Synopsis: With the help of a cricket as his conscience, a living puppet must prove himself worthy of becoming a real boy.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Keegan-Michael Key, Lorraine Bracco, Cynthia Erivo, Luke Evans
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: We all have our individual Disney origin stories. While I have fond memories of seeing The Jungle Book countless times during its numerous re-releases as I grew up and was a fervent devotee of The Sword in the Stone, the one Disney animated film I vividly remember watching more than any other was Pinocchio. The second animated feature Walt Disney Productions made after 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the 1940 release of Pinocchio won two Oscars but surprisingly was a dud at the box office thanks to the Second World War limiting international distribution. Eventually, it became a worldwide hit when it was re-released later and during the Regan years it became a staple in my household.
Looking back, I’m wondering if it wasn’t pushed a bit on me because I was an only child, and there are many gentle lessons to be learned from the adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel. They’ve been Disney-fied, of course, but instructions on being “good” and “letting your conscience be your guide” were essential words for impressionable minds (especially a precocious one like mine) to hear on repeat. Seeing the consequences of disobeying your parents or putting your trust in the wrong people was enough to encourage me to stay on the straight and narrow and trust my instinct. In actuality, it’s pretty frightening in places, and dark like many of these early Disney films were. Still, it easily earns its place in the canon of Disney classics.
Over time, it seems filmmakers can’t get enough of Pinocchio. Multiple iterations of the tale have been told throughout media. Operas have been written, TV shows produced, too many movies to count (including Italian Roberto Benigni starring in TWO versions seventeen years apart), and now Disney’s live-action remake of its property. Brought to life by celebrated Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, who revised the script with the help of Chris Weitz (A Better Life), this is a tweaked version of the perennial classic more than it is a complete overhaul. Some of this is good news for film fans, and some is not so great. Mostly, it’s just kind of head-scratching as to why this talented group has kept things so decidedly wooden when given a chance to bring this story to literal life.
The Walt Disney Studios logo has been accompanied by the Oscar-winning tune “When You Wish Upon a Star” for some time, so it’s no surprise the narrator of the story, Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper), makes an early entrance before the famous castle fades from view. He’s dropped in to introduce his reflection of the night he hopped into a small village and took respite in the shop/home of a widowed woodworker putting the finishing touches on his latest creation. Known for his intricate cuckoo clocks, Geppetto (Tom Hanks, Toy Story 4) has turned his attention to a marionette of a young boy he’s modeled after his late son. Before turning out the light, he notices the brightest star in the sky has appeared and makes a silent wish.
Later that evening, a stream of blue light radiates out from the night sky and connects with the lifeless puppet, bringing it magically to life. Soon after, the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo, Chaos Walking) appears and lets Pinocchio know he must prove himself to be unselfish, brave, and truthful if she can grant Geppetto’s full wish for him to become a real boy. Naming Jiminy as his conscience, the Blue Fairy vanishes, but not before singing a full-throated version of the film’s most famous song. Once Geppetto learns of the magic, he treats Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, The Haunting of Bly Manor) as his son and prepares to send him to school.
Pinocchio’s adventures outside of the safety of home take up the rest of the film, passages that will slowly wiggle away from the original narrative. Pinocchio is still sidetracked by sly fox Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key, Tomorrowland) and dopey sidekick Gideon the Cat, but there are a few more wrinkles to their interaction. The little wooden boy still appears as a featured attraction at Stromboli’s puppet show. However, now there’s a young female apprentice with a leg malady who dreams of ballet stardom and naturally works the lithe ballerina puppet Pinocchio takes a shine to.
The downward spiral begins with the arrival of Luke Evans as The Coachman. Transporting a gaggle of unruly children to Pleasure Island, The Coachman and lackey Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd, Judy) pick up Pinocchio and, when he wavers on going for the ride or not, sing a grotesque song newly written for the movie. One of several contributed by the film’s composer Alan Silvestri and musician Glen Ballard, it’s all about being a “real” boy and has cringe-y lines like “Real Boys Always Want More and Real Girls Always Like the Real Boys More.” Shivers. Evans (Midway) excels at playing these ghoulishly monstrous characters, so it’s hard to fault him entirely, but yeesh, the entire Pleasure Island sequence is a true hellscape of poor CGI and misguided decisions.
On misguided decisions, Zemeckis and Weitz make a rather significant change to how Pinocchio solves his various problems in the film and the resolution at the end. I didn’t mind the end because I think the message it conveys is worthwhile. Those other “outs” Pinocchio gets bothered me because of what they wind up omitting in the overall narrative. I won’t spoil it here, but it feels like a poor decision from an optics perspective. Adding more/new characters isn’t the solution (though I did get a chuckle out of Lorraine Bracco’s Brooklyn accented seagull), and sidelining one essential character didn’t feel right.
I know that Hanks and Zemeckis have a long history together, but in much the same way I felt that Hanks wasn’t right for the Elvis movie, I’m not sure if Geppetto was the role for him either. Admittedly, Hanks wears the part naturally and warmly. Yet, at the same time, I think there’s a safety net that Hollywood could remove from these live-action remakes to free up the studio heads to take more creative-minded swings. If you’re going to remake these movies and set them apart from the animated classic, don’t do it halfway. Casting Erivo was a thoughtful choice, but that’s about where it ends. Written like an extension of the Fairy Godmother Helena Bonham-Carter played in Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 remake of Disney’s Cinderella, I would have liked to see the Blue Fairy be more knowing, less showy. Someone must have all the answers in the movie, and it should be her.
The enjoyment of this take on Pinocchio comes in the details. Zemeckis (The Witches) has gone all out with the animation. Save for that aforementioned Pleasure Island sequence which will make even the gamiest gamer’s eyes cross, the more intimate scenes between Pinocchio and the people he meets along the way are often quite beautiful. For Disney fans, there’s a wealth of Easter Eggs to be found in Geppetto’s shop and Pleasure Island. Keep your eyes on the cuckoo clocks for several familiar characters; some flash by so quickly if you’re watching at home, you’ll be glad for the pause button. If this Pinocchio doesn’t float your boat, Netflix has Guillermo del Toro’s long-in-the-works vision of the piece coming before the end of the year as well.