He remembers seeing Walt Disney’s animated version of Pinocchio with his mother when he was a child. He found the story compelling because of the frightening situations in which the wooden doll, who comes back to life but longs to be a real boy, gets himself caught up in it.
Pinocchio is kidnapped. He is forced to perform in a traveling show. And he has to save his “father”, the woodworker Geppetto, from the belly of an evil whale named Monstro.
“It was the first time I saw someone who understood how scary my childhood was for me,” del Toro said last month in San Francisco showing his version of Pinocchio at the nonprofit SFFilm event honoring the director’s work. “I said, ‘This is what it feels like to be a kid. ”
Decades later, the Academy Award-winning director of fantasy films including Pan’s Labyrinth,I decided to make a new version of the story. It took 10-15 years to get financing because every major studio turned it down. He laughs when he explains why.
“I would come and say it was about death and life and the rise of Mussolini. They would check my parking and send me on my happy road.”
That is, until Netflix decided to green light it, which airs on the streaming service starting Friday. Del Toro thanked Netflix and other services for the TV series and movies passed by traditional studios.
As for Pinocchio, this version is based on the original 1883 story by Italian writer Carlo Collodi, with the transition to the 1930s against the backdrop of the rise of Italian fascism.
We meet Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) as he laments the accidental death of his dear son, Carlo. One night, in a wine-fuelled outburst of grief and rage, Geppetto chops down a large pine tree—which happens to be the new home of a world-traveling cricket with literary aspirations—and places it in an animatronic effigy of a young boy.
An otherworldly spirit (Tilda Swinton) takes pity on the poor old man and, after Geppetto falls into bed, magically grants the doll life. She appoints the disaffected bug, Sebastian G. Cricket (charmingly voiced by Ewan McGregor), to be his guide and conscientious objector.
Even with its moments of humor and charm, this is definitely not an animated flick for kids. When Pinocchio is introduced to the local townspeople at Sunday Mass, del Toro provides a fitting scene as a wooden doll comes to life – unlike the Disney version where Pinocchio enters town.
“I wanted it to land in the church, like a complete anomaly,” del Toro said.
Del Toro noted that Benito Mussolini also appears in a Tex Avery-inspired super-extended limousine, which also appears onscreen. The fascist dictator orders his henchmen to “shoot the doll”, which sends Pinocchio to the afterlife to meet death.
Pinocchio actually makes many visits to the afterlife and it becomes a joke – although admittedly it’s a little terrifying the first time it happens.
In this version of the story, Pinocchio’s arrival is a far cry from the happy wish granted to Geppetto. Pinocchio’s energies and enthusiasm overwhelm a stunned Woodpecker, and the marionette is more of a responsibility than a gift. Even as he adjusts to the fact that his doll has a life of its own, Geppetto expresses frustration and disappointment rather than love and acceptance.
Pinocchio, after all, is not Carlo.
The film takes us far and wide—from the couple’s mountain village to a traveling carnival to a fascist training camp to, of course, the belly of a giant sea monster. But the real journey of the movie is an emotional one, as Pinocchio and Geppetto learn to accept and love each other. Credit goes to young actor Gregory Mann, who voices Carlo and Pinocchio and also sings original songs that appeared in the film. (Del Toro helped write some of the lyrics.)
However, the innovation is not in the story, but in how del Toro presents it. Stop motion movement is a labor intensive process. Filming took 1,000 days. Dolls need to be moved and placed, frame by frame. And there are 24 frames per second in this nearly two-hour movie. Del Toro said more than 60 crew members are working on the production simultaneously.
More importantly, del Toro has said his goal is to treat animators as actors (credited as such) and show animation not just a children’s genre, but an art form.
“Stop-motion is almost the religious connection between the animator and the puppet,” he said. “No other way in animation has that intimacy, that recall, that reminds me of a form [Japanese puppet] A theater called bunraku, in which the puppet is an extension of the performer’s limbs and feelings.
He told the animators that he wanted to feel what they were feeling and see those feelings translate into the characters on screen.
Del Toro said, “I don’t want to see the doll move—I want to see it animated. Animation is to give it an anima, a soul.” “So I hope you see a very different style of acting than what you saw in stop motion. But I hope that at some point, you’re just going to move a bunch of screen actors.”
For me at least, del Toro gets his wish – even as Pinocchio becomes a “real boy” but (spoiler!) retains his wooden body instead of turning into flesh and blood. By the end of the story, I forgot that the on-screen characters — given to life by a talented cast that included Ron Perlman, John Turturro, Christoph Waltz, and Cate Blanchett (as the ape Spazzatura) — were marionettes.
All that aside, the Mexican director’s take on Pinocchio will win over movie fans who crave less sugary tales and who trust younger viewers can handle the terrifying stuff. Del Toro, who charmed the sultry theater when he was awarded SFFilm Honors for his filmmaking innovation, said Pinocchio is a work of love.
“What I learned, the hard way, is that every movie is your last movie. And if you get a chance to make a movie, there’s no reason you can’t say I’m going to make it beautiful if you need to die,” he said to applause. [with] This movie I will die. It’s not like I’m useful in any other arena. You give it your all every single time because you never know if you’re going to shoot again. You didn’t.”
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