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Gregory Mann voices Pinocchio in Guillermo del Toro's take on the classic story.Netflix

  • Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio
  • Directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson
  • Written by Guillermo del Toro and Patrick McHale
  • Starring Gregory Mann, Ewan McGregor and David Bradley
  • Classification PG; 114 minutes
  • Opens in select theatres Nov. 11, streaming on Netflix starting Dec. 9

When the little wooden doll in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio pops to life, he lurches, twists and contorts, his neck and every limb taking advantage of a 360-degree range of motion to chilling effect.

Pinocchio’s swagger is less Disney and more Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead. There’s a whole undead motif here, as the would-be boy at various points succumbs to a gun shot, a high-speed truck and an explosive. These things send him on a stroll through the spirit world before returning him to the land of the living. The most fascinating thing about this Pinocchio is that his pursuit to become a real boy is a basically a death wish. He just wants to be mortal.

That Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (yes, the filmmaker’s name is part of the title) is far more morbid and ghoulish than its predecessors should come as no surprise. The director behind The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth only plays with fairy tales when he can put such a gothic and grave stamp on them.

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The film mostly splits the difference between Carlo Collodi’s source material, The Adventures of Pinocchio, and the classic 1940s Disney adaptation.Netflix

Del Toro’s been working at getting this stop-motion animated Pinocchio, inspired by Gris Grimly’s illustrations, on screen for more than a decade while competing versions were in the works. Paul Thomas Anderson was briefly tinkering with a live-action take starring Robert Downey Jr. as Geppetto before that project fell apart. Disney’s redo directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Tom Hanks nosedived on their streaming service earlier this year.

Del Toro’s version, which is getting a limited theatrical run before landing on Netflix next month, fares better. He gives us a Jiminy Cricket – here called Sebastien J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) – who looks borrowed from the set of David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch. The Blue Fairy is now a winged wood sprite (Tilda Swinton) that could pass for a banshee. And Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) is a gnarly slab of pine held upright by coarse black nails.

Visually, they’re all a treat. That much can be expected from del Toro, who is co-directing here with Fantastic Mr. Fox animator Mark Gustafson from a screenplay he co-wrote with Patrick McHale. But del Toro also tends to have a hard time marrying the loving warmth in his craft with the dark cynicism that gives his movies their edge. It’s a stubborn flaw that was evident in Pan’s Labyrinth but comes into focus throughout Pinocchio.

I’m fawning over the images, as when Pinocchio practically sunbathes on a naval mine in one of many golden hour shots. And I’m welcoming the hard gothic take on this centuries old fable that isn’t afraid to incorporate history’s cruelty. But I’m ultimately left unmoved and even a tad frustrated by a movie that’s easy to admire while it struggles to entertain.

The story beats will be familiar to audiences since the movie mostly splits the difference between Carlo Collodi’s source material, The Adventures of Pinocchio, and the classic 1940s Disney adaptation. The carnival folk (voiced by Christoph Waltz and Cate Blanchett) manipulating Pinocchio are more malevolent; the sea creature who swallows him up more grotesque.

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Del Toro worked at getting this stop-motion animated Pinocchio on screen for more than a decade.Netflix

There are a couple of big departures. This time around, Pinocchio is made to fill a hole in Geppetto’s life after his real son Carlo became a casualty of war. Del Toro outdoes Disney’s penchant for killing parents in their movies by offing a child in the prologue. And then he makes Pinocchio live in the deceased kid’s shadow, competing with a ghost for Geppetto’s affection.

The other big change is that this Pinocchio is born into Benito Mussolini’s Italy, faced with locals who feverishly bow down to Catholicism and fascism. They see the naughty and enchanted wooden child – who in one scene has a Lacanian moment when he mimics the crucifix – as an affront to both religion and discipline. Although one fascist sees Pinocchio’s ability to cheat death as a useful asset on the front lines for Il Duce.

The movie bites off way too much. It lumbers inelegantly between confrontations with grief and fascism. The performed seriousness of it all stifles most attempts at having fun, which makes this an even harder prospect for young audiences. You would think that’s who a Pinocchio movie is for, but then again del Toro has always catered more to infantilized adults. There are some musical numbers in the mix, served up like a concession to kids. But instead of lightening the mood, they unintentionally add to the cruelty of it all.

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