Can a ‘dark’ Pinocchio reignite Disney’s live-action remake strand?

Despite the surprisingly gruesome source material, the new remake looks to be playing it safe with genteel morality. Will it work for the House of Mouse?

How do you solve a problem like Disney’s live action remakes? Well, from the Mouse House’s point of view, it’s arguable whether there really is any problem at all. After all, Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King all took more than $1bn at the global box office, while 2016’s The Jungle Book only just fell short of that milestone.

The pandemic (and poor notices for Tim Burton’s slightly pointless Dumbo) have led to subsequent remakes turning up on Disney+ instead, which makes it harder to judge their success with audiences. Mulan and Cruella both received fairly decent reviews (not so much Lady and the Tramp), yet all in all there’s an argument to be made that the studio could do with a major, transformative smash on a par with Jon Favreau’s spectacular The Jungle Book to get everyone excited again about its seemingly endless programme of remakes and origins stories.

Now comes Pinocchio, a first full-length trailer for which landed this week, and at first glance it seems to tick all the boxes. There will be no Sonic the Hedgehog-style online outrage here at a radical redesign: the puppet looks exactly as he did when we last saw him in 1940; ditto Jiminy Cricket, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tom Hanks’s background in the Toy Story movies makes him the obvious choice as Geppetto, while director Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump) is an old hand unlikely to rock the boat.

Once again the movie will turn up on Disney+ rather than in cinemas. And while straight-to-streaming release hardly makes for a black mark in the post-Covid era, it does mean the film will avoid the gauntlet of the Hollywood trade newspapers’ reports of box office opening weekends.

From the look of the trailer, the new version is playing it safer than a night out with the blue fairy (Cynthia Erivo in the remake). And why not? After all, this is Pinocchio, a staple of entertainment for the under-10s for more than 80 years; a moral parable designed to make parents’ lives easier by encouraging children never to listen to outside influences unless they want to risk being transformed into a donkey or swallowed by a terrifying giant sea creature.

In terms of genuine threat, however, the 1940 film is a far cry from Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 novel The Adventures of Pinocchio, in which our hero is not a wide-eyed innocent but a mean-minded ingrate. He murders Jiminy Cricket (who returns as a ghost), is tortured, de-limbed and even hanged from a tree by his former friends the Fox and the Cat. The book’s message about the education of children – that they should learn from their own errors – is more complex than the Hollywood adaptation.

And yet while that 1940 film suffers from twee moralism when viewed through a modern filter, it was considered at the time to be a masterpiece of technical innovation, with super smooth animation never before seen in Hollywood. It is hard to see how the remake will live up to the same standards unless it can pull off the kind of radical leaps delivered by Favreau’s Jungle Book, perhaps the first fully CGI (unless one counts Neel Sethi’s Mowgli) movie to appear genuinely photo-real throughout.

Could the Pinocchio remake be modernised by a return to the dark places conjured by Collodi’s novel? Hanks’s involvement reminds us that the Toy Story films sometimes delved deep enough into horror that adults found themselves flinching. Who hasn’t woken in a cold sweat to a fever-dream replay of the garbage furnace scene in Toy Story 3? Anna and Elsa’s parents got killed off in Frozen. Poor Nemo’s mum and all his baby siblings got eaten by a barracuda!

But by the looks of it, the new Pinocchio seems to be following a similar path to the original Disney film rather than embracing its source material, with plenty of gentle tellings off and pithy offerings of avuncular wisdom from the supporting cast. Nor does there seem to have been much modernisation. A genuine attempt to update the story might have replaced the Fox and the Cat with a YouTuber who encourages Pinocchio to take part in dangerous challenges. Then again, perhaps not.

No doubt Pinocchio will make a worthwhile addition to Disney+’s catalogue, a cosy fantasy sojourn to lull the little ones into hyper-focus for 90 minutes or so. Whether it can repeat the achievements of its predecessor and find an enduring place in the grand pantheon of Hollywood animation remains to be seen. And whether it dares to push the moral boundaries of children’s entertainment, as many great animated films have done, might decide how we view this picture in years to come. The new blue whale certainly looks pretty scary, but we await Pinocchio’s Disney+ debut to discover if the film itself also has teeth.


Ben Child

The GuardianTramp

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