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Jiminy Cricket, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Pinocchio, voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, in Disney's live-action Pinocchio.Disney Enterprises

  • Pinocchio
  • Directed by Robert Zemeckis
  • Written by Robert Zemeckis and Chris Weitz
  • Starring Tom Hanks, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Benjamin Evan Ainsworth
  • Classification PG; 105 minutes
  • Streaming on Disney+ starting Sept. 9

This is a hard, agonizing review to write, and not only because I had to spend time on it between two dozen or so Toronto International Film Festival obligations (non-festival September releases tend to feel instantly less than worthy during the heights of TIFF, through no fault of their own). No, talking about Pinocchio is uncomfortable because it pains me to admit that director Robert Zemeckis has officially lost the plot.

The filmmaker, whose unquestionable brilliance I was recently reminded of when reading Vulture’s excellent oral history of the production of 1997′s Contact, has enjoyed one of the strongest runs of any contemporary American director. His Back to the Future trilogy (I’ll go to the hover-bat for Part III) gets the man a lifetime pass all on its own. But something has happened since Zemeckis fell too deep down the CGI rabbit hole.

Arguably it started with the then-novel digital trickery of 1994′s Forrest Gump, but truly went off the rails with the “performance-capture” chaos of 2004′s The Polar Express, which then led to such dead-eyed nightmares as Beowulf, A Christmas Carol and the dreadful Welcome to Marwen. There have been a handful of exceptions, including 2012′s harrowing drama Flight, but more often than not there is something unholy created when Zemeckis and next-gen VFX couple.

Which brings the director, and unfortunately all of us with children hooked on Disney+, to Pinocchio. An entirely unnecessary “live-action” remake of the animated classic, Zemeckis’s film accomplishes a number of cinematic achievements, none of them commendable.

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I will give Zemeckis points for finding a welcome new side of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who adds a delightful bit of zippy pep to the voice of Jiminy Cricket.Disney Enterprises

The director once again wastes the time of favoured leading man Tom Hanks, cast here perfectly as lonely woodcarver Geppetto but given not much to do other than yell, “Pinocchioooooooo!” over and over while looking perfectly befuddled. Zemeckis also fails to inject much of anything new into a tale everyone knows by heart, save for a new talking pigeon character voiced by Lorraine Bracco, which sure, why not? But the filmmaker also, not unpredictably, turns an already dark, mildly traumatizing Disney tale into something unintentionally skin-crawlingly ghoulish, thanks to his penchant for failing to delineate between special-effect wonder and uncanny valley horror.

This film’s wooden boy looks both eerily like the familiar 2D animated creation from 80 years ago, but also a creepy aberration that wandered over from the Child’s Play franchise. As voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Pinocchio the character can be sweet, adorable and only just a bit cloying. But when combined with Zemeckis’s real-life-but-more aesthetic, the result is unnatural and stomach-churning. I’ll leave it to you to guess just how the filmmaker treats the story’s most harrowing sequence, when Pinocchio has a misadventure on Pleasure Island. Nightmare fuel may be too strong a description, but if you have little children at home who perhaps you’d like to see get some sleep every now and then: beware.

I will give Zemeckis points for finding a welcome new side of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who adds a delightful bit of zippy pep to the voice of Jiminy Cricket (it’s curious that the film’s talking bug is its most charmingly designed). But otherwise it feels about time for Zemeckis to put childish things away.

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