We open to a small town in Italy during World War II, where we find Master Geppetto (David Bradley), a woodcarver who is known for being the model citizen around his small town. He fixes everything he can for his city, including his work on the crucifixion for the local church. The expert woodworker is not alone though, as he is a single father to a young boy named Carlo (Gregory Mann). The two are inseparable, going everywhere together, as they are all they have left after Geppetto’s wife passed away. In their daily activities, a loving father teaches his son the tricks to his trade, showing him how to pick the perfect pinecone to plant to form the model tree to gain the wood to work on various projects. From these moments, we are introduced to a luscious world building mixed effortlessly with stop motion animation, with the signature creativity and wonder put in every Guillermo del Toro cinematic vehicle.
One night, while working at the church, the two hear the war going off in the distance, and thus start to pack up their things to find cover, but Carlo forgets something, and a bomb hits the church, causing the young boy to lose his life, and a father to lose the most precious thing in his life. In his pain, Geppetto becomes reclusive, drinking himself to sleep every night, burdened by the loss of his son. At this moment, we are introduced to our narrator, Sebastian J. Cricket (a charming Ewan McGregor), a traveling cricket who is looking to write his memoirs. He finds a tree close and begins to make himself at home until Geppetto comes, thrashing it down with his ax, looking to use the tree as a vessel to create a wooden version of his lost child. Drinking and slashing away, he creates the boy before passing out, with the intention of finishing the final touches on him in the morning.
Sebastian, who hid in the heart of the puppet, comes out safely, only to find a spirit (hauntingly played by Tilda Swinton as a very Neil Gaiman-esque version of The Blue Fairy) arises from the shadows and offers to give the wooden puppet the opportunity to live to give the grieving old man some form of comfort and a sense of purpose again in this world. She asks Sebastian to guide this boy as he enters our world, essentially being his conscience, and after some convincing, the cricket agrees, and Pinocchio (Mann once again in a very effective reprise) is born. The next morning is a shocking affair for Geppetto, as he sees this creation of his come to life, calling him “Papa,” singing and breaking everything in his sights as he is excited to be alive. Confused and horrified by what he did, Geppetto locks Pinocchio away, telling him to stay put till he comes home from church and figures out what to do. But the young puppet breaks out and heads to the church, where the entire town sees him and is terrified by what he is and his existence. At the cottage, Podestà (an intimidating Ron Perlman), a local fascist government official, and the priest come to tell Geppetto he has two options: get the wooden boy in line quickly with the way the world works or he will have to get rid of him.
From this point, we see our young protagonist try to do the basic things that a normal boy, or even what Carlo would do. But he is his own being, and infectiously curious, thus instead of going to school like he is supposed to, he gets lured in by Count Volpe (voiced by the mustache-twirling Christoph Waltz) and his monkey assistant Spazzatura (an unrecognizable voice performance from Cate Blanchett) to come and be the headliner in his traveling circus. In his first performance, Pinocchio discovers he is a star, but he also disappoints Geppetto when he doesn’t go to school, and accidentally destroys one of Carlo’s school books. In hurting his father, and not wanting to be a burden on him, Pinocchio sets out with the traveling show, performing shows across the country, getting trapped in entering World War II as a soldier, and discovering his life purpose as he dies and reincarnates multiple times throughout his journey. But in his disappearance, Geppetto realizes he made a mistake in being so harsh on the boy, and the two search for a way to reconnect before it is too late.
Based on the classic Carlo Collodi fairytale, del Toro has made a visual, emotional modern fable that rivals any other version of this story told. In using his creative magic that makes him so unique, del Toro, alongside his co-director Gustafson, invites the audience to understand this bond between a father and an adopted son and how it is just as important and everlasting as the one Geppetto has with Carlo. Love isn’t an easy thing to convey sometimes, and both Pinocchio and Geppetto express this differently, one from a place of acceptance and the other from a place of protection. But this doesn’t mean it is not there for one another, and that is why when they make their harsh decisions to one another to lash out or leave, there is instant regret in both of them, and they would do anything it takes to fix this before the damage settles in. It’s the most profound film del Toro has done since Pan’s Labyrinth and another crowning achievement in Gustafson’s career that includes his impeccable work on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox.
But this isn’t just a story about the evolving relationship of newly appointed father and son, but rather a film about the invitation of openness and creativity to enter our cynical world. In his conversations with Spazzatura and Candlewick (a tender, layered voice performance from Finn Wolfhard), the innocent son of Podestà, Pinocchio opens up the minds of those two characters to their untapped potentials as living, breathing things on this planet, and their capacity to find kindness in their heart and change. In doing this, they can accept someone different like Pinocchio and find common ground that can unite us all. With these relevant themes, Pinocchio takes its place as not just the best animated film of the year, but one of the best films of the year period, making it a vital film for all audiences to see.
Beyond its message, the movie is a fest for a style of animation that doesn’t get made or celebrated enough these days. In taking over a thousand days to film, every frame or movement of the characters requires so much attention to detail, thus the right amount of care and compassion for the world these artists are creating. It’s an impressive feat that is brilliantly brought together in the editing room by Holly Klein and Ken Schretzmann. Then you mix in the dazzling score from the incredible Alexandre Desplat, alongside his toe tapping, catchy, yet heartbreaking original songs (“Ciao Papa” being the best of the bunch) that will leave you enchanted.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a rare piece of cinematic magic that we only get to see by a master of the craft that is at the top of their game. Fairytales have been told for centuries and we have seen many versions of this story in the past. The key to making one work though is simple, del Toro and Gustafson’s magic. It is unconsciously sprinkled throughout the film, thus when you are watching the film, you feel it stirring inside of you, and it moves you to your core. In finally getting this passion project made, he has made another masterpiece to add to a legacy defined by his love for cinema and his desire to emotionally move us with his expansive, otherworldly imagination.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio will be in select theaters November 9th and on streaming on Netflix beginning December 9th.