The timeless classic.
The Disney live-action remake. We’ve seen it done effectively in 2015 with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and again the following year with Jon Favreau’s excellent The Jungle Book, where filmmakers didn’t just adapt the material straight out but instead altered it to make the story more accessible for a contemporary audience. Then in 2019, Disney released Favreau’s scene-for-scene adaptation of The Lion King, which proved that some cartoons should never be given the live-action treatment, regardless of how good the computer animation and VFX are. Disney’s latest live-action venture of Pinocchio is probably the best example of why certain stories should stay in their animated forms. This new Pinocchio is a strange, unfocused tale spoiled by lackluster performances and uncanny visual effects, its central message about following your moral compass and ‘learning from mistakes’ getting lost in the translation.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, Pinocchio ’22 is basically a beat-for-beat remake of Disney’s 1940 animated classic, which itself was based on the 1883 Italian book The Adventures of Pinocchio, by Italian author Carlo Collodi. What worked in a 1940s cartoon, however, doesn’t necessarily translate well in a 2022 live-action film, not unless certain aspects of the narrative are altered to make it more digestible for modern audiences. Add to this the omission of several key moments from the original Disney flick, and what we have is a very bizarre movie with a few dated ideas, too many visual effects, some of which are creepy/ unconvincing, and a story that lacks any of the magic and wonder it may have possessed in the ’40s.
Written by Zemeckis and Chris Weitz, The Golden Compass (2007), the story is set in a small Italian village in 1895 and follows woodworker/ clockmaker Geppetto (Tom Hanks), who is mourning the loss of his wife and child. To deal with his grief, the craftsman creates a marionette modeled around his deceased son, which he names Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). After ‘wishing on a star,’ pleading that the puppet would come to life, the woodshop is visited by the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), who makes Geppetto’s desire a reality, bringing the wooden puppet to life and giving him a ‘temporary conscience’ in the form of an anthropomorphic cricket named Jiminy (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The fairy also informs Pinocchio that if he’s brave, truthful, and selfless, he can eventually turn into a fully-fledged human boy. Hoping to better Pinocchio’s life, Geppetto sends him off to school to make some friends. Once out of the house, however, our hero learns of the dangers of the outside world in the form of predators, con men, and creeps who try to exploit Pinocchio.
On the way to school, Pinocchio meets a con artist in the form of an anthropomorphic red fox named ‘Honest’ John (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) and his mute cat partner Gideon, who tempt the kid with a promise of fame and fortune. While this is perhaps one of the best sequences in the entire movie and features the catchiest musical number, ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life For Me),’ the scene doesn’t actually make sense in the world that’s presented on screen. In this imagined universe, there’s an anthropomorphic fox who sings and dances in the street with his anthropomorphic cat pal, yet, in this very same realm, Geppetto has a traditional four-legged pet kitten named Figaro. It just doesn’t add up. Sure, this may have worked in a cartoon around eighty years ago, but it doesn’t fly in a live-action re-telling today (at one point, the fox even pretends to take a ‘selfie’ even though the film is set in the 1800s).
Things get sillier when Pinocchio winds up at a frightening carnival-esque place known as Pleasure Island, where misbehavior is encouraged. Once on the isle, Pinocchio befriends a naughty boy named Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd) and gets embroiled in a ploy whereby the kids on the island are turned into donkeys and then sent off to work in the salt mines (I doubt any youngsters today would know what a salt mine is). All of this is rushed over; we get ideas like frightening fog henchmen and donkey kids, which are barely given a second glance.
Some of this ‘may’ have been okay if the important scenes had stood out. Sadly, none of the critical moments of the narrative hit, not even the infamous scene where Pinocchio’s nose grows when he tells a lie, this sequence missing the presence of the Blue Fairy who made the whole thing work in the original. Despite ditching integral parts of the story, Zemeckis adds an unnecessary character to the mix. At one point, Pinocchio is caught by a greedy Italian showman named Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) and forced to perform as part of his traveling puppet show. There, he befriends Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), a former ballerina who performs in Stromboli’s puppet show due to a leg injury that thwarted her career; she controls a female marionette named Sabina that Pinocchio befriends. Alas, their ‘relationship’ doesn’t enhance any of the film’s themes of following your conscience or exhibiting self-control, which makes the entire subplot and character feel like superfluous padding.
There are things to appreciate along the way, though. The production design by Doug Chiang, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), and Stefan Dechant, The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021), is excellent, chiefly Geppetto’s workshop — keep a look out for a few fun winks to other Disney films in the form of numerous antique cuckoo clocks in Geppetto’s house, modeled around movies such as Toy Story (1995), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988). And while some of the visual effects might be iffy, others are quite impressive, the highlight being the introduction of Pleasure Island, which is presented as a nightmarish self-indulgent amusement park. I even liked the idea of changing Monstro from a traditional whale to a Cthulhu type of creature, which gave the flick an extra half a star from me.
Unfortunately, most of the performances are uninspired at best. If you thought Tom Hanks was bad in this year’s Elvis, he’s even worse here as the elderly Geppetto, complete with an unconvincing wig, mustache, and stodgy European accent. Granted, Hanks doesn’t have much to work with here and spends a bulk of the film stuffing around in his home by himself before venturing out to search for his lost son with his CGI cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo (who manages to stay in the fishbowl despite being thrown around at various points in the adventure). Joseph Gordon-Levitt, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), is actually okay as Pinocchio’s conscience, the optimistic Jiminy Cricket, who also works as the partial narrator of the tale. Luke Evans, Beauty and the Beast (2017), hardly gets any screen time as Coachman, the alluring but menacing owner and operator of Pleasure Island, whilst Cynthia Erivo, Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), doesn’t quite cut it as the Blue Fairy, despite her best efforts — but hey, at least her rendition of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ is decent.
Although this modernized take of Pinocchio isn’t a complete bust (it works as a strangely grotesque update of a classic children’s film), we ultimately have a movie that’s inferior to its precursor, which renders the whole venture purposeless. Even worse, given that this latest Pinocchio has been sent directly to Disney’s streaming service Disney+, where the far superior 1940s movie can also be found, why would anyone opt to see this odd soulless remake when the timeless classic is readily available at the click of a button? Maybe Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which will hit Netflix later this year, might give us something different, but for now, stick to the 1940s version.
2.5 / 5 – Alright
Reviewed by Dan Cachia (Mr. Movie)