Guillermo Del Toro and Mark Gustafson’s radical reinvention of a classic fable dazzles on physical media
“What happens, happens. And then…we are gone.”
What I love so much about Guillermo Del Toro’s work is that he’s a filmmaker with a constant fascination with the duality inherent in so much of the human experience: death and life, corruption and innocence, the real and the fantastic. While these forces often come into conflict with one another across his films, making for dazzling and memorable cinema, Del Toro never quite says that these sides are in direct opposition. Rather, they’re often the same–circular beginnings and endings that are part of a singular experience, one both immediate and immortal. The flawed can be redeemed; the living die, and often come back; and we live in a world that, for all of the direness of reality, is full of life-affirming magic if we know where to look.
Del Toro’s approach to Pinocchio, co-written by Over the Garden Wall’s Patrick McHale and co-directed by animation vet Mark Gustafson, builds upon this fascination in ways that both disturb and delight. Placing Carlo Collodi’s ubiquitous fairytale within Italy’s descent into Fascism during the 1930s, the innocent mishaps of this wooden boy (Gregory Mann) take on a decidedly rebellious streak both inspire the conforming villagers around him but also make him a target by those who find power in stamping out such individuality. The traveling troupe that Pinocchio becomes the star of finds fame and fortune in appeasing Il Duce, while the Pleasure Island refuge for little boys becomes a Youth Camp for future soldiers, their transformation into donkeys substituted for the more rigorous, childhood-killing changes into adult soldiers.
Yet whether as an instrument of profit or war, Pinocchio finds a way to undermine and upend each of the corrupting systems that happen to steal him away. As a star, he falls into the rhythms of Count Volpe’s (Christoph Waltz) blatantly nationalistic performance, until as a practical joke towards his “owner,” Pinocchio humiliates Benito Mussolini in a far more scatological routine–to his face! When whisked off to be the perfect soldier based on the fact he cannot die, Pinocchio’s stint in the military helps rescue the childhoods of the boys around him rather than crushing his own. Placed in a mock battlefield of confetti grenades and paint rifles, a war game intended to teach the kids how to pit themselves against one another instead becomes a model lesson in working together and the power of friendship.
Sure, Pinocchio’s innocence may cause more damage than benefit at the beginning–including his repeated death, to the exasperation of the henchmen of the afterlife. Yet the mark he leaves is always one of potential transformation. He causes Lampwick (Finn Wolfhard), initially the model Fascist youth, to question the emotional reasons behind his devotion to both his father (Ron Perlman) and fatherland. In accepting and later revolting against the strings puppeteering him, Pinocchio causes monkey Spazzatura (Cate Blanchett) to question his own and feeds a further fire of rebellion. Cricket Sebastian (Ewan McGregor), reluctantly tasked with being Pinocchio’s conscience, eventually finds his own when faced with Pinocchio’s headfirst and chaotic approach to being a naturally good person. Finally, Pinocchio can help his creator (David Bradley) overcome the overwhelming grief that inspired his creation in the first place.
What makes Pinocchio such a welcome evolution in Del Toro’s fascination with the duality of human experience is how much Pinocchio takes both sides of whatever conflict he faces to heart. The joyous insanity at the heart of Pinocchio’s absent-minded spirit of rebellion is the catalyst for so much change around him, even as it’s this same spirit that everyone tries to stamp out in attempts to “convert” him. He’s a walking, talking avatar of embracing this duality–and shows us how easy it is to embrace all of our contradictions once we stop seeing them as mutually exclusive emotions or traits. I mean, even the movie’s humor embraces the ability to be silly and sinister with such sincere aplomb; it’s a film with a musical number about poop that becomes the most effective weapon against Fascism!
While the Pinocchio story has had countless adaptations over the centuries since Carlo Collodi’s story was first published, Del Toro and Gustafson’s film may either be the first or the most memorable version to embrace just what giving life to the lifeless truly means. To give life is to take it away; and, conscious of the fact that this life can vanish in an instant, Pinocchio encourages us to find wonder and a capacity for change in all things fleeting. If things begin and end, why not end them better than they were before?
Criterion’s release of Pinocchio is the latest culmination in both their partnership with Del Toro as well as with streaming giant Netflix; it’s fitting that this film, a handcrafted treasure from those involved in its production, one about an inspirational spirit breaking free of the hands that bind him, finds its own renewed longevity in physical form outside of the more ethereal system that created it.
Criterion presents Pinocchio in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio in Dolby Vision 4K HDR on the UHD disc and 1080p on the accompanying Blu-ray. Both films are presented in Dolby Atmos, which downmixes to 5.1-Channel Surround Sound on most systems. Subtitles for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing and an English-language Descriptive Audio track are available for the feature film on both discs. Information about the source transfer is not provided–but as a Netflix production, it is safe to assume that both the video and audio tracks are sourced from the original digital masters provided by the studio.
Befitting a film whose handicraft is perpetually on display, the HDR pass on Pinocchio is a vibrant labor of love. The vastly differentiated textures accentuating the lived-in quality of this manufactured version of 1930s Italy are reverently featured here, notably the renovated, built-out qualities of city structures on top of ruins and the minute wood shavings and dust of Gepetto’s workshop. Even the qualities of the natural world shine here, from the pustulant bile inside the monstrous Dogfish to the rippling fur and feathers of Death and the blue-black sand surrounding her. Darkness feels monstrous and foreboding throughout, with a quality of finality and mystery, notably in Pinocchio’s afterlife where shining light seems to recoil rather than naturally fade out–this isn’t flagging any sense of black crush, rather highlighting how this transfer reveals the amount of control Del Toro, Gustafson, and their animation team had over every aspect of the film to augment the themes of the story. This transfer, also available on its parent platform Netflix, joins its fellow Streamer-to-4K Criterion Okja in benefiting from no longer needing to buffer to reach its peak potential.
The Atmos sound mix is also wonderfully immersive, particularly the woodwind-focused score by Alexandre Desplat accompanying the stacked ensemble cast’s vocal and musical performances. As critic Matt Zoller Seitz references in his essay, Pinocchio is a film that embraces its silent moments akin to a Miyazaki film; however, the film’s silent moments are realistically full of an ambiance of their own, whether it’s the faint sounds of nature on a country road or something far more otherworldly and dissonant in the intimate deserts of the afterlife.
While the film looks just as stellar on the accompanying Blu-ray, the 4K UHD disc will definitely receive the most revisits as part of my collection with its awe-inspiring picture and sonic quality.
- Handcarved Cinema: Criterion has expanded this previously-available promotional featurette with Netflix by eight minutes, which provides an in-depth look at the creation of the film from pre-production to final post tweaks, alongside interviews with the cast and crew. A personal highlight is finally getting to see Cate Blanchett discuss her methodology in voicing a near-wordless monkey by way of incorporating some of Del Toro’s own mannerisms.
- Directing Stop-Motion: Directing team Del Toro and Gustafson recount the unique challenges of marrying the practicalities and limitations of stop-motion with Del Toro’s signature vision.
- Guillermo Del Toro and Farran Smith-Nehme: Writer-director Del Toro and critic Smith-Nehme discuss the influence of Del Toro’s previous work and longtime fascinations with folklore and iconography in approaching a new musical adaptation of a classic international fairytale.
- Crafting Pinocchio for MOMA: In a new interview, Museum of the Modern Art’s film exhibition curator Ron Magliozzi discusses how he and his MOMA team visited and selected elements for a future exhibit for the film while Pinocchio was still in production, accompanied by those elements both in-studio as well as in their later exhibition state.
- Eight Rules of Animation: A jaunty recap of the Pinocchio production team’s eight tenets to achieve the look of the film, accompanied by archival stills and behind-the-scenes video, narrated by Zoom sessions with the team as they make notes on sequences in progress.
- Q&A Sessions: Two lengthy awards season post-screening Q&As, one from 2022 with the directing team moderated by author Neil Gaiman, and another from 2023 with the directors, production designer Guy Davis, composer Alexandre Desplat, and sound designer Scott Martin Gershin, moderated by director James Cameron.
- Booklet: Two essays are included, one by film critic and author Matt Zollar Seitz discussing how the themes of corruption and innocence throughout Del Toro’s filmography return in his first stop-motion film, as well as another by children’s author and Del Toro collaborator Cornelia Funke discussing the evolution of Carlo Collodi’s original stories across multiple film adaptations.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.