A look at Guillermo de Toro's Pinocchio
2022 has unexpectedly been the year of Pinocchios, with three different filmed adaptations being released of Carlo Collodi’s 1880s children’s book, The Adventures of Pinocchio. There was a Russian animated version released in English with Pauly Shore voicing the titular Pinocchio, and SpongeBob Squarepants’ Tom Kenny as the voice of Geppetto; there was a potentially even more misguided version by Robert Zemeckis that combined a live-action Geppetto played by Tom Hanks acting against a computer-animated version of the 1940s Disney iteration of Pinocchio; and lastly, and most successfully in my view, Guillermo del Toro’s darker stop-motion animation take on the story, set in Mussolini’s fascist Italy. Funnily enough, Tom Kenny provides the voice of Mussolini here, and funnier still, if IMDB is to be believed, he’ll also be voicing Pinocchio in yet another version of the story set to be released next year. It’s just so many Pinocchios!
The Tom Kenny of it all aside, it is curious, to say the least, to see the same story adapted four times in two years, but that barely scratches the surface of how many adaptations of this story exist. Honestly, however many adaptations you think there have been, the true number is probably quite a bit more than that, and all spread out over more than a hundred years. The seemingly definitive version of the story for my whole life has been Disney’s 1940s version, only the second feature-length film released by the studio, and the follow-up to 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Pinocchio. It is so tied to the history of The Walt Disney Company that the film’s opening song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” has long been something of a theme song and guiding ethos for the company.
Long before the Disney film, though, there was a silent-era, live-action version from 1911 that is a fascinating artifact of film history, being one of Italy's first feature-length films. I’ve had no luck finding a definitive list of every adaptation of the story there has been over the years, seemingly due in part to how disparate the adaptations have been. There’s a 2015 Czech version, numerous TV movies including a 2008 version with Bob Hoskins as Geppetto, a 1967 version from Germany that mixed live-action with real puppetry, a Japanese animated series from 1976, and dozens more besides. There have also been countless films that have overtly riffed on elements of the Pinocchio story, like 2021’s Finch, 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, and 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, to name a few.
The unifying feature across almost all of the adaptations of the Pinocchio story is that there is a craftsman that makes a child, which then comes to life, and over the course of the story, that fabricated child develops a longing to become more real. In some ways, this is itself something of a riff on the same ideas of the Frankenstein story, and many other folk tales besides, but there has been something unique to the dynamics of the Pinocchio story in particular that has seemingly encouraged so many creators to attempt their own adaptation. It’s a story that lends itself to examinations of parents and children, what it is to be human, what it is to be good, the nature of lying, what it is to be real, and so much more besides.
Looking at del Toro’s version, it’s interesting to see which bits of the story he chooses to tweak and highlight, what things he invents himself, and where he is drawing inspiration from the book versus paying some kind of homage to the original Disney film. I’m particularly interested in how overtly religious his treatment of the story is. When we meet him, Gepetto is not just a woodworker but is engaged in a long project of carving a crucifix for his local church, and it’s the accidental bombing of this church through which he will lose his son, Carlo; Gepetto is carving the world’s most famous dead son right before he loses his own. Gepetto will go on to plant the pinecone that Carlo was holding before he died, and from the tree that pinecone grows into, he will drunkenly carve another son, the wooden puppet that will become Pinocchio - a kind of resurrection of its own. It’s also something of a miracle that seemingly the only two things in the church that survived the bombing unscathed were Carlo’s pinecone and Geppetto’s crucifix.
When it happens, Carlo’s death is especially painful because he doesn’t even know what’s coming when the building starts to shake. Excited, he asks, “What’s that sound, papa? Is it a plane?” Geppetto knows, though. And we’ve already been warned by this point of Carlo’s fate from the opening narration, so we suspect what’s about to happen, too. Carlo does briefly make it out of the church, but he runs back in to grab his perfect pinecone, having become attached to the idea that he could plant his own tree to one day make things from it just like his father. When the bomb hits, Carlo is holding his pinecone, staring up wonderingly into the eyes of Christ on the cross. Carlo’s perfect pinecone survives the blast, bouncing out the front door and down to the place in the ground where Gepetto had been knocked to by the blast.
There is a random senselessness to Carlo’s death that is deeply unsettling. We learn that the town and church weren’t even the intended target of the bombing. There was no target at all. The planes were just dumping their bombs to make their planes lighter for the flight home. Our narrator for this early part of the story is Sebastian J Cricket, the stand-in for Jiminy Cricket from the Disney film, and the unnamed talking cricket of Collodi’s book. As in the other versions of the story, Sebastian will often function as something of a conscience for Pinocchio, accompanying him on some of his adventures, having taken up residence in a hollowed-out portion of the pine tree that became Pinocchio’s body.
These themes of death and grieving play a big role in del Toro’s approach to the story. Both in big ways like the cruel death of Carlo, but also in smaller ways, like Gepetto’s first explanation of the significance of the pinecone to Carlo. Gepetto and Carlo have just cut down a pine tree for wood, to which Geppetto says, “When one life is lost, another must grow.” Life and death are an endless and inevitable cycle, but here Geppetto is placing the emphasis on the happier side of that cycle. Yes, everything ends, but from every end comes the beginning of something new.
Almost unspoken is that when we meet Carlo and Geppetto, they’ve already experienced a significant loss. Mom is out of the picture, but the only reference we get to her is Carlo asking Geppetto to sing Mama’s song so that he can sleep. It’s tragically losing his son that shatters Geppetto, but the ground for that tragedy is seeded by the earlier loss of his wife, Carlo’s mother. The grief of that ending is also the beginning of something else, though. It’s this grief that leads Geppetto to plant Carlo’s pinecone, which is what grows into the tree that Geppetto cuts down to make Pinocchio, which is how he comes to have the second son who is with him most of the rest of his life. Where one life was lost, another grew.
Pinocchio and Geppetto, as depicted by del Toro, are an interesting study in contrasts. In del Toro’s version of the story, Geppetto is far more complicated than the versions in the 1940s Disney film, or Collodi’s book. In the original Disney version of the story, Geppetto is simply a woodworker living on his own, who happens to carve a little boy puppet, and idly muses to himself how nice it would be if it were alive. He’s surprised when he wakes up to discover that Pinocchio is alive, but this Geppetto loves and accepts him immediately. The tension of the story is never really between the two of them. In the book, it’s a bit more complicated, as Collodi is trying to tell a story about the importance of obeying your parents, so, though Gepetto does love Pinocchio, much of the early drama of the story comes from what happens when Pinocchio doesn’t listen to Geppetto or do what he’s supposed to do. For del Toro, his Geppetto struggles mightily to accept Pinocchio. He is a grieving father and he is bewildered by his puppet coming to life, and he is appalled and offended that it calls itself his son. Geppetto is angry at the chaos Pinocchio causes in his life, and it’s in a moment of frustration that he calls Pinocchio a burden, which is the impetus for Pinocchio to leave home. Despite all that, it also says something of Geppetto’s character that he does take on the responsibility of parenting this child in need of raising, and that, despite the difficulties, he also comes to love Pinocchio as a son. His feelings for Pinocchio resonate more for the audience both because they are harder earned, and because they reflect a bit more accurately the messiness of the emotions that come with being a parent.
Pinocchio is something else altogether. Despite some echoes here and there, he is decidedly not Carlo. Just as siblings can be wildly different, where Carlo was obedient, Pinocchio is willful; whereas Carlo was mild, Pinocchio is rambunctious. As we learn, Pinocchio may be alive due to a soul borrowed from Carlo, but he is wholly his own person. In every version of Pinocchio, there is a naïveté to him that is an engine for much of what happens in the story. In del Toro’s version of the character, that manifests as something of a Zen beginner’s mind. His Pinocchio is naive, but he runs towards everything with an openness and eagerness and a complete lack of preconceptions. Where Geppetto was a grieving old man grinding out the last of his days, Pinocchio came into his life as Life and Joy personified. Even, early on, when Pinocchio gets too close to the fireplace and his feet catch on fire, he squeals with joy, “Look at me! I’m on fire!” And when Geppetto extinguishes him, Pinocchio says “Papa, you’ve ruined the nice light on my feet.” When his feet are burned off, he accepts it without hesitation and moves on; and when Geppetto builds his new legs, he accepts that too, and is overjoyed. Over time, Pinocchio does grow more sophisticated about the world, better-understanding people and Geppetto, but largely maintains this joyful beginner's mind throughout.
Throughout the film, Pinocchio has many adventures after leaving home. He joins the traveling carnival to send money back home to Geppetto, so as not to be the burden that Gepetto called him out of frustration. Because Pinocchio can’t exactly die, he gets briefly pulled into the Italian war effort, and as with many versions of the story, he ultimately winds up reuniting with Geppetto and Sebastian while trapped inside the belly of an enormous sea beast.
From here we get an incredibly rich ending from del Toro that ties all of the themes of the film together, elevating it to something truly special. We get the action set piece of the finale as Geppetto, Pinocchio, and Sebastian escape from the belly of the sea beast. We also get the emotional rollercoaster of Pinocchio sacrificing himself to save Geppetto, Geppetto grieving the loss of another son, and Sebastian making a sacrifice of his own to bring Pinocchio back from the dead. We get a brief happy ending of the three of them together, having survived these adventures, but del Toro gives us a further coda to the story. Circling back to the idea that everything ends, del Toro also gives us the inevitable passing of Geppetto, after his well-lived life, and we also get a similar ending for Sebastian. Our final shot is of Pinocchio, leaving flowers on Geppetto’s grave, walking off into the distance, leaving the ending of the life he has known, to enter the beginning of another.
There have been many Pinocchios, and many reconfigurations of the story, but this one may be the best. Guillermo del Toro owes a debt to Collodi’s book for providing the bones of this story, and he owes a debt to the original Disney film for how it synthesized and streamlines all the best ideas from Collodi’s book, but it would be hard to overstate just how much greater depth and pathos and humor he brings to this story. That itself helps underline the themes of endings and new beginnings he’s working with. We pass stories like Pinocchio down, each generation adding to it and reshaping it to the needs of that time. Maybe eventually someone will tell a version of this story that will carry it even further than del Toro has, but for now, we have this one, and I will treasure it.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th-Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.