Missing Morals in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Most fairytales only need a little nudge to turn to horror. Pinocchio doesn’t even need the nudge. The story of a puppet animated by the soul fragments of a delirious toymaker’s grief, sold into slavery, transformed into a monster, scolded, killed, and reborn – it’s already the stuff of a kid's nightmares (or a parent's). Disney's impression of that original story by Carlo Collodi has the tone of a cautionary tale told at a child’s bedside (this is what will happen if you misbehave). On paper, that’s a snug fit for the style-driven moralist fantasies of Guillermo del Toro, who’s been weaving little cautionary fables this whole time, from the ghostly atmosphere of regret in The Devil's Backbone to the use of anti-fascism as a warning against misbehavior in Pan's Labyrinth. His revised version of Pinocchio, reset to Italy’s ebb into fascism in the 1930s, is even more ideal for him. It never settles for less than a mythic labor of animation. Its struggle is that it also tries to be Pinocchio.

While the original fairytale and especially the 1940 Disney translation was about right and wrong, del Toro transfers the plot to a fable of life and death. Geppetto, with a carven beard like the statue of an old folk hero (mystifyingly old to have a grade school son, if you think about it), descends into grief when World War II steals the joy from his life. Drunk one night, he puffs himself up into a Dr. Frankenstein rage and pours his soul into carving the log of the tree that grew from the grave of his son into a string-less replacement boy. Rabbi Law was no less serious when he spoke the words of life into The Golem, though Geppetto in comparison has no idea why he makes Pinocchio except that he was sad without his son. He has no idea that he might be saved by grief, as so many del Toro characters are.

Del Toro weaves his personal mythology into the story through his stand-in, the cricket called Sebastian (voiced paternally by Ewan McGregor), who lived in the wood of the tree that became Pinocchio’s body (he's trying to write his memoirs by itty-bitty candlelight). There’s a little hole in Pinocchio’s heart for the cricket’s home. The heart, after all, is where all del Toro stories end up. So there’s nothing quite as mystifying about the screenplay’s direction as the fact that Pinocchio leaves home without Sebastian and never puts him back in. The labor issue of animating the tinier-than-tiny cricket in some shots or enlarging Pinocchio to a scale large enough to make Sebastian appear normal in others may have motivated del Toro and screenwriter Patrick McHale to leave the cricket off-screen, but the thematic effect is disjointing. Despite Sebastian's claim at the end that he's been the boy's conscience the whole time in a Jiminy Cricket pantomime, that device never turns on.

The conditions of the story's world have changed too much for this old truth. Pinocchio is born into this story with amorality, as in the Disney version, but his inability to tell right from wrong is scarier this time. He could just as soon stab Geppetto as whine for his hot chocolate. He has no idea of anything, which the film translates into a song (“What Do You Call It?”) that despite being sung cutely by Mann feels more haunting than pleasurable in the context of Pinocchio’s inability to understand his universe, like a weaponized infant. The blue fairy (here an angelic wood sprite voiced numinously by Tilda Swinton) seems hasty in this version to throw a grieving father a chaotic automaton. It's never quite clear how this is supposed to help him. The script resorts to acting like it did after the fact rather than proving it.

As an example of the film’s cautionary plot gone wrong by a change in the context of the old story, consider that in a world where Mussolini’s fascist doctrine has taken over the country, skipping school may not be the wrong thing to do. Lying may save your family’s life. Folding your arms and saying “NO” to the leader of the church, the government, the school, or the army may be the noblest action possible. Pinocchio surrenders his theater troupe to a firing squad by naively lampooning Mussolini. Was that right or wrong? He never learns the cost of that luxury. Geppetto wants Pinocchio to do “the right thing,” but the film never makes him confront the fact that in the upside-down world of fascism, the right thing may be the most costly. The wrong thing may be right.

In the new context, even a nose that grows through lying has no weight in the themes of the story. Even if it did, it never gets used strategically. It never catches Pinocchio in a lie by a fascist interrogator or susses out someone's true intentions. Its inclusion is foregone and never got the necessary upgrade to its context (its big moment involves using the sticks themselves as a platform, reducing the fairytale's key morality device to a plot device). The sequence at the military school, the story’s half-conceived replacement for Pleasure Island, might have been the lynchpin of Pinocchio’s crisis of authority worship or his comprehension of mortality. But it’s boiled down to a paltry lesson about the value of teamwork, seemingly still holding onto the mistaken impression that the story is about right and wrong. A convenient explosion abruptly relocates the plot to Monstro the Whale for the third act, leaving a feeling of unfinished business in negotiating whether Pinocchio is capable of war or what it would mean if he fought one. It's a direct example of the film feeling compelled to abandon its new developments for the checkpoints of the original. Even the fish monster seems out of place (had it existed, Mussolini would be fishing for it). Geppetto and Sebastian get imprisoned there while searching for Pinocchio, but the reunion has no spark – no one at that point is still looking for the other. It’s just the knot where the story is forced to tie the strings.

Del Toro refocuses the tale on fathers and fatherlands, something Pinocchio is able to weaponize since it’s already a birth fable, in a sense, a boy born of a poor man’s loneliness and a mythic woman’s pity. Del Toro has always mythologized femininity against the harsh reality of male responsibilities. He seems to use Pinocchio as an example of his whole thesis with a choice of three fathers – Geppetto, Volpe the circus master (Christoph Waltz), and the Fascist commandant (Ron Perlman). There are no women in the film besides the cosmic duality of the wood sprite and death, which takes on a chimerical underworld form still voiced by Swinton's enigmatic tone (she says everything like she's asking for something you can't provide). When Pinocchio dies (the film never explains what kind of injuries kill him or whether his physical body gets damaged), he waits in increasing intervals in the realm of the dead, asking questions of the death fairy before returning to life unharmed. It’s a concept that might have decoded del Toro’s entire view of life, his whole schematic of great mothers and impotent fathers, had it fully envisioned the emotional weight of that journey between realms. But after a labored setup, it’s reduced to a blip in the plot because it wasn’t in the original Pinocchio. Geppetto leaves nails in Pinocchio’s back – the audience is constantly seeing stigmata when he turns around. But there doesn’t seem to be a cost to what he does.

The labor of the film’s animation defies belief. Its sunsets unfold in seas of paper flames. The characters stumble through their world with dreamlike fluidity. The water churns in layers of crystal beams. Eyes open in the darkness of the land of the dead like drops of light on black paper. The blue goddesses shimmer. The film should be counted among the most expressive works of stop-motion every moved. Yet for all its beauty, the medium is strangely inappropriate for moving Pinocchio to the fantasy overload of del Toro's world. Monkeys are like sentient slaves (they can even throw their voices). Ghosts and mythic beasts roam the world. Pinocchio just doesn’t seem different enough from the rest to evoke the needed contrast or to be surprising enough to those who see him, in comparison to the wonders of everyday fantasy Italy. Everyone is a puppet there already.

The whole film’s question of life and death boils down to a choice between sons that the screenwriters may not have realized they were giving. The new version has its own terrible joys to account for, which distract it from the basic rules of logic of its own devices. The biggest of them is that life is only beautiful because things die. When viewed through the pitted eyes of a friendly automaton, del Toro weaves his love of monsters, his worship of femininity, and his doubts about fathers into an immense tale of loss whose context only comes to life halfway. The other half is taken up by the familiar beats of Pinocchio, a story not as well-suited to the retelling as he might have hoped, whose plot points intercept the script's ability to demonstrate its new themes constantly, like restrictions at a state-mandated checkpoint. Given the same resources and a less exact transcription of Disney’s morality thesis, he might have come up with something that justified its tangible beauty. Unfortunately, it doesn’t earn the labor. The labor itself is the attraction.

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Netflix/Netflix Animation

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