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There’s rabbits and card games and lots of sand.


Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio


It’s odd how, rather than becoming more insightful as a maturing filmmaker, so reflecting a natural progression of the talent behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has descended ever further into didacticism and overstatement (that is, when he’s even attempting to furnish his pictures with socio-political commentary). It inclines one to doubt him retrospectively. My suggestion is that del Toro sets out with geek intent – “I wanna make Frankenstein! I wanna make Pinocchio! Gimme! Gimme!” – and then pulls back, thinking “But how do I get respect as an artist TOO?” With those earlier films, the thematic content and political backdrop seemed germane, and seamlessly integrated. With Pinocchio – or Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – one instead gets the impression he didn’t think the story was SAYING enough. It has to SAY something about the world – the world of politics (fascism); the world of religion (Roman Catholicism) – and if it’s saying this in the most obvious and cloddish manner, all the better.

Clearly, this is a shame, as the technical skill and hand-made artistry on display here is incontestable. Ultimately, though, is the movie really leaps-and-bounds superior to the scorned Robert Zemeckis’ “live-action” Disney version from a few months back? Whatever that movie’s faults, and they’re numerous, Zemeckis gives us an authentically unsettling Honest John and sinister Pleasure Island. He also refrains from treating us to a puppet poo, as a “witty” child’s statement on Mussolini’s policies. So he’s ahead on points there.

What’s that? “It’s a kids’ movie, what do you expect?” I don’t expect to see kids’ movies crucifying and setting alight their protagonists, I suppose. Del Toro’s take on the Carlo Collodi tale was in development hell for about a decade, but it seems many of his “realist” impulses – such as swapping the Land of Toys for an Italian kids’ training camp – developed during its status as a collaboration with Patrick McHale (so 2017 onwards). 

You might call it realist, or you might simply label it literalism, of the ilk that has dogged del Toro projects of late. What need was there for a Nightmare Alley remake? Or the unremarkable genre-fests of Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak? The spectacle of a picture where you’re battered over the head with its thematic devices will be familiar from The Shape of Water (which I enjoyed more than most of the director’s recent projects, but subtle it was not). Indeed, while you’d have hoped a father would be more respectful of children’s abilities to assimilate ideas, rather than shovelling them down their throats, why would one expect as much if he can’t even treat adults that way?

But then, del Toro’s political impulses don’t really appear to be all that far above Kevin Smith’s; he is, mercifully, an infinitely more talented filmmaker and has much better taste. So Guillermo’s a professed atheist, but his Catholic upbringing means he’s compelled to make fairly crude points about Christian belief and iconography. Pinocchio, who is the only one in a totalitarian world who doesn’t act like a puppet (except that none of the other main characters do either…) is treated in contrary terms to the original work. De Toro makes a virtue of disobedience, such that Pinocchio is allowed to discover right and wrong for himself (oh very good, applause, very progressive. Wait, doesn’t he discover as much in the original too?) He also objects to Pinocchio being turned into a real boy as a reward, or even want to be transformed, in order to be loved and find happiness. That’s Guillermo, with his love for the undiluted monster and the implicitly pro-transhumanist tendencies that come with it.

Thus, innocent, rambunctious, irrepressibly annoying Pinocchio – a very good vocal performance from Gregory Mann, who also plays Geppetto’s deceased son Carlo in early scenes – is able to voice his doubts/ truths about religion, having initially exclaimed excitedly “I’m going to church! I’m going to church!” When he gets there, the congregation – of course they do – act in a most unchristian fashion, accusing him of being an “abomination” (which, to be fair, he is, imbued with a soul by a wood sprite; as Death tells him “The wooden boy with the borrowed soul. My sister’s folly” is “not supposed to have it” (life) and is consequently unnatural). If both the Christian and “pagan” agree on the point, it takes a real forward thinker (a Luciferian thinker?) like del Toro to set them straight.

Del Toro makes a big play of the graven image of Christ overshadowing all else in the church (unfinished due to Geppetto’s preoccupation with grieving, and then transhumanism). Pinocchio is given to ask “He’s made of wood too. Why do they like him more than me?” But amid de Toro’s quest for realism, he’s peculiarly slack with motivation. Initial concerns that the wooden boy is a demonic spawn, “a devil”, are miraculously forgotten when he’s sent to school (“This abnormal boy lacks discipline”). 

Said instruction comes at the behest of Ron Perlman’s Podestà; in context. He’s a local official of the fascist government, but the Podesta most of us are familiar with is better known for his own depraved interest in children. Notably, Podestà, on discovering Pinocchio cannot be killed (permanently), then considers him “the ideal soldier. He must be drafted in the youth corps by law”, where he will “learn to fight and fire a weapon like a real Italian boy”. If you’re groaning at the clumsiness of it all, you aren’t alone. Yes, Pinocchio is earmarked to become a super soldier.

Del Toro’s also big on the unspoken imagery, but it would have been much better had he maintained that consistency across the board. One of the earliest shots is of a carved pinecone in the church, foregrounding the Christ statue; the Vatican, of course, has a dirty great pinecone on display, because the last thing it really is is Christian. Carlo has his own pinecone. Indeed, it’s this and Jesus that get him killed; going back into the church to fetch his cone, he is distracted by the statue, staring up at it beatifically when the bomb drops.

The pinecone is associated with fertility and the Staff of Bacchus. More especially, it’s considered to represent the pineal gland and symbolises the masonic connection to God. So in those terms, self-attainment of Luciferian, godlike status; Carlo is punished for his obsession with the pineal gland, while Pinocchio is fashioned out of the tree from which the cone grows: “I’ll make Carlo again, out of this accursed pine!” There are also 33 vertebrae before one reaches the pineal gland, the same number of degrees to attain the highest elevation in freemasonry.

What does this mean in terms of Pinocchio? He “grows” from the pineal gland, an ensouled automaton, one who does not die, and who outlives all he meets. He also remains, consequently, in an eternally childlike state (at very least physically). Did del Toro, in his quest for realism, consider the consequences of his process? That he delivers a real boy very similar in fate to A.I.’s David? We’re told Pinocchio travels on to new adventures, so it seems del Toro is trying to sell us a more positive outcome; really, it’s one that seems all the odder for his fudging (Death sees the wee wooden lad’s eternal suffering as a great burden, but this is cast aside for fantasy, rather than realism. Pinocchio sacrifices his immortality, then gets it back again; It would make even Steven Moffatt giddy).

Candlewick: But even then, with all the fear I feel, I can say no to you. I can say that.

Del Toro rejects God but embraces pagan forces and forms, of “Old spirits living in mountains, forests, rarely involve selves in human world”. (The Catholic) God is oblivious (“Why won’t you listen to my prayers?”) but the pagan counterpart is beneficent (she is “A guardian… I care for the little things… the lost ones”). In its way, Pinocchio is as every bit as indoctrinating as the Podestà, advocating freedom of thought as long as it’s along these carefully prescribed lines. This is a movie where the young bully (Finn Wolfhard’s Candlewick) becomes friends with Pinocchio and in so doing – standing up to his father in the most unbelievably on-the-nose fashion – gets his father killed. 

This is also a movie with lines like “Obviously, the puppet is quite a dissident, an independent thinker, I’d say”. Pinocchio’s unbelievably laborious, insulting even, in its declension. But hey, it’s for kids, right? They’re stupid. They need telling in triplicate. Del Toro’s choices in favour of realism – but not at the expense of talking crickets, the afterlife, fairies etc, just where it suits his shoehorning – inevitably mean this tends to the macabre, from the uncanny, Svankmejer aspect of the title character onwards. 

In so doing, he sacrifices some of the most evocative elements, the very horror ones he claims he’s such a fan of (Pinocchio transforming into a donkey in the Land of Toys). Swapping the cat for a monkey (Spazzatura, voiced by Cate Blanchett) works well enough, but Count Volpe, amalgamating the fox and the ringmaster, yields both grotesque and underwhelming results. The visage is, per the name, vulpine, but also too large for Christoph Waltz’s pint-sized vocal performance. Ewan McGregor makes an entirely underwhelming Sebastian, far too conversational and absent any stylistic quirks or gravitas. Most of the rest of the cast are very good, however, especially David Bradley (Geppetto) and Tilda Swinton (the Wood Sprite and Death).

Pinocchio is sure to be nominated for Best Animated Feature Oscar, and as a technical achievement, it’s richly deserving of recognition. Unfortunately, it’s also as creatively stricken as the preponderance of its director’s pictures over the last decade. I don’t see his announced and also-long-gestating (since 2014) Frankenstein changing that.

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