An aged woodworker named Gepetto (voice of David Bradley) in '30s Italy mourns the loss of his son from a bombing raid by crafting a wooden puppet. However, when a magical sprite (voice of Tilda Swinton) brings the puppet to life, the puppet Pinocchio (voice of Gregory Mann) soon attracts the attention of both a travelling ringmaster (voice of Christoph Waltz) and a local magistrate aligned with the Fascists (voice of Ron Perlman)...
When compared with just about every adaptation of 'Pinocchio' to date, it's safe to say that Guillermo del Toro's adaptation is going to be the one people will remember more. Sure, the most recent adaptation by Disney with Tom Hanks as Gepetto wasn't up to much, but even previous adaptations like Robert Benigni's or any of the countless TV movies made out of it never pushed the boat as much as this one has. For one, the setting is controversial enough - Fascist Italy in the '30s - and what's more, there are no corporate strings from Disney to tie down what it has to say.
This kind of creative freedom for a kids' movie is usually the preserve of, say, Cartoon Saloon or LAIKA Studios, where they are able to be as weird and wonderful as they like. Here, del Toro partners with the Jim Henson Company and the results are stunning. The handmade quality of the movie is evident in every scene; whether it be the ornate design or even just the textures of the characters.
But beyond this, what del Toro's script does is take the base components of Pinocchio and expand upon them. Gepetto crafts the wooden puppet from a tree that grows from his dead son's grave. When we first meet Pinocchio, he's almost like a horrifying Frankenstein-esque creature that just happens to have the voice of a precocious child. Later, when he's drafted into the cabaret of Count Volpe, wonderfully voiced by Christoph Waltz, he is a puppet on a string for Fascist Italy, happily singing war songs and marching with a rifle for the amusement and indoctrination of little boys and girls.
The cast as well is as varied as you like. David Bradley, generally cast for his physical presence and clipped, gravelly delivery is full of life here as Gepetto, while newcomer Gregory Mann is as spirited and lively as you'd expect. The supporting cast is a who's who of talent, including Tilda Swinton, Cate Blanchett, John Turturro, and Ewan McGregor in the role of Sebastian J. Cricket, cast here as a preening writer trying to pen his memoirs and being constantly interrupted. Christoph Waltz and Ron Perlman, meanwhile, are both terrifically villainous as antagonists Count Volpe and the Podestá.
Of course, this all begs the question as to who exactly 'Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio' is for. Can children watch this and get something out of it? The answer is an absolute yes. Most fairytales have an inherent darkness to them, yet most adaptations speak down to children as a way of becoming more accessible and digestible. Here, it doesn't betray any aspect of the story or its themes for the sake of ease. That isn't to say that it's morose or inappropriate either, as there's plenty of humour found throughout the story - one of them including a song about farts sung for effect to Benito Mussolini.
'Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio' is a true adaptation, in that it expands on themes rather than story. Far too often is the case that adaptations, especially those of fairytales and children's stories, feel the need to burden the audience with more of everything. Instead, 'Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio' hews and sculpts what's there into something fresh and original.