Pinocchio review – Zemeckis and Hanks reunite for well-made yet cold remake

A live-action take on the classic animation has effective visual moments and an impactful turn from Tom Hanks but never quite justifies its existence

Pinocchio has long been a misfit within the classic Disney canon – the early animated films which solidified Walt Disney’s reputation as a master storyteller and formed the bedrock layer of American cinematic fairytales. You’re hard-pressed to find someone who claims the 1940 original, the second animated feature ever made by Disney, as their favorite. Many found it to be frightening and unsettling, myself included. It’s a weird story, this tale of a sentient wooden puppet who dreams of being a real boy and, among other things, witnesses rogue children transform into donkeys and gets swallowed by a whale.

So it makes sense that the inevitable (for business reasons) live-action remake of Pinocchio will bypass theaters and head straight to Disney+. It is an odd fit, less hyped than its live-action cousins, neither quite a children’s movie nor a children’s movie for adults. There’s a strangeness to the whole proceeding – an unbeloved classic, sanded down from the original 1883 novel by Italian author Carlo Collodi, updated into a 1 hour, 40-minute visually stimulating but emotionally dull mishmash.

Disney’s live-action churn through the catalog has resulted in, at best, faithful adaptations that struggle to capture the magic of animation (The Lion King, Aladdin) and at worst, unsolicited cash grabs reaching deep into the uncanny valley (Dumbo, Lady and the Tramp). Pinocchio, directed by Robert Zemeckis from a screenplay by Zemeckis and Chris Weitz, leans more toward the former, though it’s hampered by the fact that it’s just never not weird, on a visual level, to watch a CGI wooden puppet interact with real humans.

The film’s central draw is the reunion of Zemeckis with Tom Hanks, as lonely woodshop owner Geppetto, and Pinocchio does offer hints of the sentimental kryptonite that carried their previous collaborations – Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Polar Express. Hanks is the platonic ideal of a pathos figure for children, and you cannot help but root for him acting valiantly amid the CGI, trying and occasionally succeeding to anchor this story of a talking puppet to real human emotion. The film is most effective when Hanks fully throws himself into the role of a lonely man who has lost his child – a real boy, once, and now a wooden one – and desperately wants to be a father again.

That wish, from “the depths of his heart”, comes true through the magic of The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), shrouded in misty CGI glitter and, again, an odd visual fit between naturalistic Geppetto and animatronic Pinocchio. (Erivo does remind, beautifully, that When You Wish Upon a Star, the signature song of Walt Disney productions, originated from the 1940 film.) The fairy tasks the boy puppet (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) with developing a conscience, and assigns wizened Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, voice pitched upwards) with handling moral duties until then. Jiminy, who I must note looks, disconcertingly, more alien than insect, also serves as the narrator and thus the main interlocutor between modern dialogue and the 19th-century setting – for kids and for parents (“well of course there are other ways to make a real boy, but I don’t think Geppetto gets out much,” he tells the Blue Fairy).

Other moments gesture to the present day, and particularly the conscience-shredding specter of fame. “To be famous is to be real,” the two-bit, fox-headed scammer Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) tells Pinocchio, luring the boy with fame and the chance to “be an influencer”. A scene in which Pinocchio flails onstage to uproarious laughter in a puppet show run by the monstrous Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) suggests a meta-commentary on exploitative spectacle. You can see echoes of a Twitter pile-on in the “contempt corner” of the Coachman’s (a devilish Luke Evans) deceptive Pleasure Island for destructive, conscience-free children.

None of these are offensive or off-key, more awkward and ineffective, particularly for a story whose central character lacks much characterization or charm; until the final act, poor Pinocchio is mostly buffeted by the machinations of others. (I spent a lot of this movie feeling bad for Pinocchio, gullible and perpetually confused.) This is mostly a Pinocchio story problem, and Zemeckis’s film makes up for it somewhat in craft – the spectacle of Pleasure Island is visually dazzling, same for Pinocchio and Geppetto’s escape from the whale. Geppetto’s CGI cat, Figaro, grows from distractingly false to endearing, same for a helpful seagull named Sofia (Lorraine Bracco). Most of all, Kyanne Lamaya stands out as Fabiana, an invented character who befriends Pinocchio at Stromboli’s show; her communication with him via actual marionette is by far the most convincing and moving puppet-human interaction in the film.

Often, it’s hard to know what to blame when the Disney live-action remakes fizzle. Is it that animation allows for a suspension of belief that human actors can’t sustain? An issue with the source material? An air of corporate strategy to the whole thing? In the case of Pinocchio, it’s a combination of all three. Either way, something is off – the film is competently crafted, dutifully acted, clearly labored over with soul, and yet, like its star, lacks a beating heart.

  • Pinocchio is now available on Disney+


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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