Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel
Disney continues to revisit its animated classics as source material for live-action films. These include 101 Dalmatians (along with a sequel and a prequel), Alice in Wonderland, Sleeping Beauty (Maleficent, with its shifted point-of-view), Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Lady and the Tramp, and Mulan. Most have received mixed reactions, but this has not stemmed the flow. Added to this list is the newly released Pinocchio, now streaming on Disney+.
Pinocchio finds its origins in the children’s novel The Adventures of Pinocchio. Italian writer Carlo Collodi wrote of a Tuscan woodcarver named Geppetto who creates a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming a real boy. The name “Pinocchio” is a combination of the Italian words pino (pine) and occhio (eye). The character’s iconography and adventures bridge three centuries: The puppet dreams of being, given spirit guides, and a nose that grows when he lies (occurring only once in the novel).
Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) deservedly earns the accolade “masterpiece.” Pinocchio, the follow-up to the studio’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), is only equaled by its predecessor. Three years in the making, Pinocchio was a critical hit. Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, the unnamed staff writer described the film in glowing terms: “… the picture is a masterpiece which sets another milestone along the road of screen entertainment …. a new source of joy for which [the creators] deserve and will receive the gratitude of millions who will see it.”
Pinocchio has been seen on both the big and small screens nearly two dozen times. Casts have included the Pinocchio’s of Sandy Duncan, Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman), Jonathan Taylor Thomas, and Roberto Benigni. Geppettos include Burl Ives, Danny Kaye, Martin Landau, Carl Reiner, and Drew Carey. In addition, a host of famous actors appeared in supporting roles.
For the newest incarnation, director Robert Zemeckis has co-adapted the screenplay with Chris Weitz, but the entire film feels like a scene-for-scene remake of the original. Where it attempts to find something new, the substitution does nothing to enhance the storytelling. Instead, it is different for its own sake.
A few new elements are introduced into the plot but add little to the overall effect, with even the best moments falling short. “Clever” touches receive acknowledgment—cuckoo-clocks with Disney images (Snow White, Roger Rabbit, Sleeping Beauty, etc.)—but seem slightly out-of-place. The mix of live actors and CGI results in the “real” people appearing as if traveling through a virtual reality app.
The story remains the same. Inventor Geppetto fashions Pinocchio and wishes upon a star. The puppet then finds himself duped into various dangerous scenarios: encountering the fox and the cat who sell him to Stromboli, the wicked puppeteer; the journey to Pleasure Island where the children are turned into donkeys and sold; being swallowed by a sea monster; etc. Pinocchio’s spiritual guides are, of course, Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy.
Tom Hanks makes a heartfelt Geppetto, a widower in mourning for his wife and son. He infuses the character with a deep kindness interwoven with a fragile and broken soul. He puts a smile on the puppet so he will “always be happy.” The image of his setting out to find Pinocchio, packing his beloved cat, Figaro, and cradling his adored fish, Cleo, is touching. One could wish Hanks’ make-up to be a little less extreme, with bushy hair, mustache, and eyebrows worthy of their own zip code.
Cynthia Erivo makes a beautiful, fully present Blue Fairy. The voice work is good, with Benjamin Evan Ainsworth’s sweet and never saccharine Pinocchio. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives Jiminy Cricket a southern flavor but conveys his concern as the puppet’s conscience. Lorraine Bracco (a friendly seagull) and Keegan-Michael Key, as Honest John, the con-fox, are fine if a bit one note.
The story’s heart remains to be “real” is to be brave, honest, and unselfish. While spelled out clearly, the concept sometimes gets lost in the visual noise. The pacing is uneven and often slow. The comic violence (Stromboli locking Pinocchio in a case) feels jarringly vicious. Jokes referencing Chris Pine, agents, taxes, and educational curriculum do not land so much as thud. The original music is oddly utilized and snuck in, almost as spoken verse and Alan Silvestri’s new songs unfortunately fail to enhance the film. In the end, Pinocchio feels like light-beer-and-water: all the same but less.
Upcoming and in development are live-action versions of The Little Mermaid, Peter Pan (as Peter Pan and Wendy), Snow White, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Sword in the Stone, Robin Hood, Bambi, The Aristocats, and Lilo and Stitch along with sequels to The Lion King (Mufasa: The Lion King), Aladdin, The Jungle Book, and Cruella. With the track record of previous adaptations, one must wonder—other than money—what Disney hopes to gain.
Rated PG, Pinocchio is now streaming on Disney +.