The concept of twin films is well documented, but 2022 offered triplet films in the form of three Pinocchio adaptations: Robert Zemeckis’ live-action Pinocchio, the Russian animation Pinocchio: A True Story, and Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio – a slightly unfair title for a film with two directors.
Directed by del Toro and stop-motion wizard Mark Gustafson, Netflix’s Pinocchio moves the oft-told tale to fascist Italy to make it a comment on conformity. So far so wood. Unfirtunately it also wants to be a kids film, a musical, a dark fantasy and whimsical romp, ending up a Plankenstein’s Monster with more tonal lurches than a Red Nose Day telethon. One moment our chipper hero is singing a little song about bubble gum, the next he’s being crucified on a burning cross. And while that weirdness is probably true to the source material, it needs to lean further into the darkness and/or the humour to carve out a clear point of view.
The animation is rich and seamless, but cannot rekindle a lumbering script and soulless characters – not unlike Wes Anderson’s stop-motion features Fantastic Mr. Fox (another Mark Gustafson joint) and Isle of Dogs, where the fantastic actually takes a back seat to form and intellectualism. In fairness to the filmmakers, Pinocchio is an essentially annoying character best consigned to minimal scenes in Shrek movies. But to have the poor bloak keep singing makes for a torturous two hours, as these are the worst songs to appear on Netflix since the Eurovision movie. If an Italian mannequin must sing at least get Måneskin to do the music.
None of the other characters come alive either; the cricket never seems anything other than a Bug’s Life reject with the voice of Ewan McGregor, then Mussolini shows up in case it wasn’t obvious from the setting that the film was about fascism – a particularly frustrating inclusion given del Toro’s past success weaving 20th century war into fantasy (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinochet). More recently we have seen Wolfwalkers work a similar folk magic, and Judy & Punch a satirical puppeteer fairytale. To say this comes close would risk nose elongation.
For all its wooden sentimentality there are no stakes, plus no amount of Pinocchio running around a fascist youth camp with a paintball gun can approach the strange terror of the Disney animation’s donkey sequence. As Pinocchio retellings go it’s more Star Trek: Generations than A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, another notch of nebulous Netflix pretentiousness that has you pining for the end – and thanks to Muppets Most Wanted, not even the best film about puppets in a prison camp.