The best and most interesting Disney remakes have always been the ones with something different to say, where the fundamental story beats are there but the context, the narrative framing, and the tone feel inspired by a new voice. It’s why some of the better films include David Lowery’s take on Pete’s Dragon, Jon Favreau’s take on The Jungle Book, and Craig Gillespie’s take on 101 Dalmatians by making a devious heist story centered around just Cruella de Vil. Even Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, as traditional and old-fashioned as that script was, was put together with an empowering and unbreakable sentimentality at its core, and it ended up being the best remake Disney has made so far.
In the case of Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio, it’s a story as iconic as the studio itself — a film that, 82 years later, still manages to be charming and frightening and boundary-pushing all at once. Not only was it the prime of Disney’s filmography, but it was a milestone in what animation as a medium was capable of. All of this is to say that this iteration of Pinocchio didn’t need to exist, but it was also a movie I wanted to like, because it’s easy to like a movie as pure as Pinocchio. But as its 105 minutes went by, scene by scene, beat by beat, it did nothing but make me wish I was watching the 1940 cartoon.
The problem largely stems from the film making the same mistakes that plague most of Disney’s remakes, which is twofold. Firstly, too much of the script is identical to the original, except it’s all told and delivered with an attitude of the filmmakers knowing that we know how the story goes. Secondly, anything that is changed or added in either does nothing to improve the original scene or it downgrades the scene entirely.
Though we have the exact same premise, that of Geppetto (Tom Hanks) building a wooden puppet named Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and wishing he was a real boy, the telling of it feels far more pedestrian, even with its attempts at adding new material. We see a recurring picture of a little boy, suggesting that Geppetto lost his wife and son long ago. Such ideas color his motivation behind making Pinocchio in the first place. The problem is the scene is still told from the point of view of Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – the film can’t truly do anything new because the framing of it is exactly the same.
Another interesting moment in the film is when Geppetto sends Pinocchio off to school; he holds onto his hand a little longer than he should, almost like he’s afraid of letting him go (again). It’s such a good moment, where we get to see Hanks flesh out an old man with a lot of emotional baggage. It’s an extremely promising moment, where you can almost sense the director/actor duo who gave us Forrest Gump and Cast Away. And then the film never has a chance to build on this idea again, making any emotional line of dialogue in the climax feel rushed and unearned.
And that’s kind of what Pinocchio is like: a non-stop series of potentially interesting ideas that are flirted at for a split second and then the film backs off because it has the next plot point to get to.
All the familiar characters are here, from the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) and “Honest” John (Keegan-Michael Key) to Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) and the Pleasure Island coachman (Luke Evans), but their presences are heavily altered for the worse. Erivo’s Blue Fairy appears only once in the film, to make Pinocchio come to life, and then she departs while singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Why her character is singing that song, we have no idea, but her absence from the rest of the film negatively affects later scenes in the story. For example, Pinocchio’s famous nose-growing moment now has little to no moral takeaway, since he has no one to lie to.
So many classic scenes we know and love are instead done in a hurry to make room for new characters, that of Stromboli’s assistant Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya) and a talking seagull named Sofia (Lorraine Bracco). The problem isn’t that these new characters are badly written. Rather, it stems from them not being in the movie long enough to make an actual narrative difference. If we zoom out and look at Pinocchio from a structural outline point of view, it has the same exact plot as the original, which makes every new scene and character feel that much more tacked on.
But perhaps the most heartbreaking part of Pinocchio is it never feels like it’s taking risks. Never once does the film veer into true darkness, at least not like how the original does it. The donkey transformations. Monstro the Whale. Those were some of the earliest sources of childhood nightmares. But you revisit those scenes today and they’re still terrifying. It’s the use of shadows, color, and most importantly, music. There isn’t a single moment in Zemeckis’ Pinocchio that feels just as shocking, just as treacherous. It’s all mechanical, with everything on auto-pilot.
Sprinkled throughout are a few redeeming qualities that barely keep the film afloat. Hanks has so little to work with here, but he does his very best. Ainsworth and Gordon-Levitt not only have good chemistry together, but they both sound incredibly close to impersonating the original voices of Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket. It’s so impressive sometimes, you’d think you’re hearing a recording of the original film. Furthermore, Pinocchio’s design looks great and interacts with the real world quite well on a visual level.
But the most important piece that should be commended is the film has a noticeable increase in giving Pinocchio a chance to make his choices… err… grow his conscience. While the original would sweep him off his feet like the innocent naive boy he is, this iteration throws several villains his way who gaslight him into making the wrong decisions himself. Such subtle change brings one specifically “new” sequence to the table – the Pleasure Island sequence. As Pinocchio enters the island via amusement park boat ride, we are bombarded with so much color, so much visual effects and eye candy, but the more it goes on, the more the showcase of fun becomes a portrait of societal collapse, as he slowly comes to realize that it’s all wrong and he shouldn’t be there.
Unfortunately, that’s kind of it. With Zemeckis’s Pinocchio, the highs are never as high as they can be and the lows can be quite embarrassing. The voice acting is excellent and every once in a while, there is a moment of great promise. But every time the film is about to become more interesting, it trips over itself with some baffling choices. Geppetto’s clocks reference other Disney movies, for some reason. Evans’ coachman gets a musical number all to himself and you’re wondering “Why? Why add this?” And do not, I repeat, do not get me started on what this film did to Monstro.
It’s the quintessential problem with the Disney remake, basically a game where the audience says, “Oh this bit is different,” followed by “Oh this part is different too,” and then ending with “Well, that didn’t really change anything, did it?”
Am I disappointed? Yes. Am I angry? Perhaps. But more than anything, I’m confused. Confused as to what the filmmakers actually wanted to do with this material. There’s no new take, no new angle, no clear takeaway with this version. And so all we get is a wooden shell. Knock knock. Who’s there? Nobody.
Walt Disney Pictures will release Pinocchio only on Disney+ on September 8.