The new Disney live-action remake of Walt Disney’s 1940 animated masterpiece Pinocchio is just as bad as you may have heard. An ugly hybrid of a few live-action elements floating in a sea of mediocre CGI, it features Tom Hanks in a grotesque performance as Geppetto, the old Italian woodcarver who makes a wooden puppet and is so pleased with the lifelike toy, he wishes it could be a real boy. Since the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) just happens to hear his wish, she gives life to the puppet called Pinocchio, but tells the puppet he must prove himself to be honest, brave, and unselfish before he can be a real boy.
The movie is full of explanations of things that don’t need to be explained — such as the meaning of the name “Pinocchio” — and only become weirder the more you explain them. It seems, in this version, Geppetto’s own son died, and there’s a photo of the boy on his workbench, dressed in Tyrolean costume just like Pinocchio is. Great! A puppet modelled on his dead son, a perfect premise for a horror film!
Oh, and Geppetto’s wife died too, of course. I guess we should be grateful whatever killed them wasn’t shown in detailed flashback, so we’d have all the facts. And the deceased wife used to love all the amazing clocks Geppetto carves, so now he won’t sell any of them, because I guess director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Chris Weitz felt there had to be an explanation as to why there are so many clocks in Geppetto’s workshop in the 1940 film version they’re ripping off relentlessly in a typical Disney cash grab. Were Zemeckis and Weitz worrying whether audiences might wonder if Geppetto is a bad salesman, or come to the erroneous conclusion that nobody wants clocks in that town for strange religious reasons, unless the number of clocks on the walls are explained?
Why people can’t handle stories anymore that don’t feature bizarre backstories for every damn thing, I cannot fathom. This movie is based on a fairy tale! There are talking animals and wish-granting fantastical beings and no end of nonrealistic doings! Suspend a little disbelief, will you?
What’s so hard about: “Once upon a time there was a lonely woodcarver named Geppetto who made lots of wooden clocks and toys and marvellous things to sell, but he wished he had a child of his own who could enjoy them. One day, he carved a wooden puppet that looked so much like a real boy, he wished it was a real boy,” and so on. Isn’t that perfectly easy to understand without throwing a dead, clock-fixated wife and oddly dressed dead child into the mix? Is the problem that, in our stranger-danger era, a story about an old man who apparently has no family, but who wants a son of his own is a little suspect?
Anyway, it’s all very badly done. The CGI’s so clumsy — inexcusable in this day and age, especially at Disney-budget levels. When joyful Geppetto picks up Pinocchio, his hands look like they’re held out too wide to actually be supporting the living puppet. Figaro the cat is weightless throughout, and Cleo, the goldfish, is strangely ugly, as if they couldn’t figure out how to preserve the characters done so well in the classic 1940 film version of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 story, though they clearly tried. Most of the 1940 characters’ best bits of business are preserved in the new film. Cleo twirls and looks flirtatiously through her transparent veil-like tail, and Figaro is comically scared of Pinocchio and keeps backing up into obstacles when Geppetto is making the wooden puppet walk as a marionette with strings. Though the new version makes this scene so excessive, Tom Hanks looks like a sadistic loony terrorising his cat.
As in the 1940 version, Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the narrator. But again, a wealth of explanatory detail makes everything stranger. Instead of the straightforward approach of the 1940 film, with Jiminy Cricket just showing up in the town, seeing Geppetto’s lit-up windows late at night, hopping over there, and finding his way to the hearth to warm himself, the new Jiminy Cricket is shown to be homeless, deprived, shivering out in the cold, wondering aloud, “Will I ever be warm again?”
This is clearly to explain the fact that, in the old Disney version, Jiminy Cricket was dressed in a raggedy, faded old tailcoat and top hat and spats. This outfit was not to establish him as a pitiable part of the homeless cricket population. He’s supposed to be a colourful vagabond, a wanderer “from hearth to hearth,” which gives him a certain worldly wisdom that’s going to make him fit to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience, the assignment the Blue Fairy gives him along with a nice new suit. This characterisation of Jiminy Cricket is a legacy of the old belief common to a number of cultures that a cricket on the hearth — presumably drawn to the warmth — was a companionable creature and a sign of good luck for a household. Charles Dickens wrote an 1845 Christmas novella called The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home. And you can still buy a brass cricket figurine to decorate your hearth or mantle, by the way.
It seems remarkable that, in this remake, there’s clearly a mandate to keep all the details of a well-known character like Jiminy Cricket, including his clothes, even if there’s no longer any cultural understanding of them. So a new explanation for them has to be provided, no matter how peculiar. I don’t blame Zemeckis and Weitz entirely. You just know the script meetings were hell on this project, with notes like, “What’s up with Jiminy Cricket’s crappy clothes anyway? Do we need a flashback to show how he got to be homeless?”
Of course, there are a few not-terrible bits in the film. Keegan-Michael Key does a nice job voicing the flamboyant, theatrical Honest John, the human-size fox who first leads Pinocchio astray. But really, he’s just succeeding in keeping alive the character already established in the 1940 version. Any added material in this new version tends to be weak overall, as, for example, when Honest John is persuading the credulous Pinocchio, who’s supposed to be going to his first day of school, that he could find far greater success as an actor, though he’d need a new name. “Chris Pine?” is one of several wood-related ideas.
There are a few pointless new characters. One is Sofia the seagull (voiced by Lorraine Bracco), who helps Jiminy Cricket a few times, and Kyanne Lamaya plays Fabiana, a live-action character who’s a former ballerina sidelined by a severe leg injury, who now works for Stromboli and befriends Pinocchio.
The same holds true of the incredibly bad new songs. The main tune for the 1940 original, “When You Wish Upon a Star” is still a hell of a memorable song — there’s a reason it still plays under the Disney princess-castle logo. Honest John’s siren song to lure in Pinocchio, “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me),” is also still excellent, as is “I’ve Got No Strings,” sung by Pinocchio when he performs in evil Stromboli’s marionette show. But it was idiotic to add several pathetically rotten new ditties. One is called “The Coachman to Pleasure Island (Don’t Be Party Pooper),” and sung at exactly the point in the darkening narrative when there should be no more singing — when Pinocchio is waylaid, along with many other children, to the amusement park Pleasure Island, where they’ll be turned into donkeys and sold to work in the salt mines.
The 1940 Pinocchio has terrifying moments that are generally not allowed in children’s entertainment anymore — to no one’s surprise, they don’t appear in Zemeckis’s Pinocchio. In the old version, after Pinocchio is a great success with Stromboli’s marionette show as the only “stringless” puppet, Stromboli hurls him into a cage and threatens, “You will make good money — for me! And when you are growing too old, you will make good firewood!” He punctuates this line by throwing a hatchet into a box of old, half-dismembered puppets. It’s a hair-raiser I remember from seeing in my own childhood, and it’s definitely not included in Pinocchio 2022.
But perhaps the scariest moment in the 1940 version — and old Disney movies always brought the terror — is actually reenacted in the new one. That’s when the tough kid, Lampwick, who’d been confidently touring Pinocchio around Pleasure Island, begins turning into a donkey, and begs Pinocchio to help him as his voice is lost in braying.
The weirdest part of the 1940 Pinocchio story is the typical starchy Disney morality imposed on Carlo Collodi’s tales. It’s been made into a primer, teaching children to be good — absolutely, impossibly good. Just as it seems insane to suggest that the threshold for becoming a real boy is becoming totally brave, honest, and unselfish, it’s nutty to assume a just-created pine boy, literally born yesterday, would not get led astray at every turn, since he doesn’t know anything.
But the old version is so swift at ninety-one minutes, it speeds by without giving much time between adventures to ponder these madnesses. Plus there’s some welcome humour in the 1940 original, often taken up verbatim in this new version, such as, for example, Jiminy Cricket describing to Pinocchio what a conscience is: “It’s that still, small voice inside that nobody listens to.”
Interestingly, it seems the original Collodi book was much different than what we recognise through film adaptations, mainly the 1940 Disney one. It was, it seems, a bleak anti-bourgeois piece of raging despair. It proved to be so popular, a second book came out, less harsh and a bit closer to the plot we know, with a Blue Fairy who teaches Pinocchio lessons. Then both books were rereleased in 1883, telling an overall “brutal and frightening” story:
The Fox and the Cat aren’t tricksters, but assassins. The Blue Fairy isn’t a reassuring motherly figure, but a ghostly and possibly dead little girl who refuses to help Pinocchio, because she’s “waiting for my coffin to come take me away.” Pinocchio grows his nose, but just to annoy Geppetto, and kills the Cricket in a fit of rage. Also, no happy ending: The puppet ends up dead, hanged on an oak tree.
The 1940 film version keeps a few dark interludes as a gesture to Collodi’s book, such as the death of Pinocchio — though in the film, he dies bravely, sacrificing himself to save Geppetto. He’s rewarded by the Blue Fairy and magically reborn as a real boy. But the new version is such a strange, mushy mess, Pinocchio never gets to be a real boy at all, because that would suggest a criticism of the puppet boy, I guess? Anyway, in the end, Geppetto tells Pinocchio the puppet boy he loves him just as he is. So there was no need to go through all that hell after all.
The main reason to see this crappy film version of Pinocchio is to compare it with the far more promising version coming out in November in limited theatrical release, followed by a Netflix premiere on December 9. It’s Guillermo del Toro’s highly anticipated stop-motion animated version, with an aesthetic based on the visual design of Gris Grimly’s 2002 edition of Collodi’s books. It’s pretty clear that del Toro intends to return to the Collodi books as more direct inspiration for his own much darker, more political film — a lifelong passion project of his — now set in 1930s Fascist Italy.
Which makes this a good time to read the Collodi books too, what with Halloween just around the corner. So in a way, this terrible new Disney movie Pinocchio is only a messy herald of better things to come.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of Filmsuck, USA. She also hosts a podcast called Filmsuck.
Featured image: Disney
This article was first published on Jacobin.