppetto’s isolated cabin or the wondrous trips into surrealism whenever Pinocchio visits Death (voiced by Tilda Swinton) in the underworld. Skeletal rabbit pallbearers share space with Biblical imagery and an amusingly modern-looking purgatorial staff room and it’s just a joy to look at. With all the wonderful visuals and Alexander Desplat’s bouncily enjoyable score, it’s a shame that the mostly underwhelming musical numbers end up being less than the sum of their parts, but that’s the only real stumble in an otherwise immaculately put-together film.
It’s a big ask to get people to invest yet again in such an oft-told story as Pinocchio, with its deeply familiar and predictable plot beats and morals, but in tying in this fable to Italy’s real, bleak recent history and presenting it in such a tactile form, del Toro makes it feel, if not exactly fresh, essential again. A story of handcrafted love and care, it couldn’t be better suited to the stop-motion medium, making for 2022’s best animated film.