Pinocchio (2019)

Today I watched Garrone’s Pinocchio (2019). Visually, this is a masterpiece. Every frame looks fantastic. Collodi’s world really comes alive through Garrone’s vision. This is the case in most of Pinocchio’s technical aspects, be they set design, use of cg and makeup. The enthralling folkish soundtrack also does its bit and then some to bring Collodi’s fantastical version of 1800s Italy to the screen. All these aspects gel together seamlessly as I had no doubt they would. This is, after all, the same visionary director of Tale of Tales (2015), another brilliant picture.

Tale of Tales (2015) - IMDb
Garrone’s 2015 fantasy Epic; Tale of Tales

Of all the film versions of Pinocchio I’ve watched, this also has to be the most loyal to the 1883 source material which I read way back in secondary school. It doesn’t shy away from any of the long since forgotten moments in the Pinocchio mythology, burnt feet and hanging until death included. To be fair, I don’t remember much about Benigni’s Pinocchio (2002), other than it was a weird little film and which in my book, is the singular dent in his dazzling repertoire (apart from the abysmal Il Piccolo

Amazon.com: The Adventures Of Pinocchio: Martin Landau, Jonathan ...

Diavolo, (1988)). I’m also quite fond of The Adventures of Pinocchio (1996), which was the first live-action version of the story I had ever watched. Its entertaining, upbeat and depressing in equal measures and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. However, I find it’s the memories of the movie-watching experience in spite of the actual movie content that really counts when we remember impressions of childhood films.  

Then of course, there is the 1940 Disney classic which remains the mother of all filmic Pinocchios. I assume (although that’s an ugly word) that every child goes through this movie at least once in their lives, as they do most other Disney classics. This version is the most accessible and easy-to-watch Pinocchio. This isn’t saying that it isn’t also profoundly sad in its own way. The story of Pinocchio, is after all, the story of loss of innocence, the corruption of minors, parenting in difficult situations, and of learning the difference between right and wrong. This is also a story of growth and maturity. All concepts which are not at all easy to translate to happy movies for children, whatever the production house may be.

Casting and Characters

I enjoyed the casting of Benigni as Geppetto. I’m sure I had read somewhere that he had retired. I had avidly eaten up every second of his screen time in his (until last year) last on-screen role in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love (2012). It was an endearing, quite Benigniesque character he had played in that film whom I had thought quite fitting to end his career with.

The fact that he came out of (semi) retirement to take part in a re-telling of a story he had told with so much passion himself although it failed miserably, tells a lot about Benigni’s own character. His Geppetto is portrayed as a poor tradesman who resorts to bumming and manipulating his way into free lunch at the local tavern. His shtick quickly gets old. Thankfully, now and again we’re treated to glimmers of Guido Orifice in Geppetto’s seemingly never-ending energy and effervescent outlook, especially when he’s just discovering he’s a father.   

As a father, Geppetto is the ultimate role-model. The way he advertises his (instantaneous) fatherhood with all the neighbourhood is admirable. His passion for his vocation must be respected.  ‘I’ll find him even if I have to cross the sea,’ he declares once his wooden son (hope I’m not spoiling anything here!) manages to lose himself on his first school day. Most of us can relate with this aspect of the story. One doesn’t need to have personally experienced parenthood to empathise with Geppetto’s plight. There are many parents after all, who go to hell and back to see their children live a good life. 

One also finds it easy to identify with Pinocchio himself. Pinocchio is a babe mingling with wolves (in the shapes of a Cat and Fox), and he has to learn about trust and deceit the hard way. It takes a while before he fully understands that it doesn’t pay to be innocent and good. I quite enjoyed the scene where Pinocchio not only realised that the world is indeed a hopelessly perverted place he has no chance of surviving simply by being ‘good’, but also that it pays to embrace dishonesty. This happened during a courtroom scene where Pinocchio recounts his ordeal to the judge (who also happens to be a simian) who decides to throw him in jail precisely because of his innocence. It is also spelled out to him quite matter-of-factly – ‘In this country, the innocent people are jailed.’ It is only after Pinocchio reacts by conjuring up his own imagined robberies and misdeeds that he is applauded and set free.

Off-putting Portrayals

I’m unsure how I feel about the portrayals and characterisations of the myriad of fantastical characters that roam about in Pinocchio’s world. The bizarre blend of stage makeup and cg on the anthropomorphic (90% human, 10% animal) characters took a while to get used to. Garrone didn’t bother creating realistic looking cg animals. The characters’ looks are grotesque and the voice acting is for the most part, caricaturised and overdone. There’s nothing of Jiminy Cricket and Figaro’s endearing sweetness the Disney Classic gave us. The Cricket isn’t even made to look like a cricket but rather as a short old man with cricket makeup.

I was also quite disenchanted by the other puppets. They are clearly dwarves in, again, basic stage makeup. No effort was made to actually make them look hard and well…wooden. And another thing; they live and breathe and reason. They are also conscious. Which kinda makes Pinocchio nothing special after all. The only advantage he has over them is that he has no strings (and no master), while they live their existence as money-making slaves to the utterly mad Mangiafuoco.

Benigni’s 2002 version also took much of the same artistic decisions. I eventually came to the resolution that perhaps this is the proper way, after all. The source material being Italian, I’m sure both directors did their best to honour it through these artistic decisions. I might have grown too used to an Americanized Pinocchio.

The Teacher

An extremely interesting character was Pinocchio’s abusive school teacher. He makes no secret of his delight in torturing his students. He’s portrayed in the most ridiculous and downright silly manner, and he would have been received in this way was the notion not so chilling. For schoolwork, he tells his student to copy down ridiculous statements he scribbles on the blackboard about him being a second father for them. The most alarming part about all this was the revelation that the only way this teacher knew how to educate was through instilling pain. He gives up trying to ‘discipline’ Pinocchio once he realises that he doesn’t feel pain. You can’t help but think; corruption and cruelty are taught methodically from a young age. Quickly learning all he could ever learn from school; Pinocchio remains with no choice but to play truant and return to a life of crime. In all sincerity, he would have been a fool not to.

Writing

Here’s where my praises grind to a halt. I’m sure the screenplay could have been much better developed. It was cold and clinical and felt very by the numbers. Perhaps in its quest to remain as loyal a translation to the original novel as possible, the writers decided to forgo any effort at eliciting emotion. Magiafuoco’s character, for one, is written in such a bland manner it isn’t even funny. He starts off cruel and dastardly when he abducts Pinocchio and forces him to join his travelling show, however ten minutes later he’s snivelling and weeping and kind-heartedly dismisses him with five gold coins in his hand for Geppetto once he finds out Pinocchio was ready to sacrifice himself instead of another puppet who was going to be used as firewood. Yes, yes…I know it’s a children’s story with talking animals and breathing puppets. It’s still no excuse to have underdeveloped characters. Not on an €11,000,000 budget.

The fox’s dialogue, on the other hand was quite well written and this character was very well fleshed out.  The way he and the cat worked to gain Pinocchio’s trust was disturbingly realistic. 

Other Thoughts

The movie is packed with powerful imagery. Pinocchio being hung by the neck by the friends he trusted most. The eerie sight of a carriage full of lost souls being carried by donkeys through the mist. Pinocchio forfeiting the one opportunity to become a real boy in order to accompany his friend to Pleasure Island.    

In this version, the message is one and clear – Pinocchio doesn’t turn into a real boy because he learns not to tell the truth and all be an all-round good boy as the Disney version would make us believe. He’s granted the wish of becoming a real boy because he learns how to survive in a world full of deceit and corruption. He grows as he learns to recognise and confront those who used or hurt him.

Ending

The ending came from nowhere. We’re used to (and I was quite looking forward to) the father and son’s emotional reunion after escaping from the belly of a hellish whale, way out in the ocean. The whale (it’s a monstrous shark here) sequence was interesting but not really scary or gripping. Pinocchio and Geppetto simply hop out of the shark’s open mouth while it’s sleeping and swim to safety aided by a helpful tuna. As simple as that. As I said, by the numbers.  

Technically, this is a product of an unrivalled craftsman, however it has the emotional pull of a wooden puppet.

Have you watched Pinocchio? What did you think of it? Has this review affected your opinion of it in any way? Let me know in the comments below!

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