Robert Zemeckis continues his quest of defeating the uncanny valley, but he gets lost along the way.
One of the most playful sequences in the classic 1940 Disney animated film Pinocchio is a series of gags performed by the various cuckoo clocks found within the woodworker Geppetto’s workshop. These impossibly elaborate clocks interact with the miniscule Jiminy Cricket and are a wonder of playful hand-drawn animation. In one of its more savvy uses of its source material, the 2022 Pinocchio remake mimics this scene and expands upon it. Only now, all the clocks are even less plausible, bending and twisting in ways that would splinter them apart. This serves as the first sign of the film’s slippery handle on reality, feeling more like a picaresque fever dream than a traditional film.
More jarringly, most of the clocks are odes to other Disney films, all but one of which was released after the 1940 original Pinocchio. One clock features Roger and Jessica Rabbit, with director Robert Zemeckis gesturing towards his own past triumph. Who Framed Roger Rabbit still stands as an absolute cinematic accomplishment, specifically in its ability to blend and bleed the edges of fantasy and reality, the cartoon and the real and how they could share physical space that felt genuine. By comparison, Zemeckis’s take on Pinocchio is weightless, cynical, and tired. It has moments of imagination that are impressive in their composition and execution, but it is all in service of a film that ambles forward toward the inevitable, hitting the necessary beats with precision but lacking in sincerity.
This, of course, isn’t new territory for Zemeckis, who for nearly two decades now has been chasing a dream of technology breaking through the traditional filmmaking process, first experimenting with 2004’s unnerving Polar Express. Pinocchio is never as unsettling as Polar Express, but somehow feels more emotionally hollow, a cover band interpretation of the 1940 film, which was itself an interpretation of a 1880s Italian children’s novel from Carlo Collodi—a copy of a copy, and as will happen with such things, the effect fades rather than magnifies through the reinterpretations.
Also not new for Zemeckis are some key cast members. Chief among them is Tom Hanks, the most visible live action actor in the film, and quietly one of Zemeckis’s most consistent collaborators. This is actually their fourth project together (though the first since Polar Express), and each outing has seen Zemeckis tapping into another skill set of Hanks as an actor, an opportunity he clearly relishes. The biggest and most significant interpretation that pair makes here is to shift Geppetto from a lovable, amiable grandfather figure to someone desperately, almost oppressively sad. This adaptation makes it clear that Pinocchio is specifically based on an absent son; whether the real son has passed away or is simply estranged, we are not sure. What we do know is that now Geppetto simply mutters away in his workshop, interacting only with his cat and goldfish, unable to even sell his artisanal clocks for the pain that being separated from them would cause. When he makes his wish for Pinocchio to come alive, it isn’t whimsical wishful thinking but a desperate need for connection.
The issue with Hanks’s performance is that it is so steeped in this creaky sadness that he feels isolated and drowning, especially playing against cartoons. By comparison, when Hanks played opposite no one for the largest section in the middle of Cast Away, he was vital and thrilling. Here, by leaning into the inherent sadness of Geppetto’s plight, Hanks creates a character that is depressing to be around, making Pinocchio’s desperation to get back to his father that much harder to swallow.
The other performances in Pinocchio feel less honed or precise by comparison. Jiminy Cricket, as through Joseph Gordon-Levitt doing a labored Cliff Edwards impression, struggles to balance being folksy without stumbling over into the obnoxious. It doesn’t help that he’s been given lines that complain about taxes and makes suggestive comments about Geppetto’s sex life. Worse still is Keegan-Michael Key’s take on sly fox conman Honest John, given the thankless role of having to sell jokes about the innocuousness of “influencers” and the fact that the name Chris Pine has the word “pine” in it. (You know, like the wood?) It’s dire material, and Key tries his hardest through the voice performance, but ultimately falls prey to his worst histrionic tendencies.
Yet the CGI performances of Honest John and his mute cat compatriot Gideon are captivating to watch, save for a brief pantomiming of a smartphone. This is just one CGI performance that settles where Zemeckis’s heart lies now. Almost certainly, the challenge of having the weight of the action rest on not one, but two CGI creations was likely an appeal of the whole project in the first place, and Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket are winning animated characters. Pinocchio’s face animates oddly at times, but this is partially by design, as his wooden features make expressive acting a bit tricky. Ultimately, all of the CGI achievements are wasted on a half-hearted project that doesn’t even seem to have a compass set properly.
Perhaps the most captivating portion of the film is when Pinocchio arrives in Pleasure Island, a hideaway for naughty boys and girls where they are allowed to act out all their worst impulses. Pinocchio is tossed in, almost entirely against his will, along with another boy, Lampwick. Lampwick takes to Pleasure Island rather swimmingly, but Pinocchio is less sure, skittish and nervous. When they see children joyously destroying wooden clocks, a symbol of his father and where he came from, it becomes clear that Pinocchio is far from where he is meant to be. But he was never at home there. Not really.
That is ultimately the failure of the new Pinocchio: Zemeckis doesn’t have the the heart to give the dear boy the edge he needs to work. The story of Pinocchio is steeped in the impulse to go out into the world, full of ambition and hope, and discover yourself among the dangers and toil. Both the story and the character of Pinocchio have a slight edge to them in the best interpretations. The Pleasure Island sequence in the 1940s original is unnerving, but it’s only when the transformations kick off that Pinocchio realizes his mistake. By comparison, 2022 Pinocchio is never enamored with the Luke Evans-haunted version of Pleasure Island he discovers. He wants to leave as soon as he gets there, which makes for a far less compelling growth than scratching until you find the danger underneath. Even the most iconic scene of Pinocchio’s nose growing with his lies is reduced to a lack of self-awareness and a means to solve a puzzle. Zemeckis can’t stand to make the boy bad, causing his quest to become good lack much emotional heft.
And there is that Roger Rabbit clock hanging over the whole affair. Roger Rabbit was an undeniable technical marvel for its time, one that still feels like a miracle over 30 years later. But it also had a central emotional story at its core of a man who once knew the joy of life and his reluctant rediscovery of that joy. By comparison, Pinocchio is a technical feast that sets Zemeckis apart from his contemporaries, and even those inspired by his work. But it lacks the warmth to elevate the visual spectacle to anything worth engaging with fully. It is a beautifully crafted piece of art, but at its center is a wooden heart, longing to find a pulse.