Monday, December 26, 2022

Pinocchio (Guillermo del Toro, 2022)

Little wooden head

Guillermo del Toro's adaptation of the classic Carlo Collodi fantasy fits seamlessly into his gallery of monsters and freaks, but the changes he's wrought on this darker less sanitized work brings it closer to the Collodi original, places it in my book a notch above the 1940 Disney classic.

High claim, I know (and I like Disney's Pinocchio a lot). But hear me out--

Del Toro gives Geppetto a backstory, about a son killed in the first great war; in drunken grief Geppetto chops down a pine tree (grown from a pine cone his son had found) and hacks it into the approximate semblance of a boy. That Geppetto does this drunk is significant, I think-- there's a crudeness to Pinocchio's features, and bent nails sticking out his back ("I'll finish him tomorrow," Geppetto mutters); on the other hand the shape of the head gracefully follows the curves of the wood grain, and Geppetto's chisel carves out an ear from the side, his chiseling unnervingly swift but sure. The sequence suggests an impulsive but not totally unthinking act of creation, like James Whale's Frankenstein if the doctor was in the middle of a lost weekend-- Geppetto is a master craftsman at the point of becoming an artist, his skills acquired from years of practice unleashed by alcohol to serve his longtime grief. 

The result looks miles from Disney's bright boyish design: where the latter (thanks to animator Milt Kahl) decided on the basic look of a young boy with wooden joints and nose, del Toro's version is naked wood with an unpruned branch sticking out from the head at an angle, and dark unblinking eyes. 

Disney's characters are basically gentle loners looking to connect with friend or family; del Toro's Geppetto starts out in a similar vein, having shut the world out to focus on his son; when the bomb drops his Geppetto stumbles down a darker path, finishing off one liquor bottle after another, constantly looking at his exhausting new ward and thinking-- sadly, angrily-- of his longlost son. Disney's Pinocchio is a sweet if clueless youth; this newer version is no less clueless but immediately destructive, picking up a hammer and smashing everything in sight. Both have no brakes to their mouths and pose a potential problem to society, but where Disney almost immediately packs his youth safely off to a wandering puppet show del Toro sends his walking down the church aisle, with folks pointing to him and saying "Diavolo!"

Something else I love: Pinocchio watches Geppetto repairing the church's crucified statue; while the old man works the boy points out that the figure being restored is made of wood-- like Pinocchio himself-- yet people sing to the former and dislike the latter. Can't see Disney allowing its protagonist to pose a question as provocative, or have its Geppetto even attempting to answer. Del Toro's Geppetto tries, gives up, allows the question to hang over the film like a pointedly ignored blasphemy. Why one and not the other indeed? Wasn't Jesus also a troublemaker?

One can always argue that this is mere revisionism, del Toro dolling matters up to make the story more palatable to progressive tastes, but the questions he raises involve issues central not only to the 1940 film but Collodi's stories. Geppetto and cricket in book and Disney constantly admonish Pinocchio to be good and to obey-- isn't absolute obedience a quality demanded by leaders like Mussolini (a clownish thug of a dictator-- now where have we seen that before?)? Del Toro imagines Pinocchio's involvement with the Fascist party as his No Greater Glory moment, where boys play at war games and in the end recognize war for what it really is-- a game for boys or men to play as seriously (or unseriously) as they're willing to play. 

Pinocchio in all three versions constantly expresses the wish to become a real boy; del Toro seems to ask: isn't what someone thinks or feels and not just how he looks what really separates boys from wood puppets, AI programs, replicants? If Pinocchio talks and thinks and acts like a boy, a-- and the speaker gulps when he realizes the import of his words-- good boy, does the youth really need the pink skin and red flesh that is supposed to go with the package?

On the creature designs-- I talked about Pinocchio; Sebastian Cricket harks back to every insect del Toro has lovingly realized onscreen (from the giant roaches in Mimic to the hand-sized fairies in Pan's Labyrinth); Spazzatura is an inspired mix of spiteful malevolence and abused pathos; Count Volpe is a three-horned wonder-- two of the horns rising on either side of his pate, the third lunging straight out of his face. 

The Terrible Dogfish is a modest 2 foot long shark grown on film to alarming size, complete with stalagmite teeth and an endless foulsmelling gullet-- his dorsal fin snaps to attention like a pirate ship's sail when about to attack. Not as big a fan of the wood sprite and her necro-sister till I realized they're inspired from biblical descriptions of angels-- specifically the Book of Ezekiel, complete with chimeralike features and blinking eyes on wings.  

On the songs and music-- folks have complained that they're 'not memorable' and 'there's no compelling reason for them;' on specific passages I beg to differ. Alexandre Desplat's main theme and 'Ciao Papa' I consider sparely beautiful,  'Everything is New to Me' a comic gem. The rest-- Geppetto's 'My Son' comes off as treacly but is later burlesqued by Pinocchio with 'My Gum;' most other numbers are cut short or burble mainly in the background. Despite the songs this is primarily a film, not a musical; del Toro displays the songs, or shortens them, or altogether dispenses with them as he pleases. And unpopular opinion: while some tunes do get sentimental, none of them are quite as sticky as Disney's classic (and painfully overfamiliar) 'When You Wish Upon a Star.'

Finally, on death-- in Collodi, the Fairy with Turquoise Hair calls on four black rabbits to frighten Pinocchio; Del Toro takes that brief anecdote and spins an entire afterlife out of them, complete with hourglasses and card games and an Angel of Death, the whole purpose of which is to dramatize an essential quality of Pinocchio: that he can't die, and that this distinguishes him from ordinary mortals. It's a whimsical passage-- lord only knows how much they're needed in this melancholic film-- that suddenly becomes dead serious when people are put in genuine peril. And yes del Toro seems to have squared that away too, particularly in the closing passages, which have the serene beauty and small sharp poignance of the best fairy tales-- stories that not only celebrate life but its eventual inevitable passing. Wonderful film, one of the best of the year. 


VJ-atyc said...

On point text about a great film from this year.

Great blog, keep up the nice work.

Tom said...

Thanks for sharing! I really want to see this!