Part Frankenstein and part parable-for-parenting is how I’ve always thought of the story of Pinocchio. In this latest version, director and co-writer (with Massimo Ceccherini) Matteo Garrone adds a splash of Alice in Wonderland to Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio. The result is a grim, not-kid-friendly live-action presentation that’s a bit uneven, yet still engaging.
Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful, 1997) is wood-carver Geppetto, a poverty-stricken man who works magic with a chisel, but is never quite sure where his next meal will come from. When the traveling Grand Puppet Theater hits town, Geppetto dreams of creating a beautiful puppet and traversing the globe to show it off. A fellow woodworker gifts him with the enchanted piece of wood from which Pinocchio is born. When he discovers the puppet can talk, Geppetto is so proud of his new son that he shows him off around town and walks him to his first day of school.
Of course, we know that Pinocchio is a curious boy, and he immediately sneaks off to watch the puppet show. This sets off his many adventures, while simultaneously making Geppetto quite sad as he undertakes a search-and-rescue mission. Pinocchio crosses paths with the creepy Talking Cricket (Davide Marotta), the fire-eating Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti), a couple of tricksters in Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (co-writer Ceccherini), a confused gorilla judge (Teco Celio), and a friendly snail (Maria Pia Timo), who lives with the Fata Turchina/Blue Fairy (played young by Alida Baldari Calabria, and older by well-known French actress Marine Vacth).
The enticement of playing all day and having no responsibilities leads Pinocchio to accept an invitation to Toyland, although the train of donkeys pulling the wagonload of kids is our tipoff to what’s about to go down. Pinocchio’s subsequent swim in the ocean and encounter with the sea monster are handled well visually, and the reunion with Geppetto is quite pleasant. You should know that the iconic Pinocchio nose that grows upon telling lies is limited to a single scene, albeit a memorable one.
Benigni was the writer-director-star of the critically-panned 2002 Pinocchio, which also failed at the box office. He’s much better suited to the role of Geppetto and does a nice job of capturing the essence of the character. Federico Ielapi handles the role of Pinocchio quite well, and the “wooden” effects of his face are quite impressive. The story is a metaphor for the struggles and challenges of life, and the life lessons are easy to discern…for instance, there is no “field of miracles,” regardless of what Cat and Fox promise.
Nicolai Bruel’s cinematography is at times visually stunning as we make our way through the countryside of Italy. It’s just that director Garrone (two excellent films: Tale of Tales 2015, and Gomorrah, 2008) chooses to emphasize the bleakness, and it’s important to note that this is far removed from the 1940 Disney animated classic. Most will struggle to find an emotional connection, though the look of the film and life lessons are top-notch. Guillermo del Toro has a stop-action animation version currently in production and it’s unsurprisingly rumored to be even darker than this one.
Pinocchio is available on demand.