“The Adventures of Pinocchio” is a well-crafted and gently charming version of the classic 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi. Unfortunately, this live-action, non-musical adaptation must compete with vivid (and, in many cases, video-enhanced) memories of Disney’s beloved 1940 animated feature. Many viewers — especially very small children — may be unable, or unwilling, to get past the absence of Jiminy Cricket, the Blue Fairy and “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Pic might pick up some small change in brief theatrical exposure, but likely won’t hit its stride until it’s mass-marketed as a vid sell-through item.
Director Steve Barron, working from a script he co-wrote with Sherry Mills, Tom Benedek and Barry Berman, demonstrates the same flair for combining human stars and animatronic effects that enabled him to strike B.O. gold with the first “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” adventure. Pinocchio is an impressively lifelike puppet created and animated by the crew of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. The “star” blends seamlessly into the action opposite human co-stars, often to amusing effect.
One of the funniest scenes has Pinocchio caught in a lie by a schoolteacher (wittily played by John Sessions) who accepts the presence of a living puppet in his classroom with remarkable sang-froid. He appears flustered only when Pinocchio’s nose grows to the size of something used by an Olympic pole-vaulter.
Martin Landau plays Geppetto, the aging puppet-maker who becomes a father for the first time after his latest creation magically springs to life. It’s a role that could have been played with broad gestures, cheap sentiment and other easy acting tricks. It is much to Landau’s credit that he takes a more restrained approach, in a largely successful attempt to make the character seem more endearingly poignant than boisterously amusing.
In this version of the story, Geppetto is a lonely old man who, many years ago, was too timid to declare his love for Leona, the sweetheart who eventually married his brother. Even now, long after his brother’s death, he is unable to express his true feelings to Leona (Genevieve Bujold). One day in the forest near his village, he chooses a tree trunk to use in his puppet-making. Unlike the audience, he doesn’t notice that this is the same tree trunk on which he carved his and Leona’s initials back when he was a smitten young man.
“Pinocchio” hints that unrequited love can be a potent magic — so potent, in fact, that a puppet carved from a sign of this love might spring to life. Sure enough, Pinocchio is walking and talking on his own just hours after Geppetto finishes work on him. It takes only a bit longer for this phenomenon to attract the attention of Lorenzini (Udo Kier), a flamboyant impresario who wants Pinocchio to star in his puppet theater and is not a man who takes no for an answer.
Barron and his screenwriters take several liberties in their adaptation, yet remain faithful to the basics of Collodi’s original. Bebe Neuwirth and Rob Schneider are underutilized as, respectively, Felinet and Volpe, vaguely anthropomorphic characters who were depicted as real animals in the Disney version. But Kier has a grandly hammy time of it as Lorenzini, the showman who literally breathes fire and smoke each time he gobbles up a hot chili pepper. David Doyle has some comical moments as the voice of Pepe, the animatronic insect who serves the same role here that Jiminy Cricket did in the animated “Pinocchio.”
In this version, Lorenzini also is the dark genius behind the kiddie wonderland where children are transformed into donkeys. Barron has one of those transformations occur in a shadowy tunnel during a wild roller-coaster ride, and the effect is genuinely unsettling. Very small children may be frightened, and even some grown-ups may be taken aback.
Cinematographer Juan Ruiz Anchia and production designer Allan Cameron do a good job of giving “Pinocchio” the look of 19th-century storybook illustrations. Occasionally they add an image that appears inspired by woodcuts of an even earlier era. No specific time period is indicated for the story, but the filmmakers have achieved an appropriate “period” flavor by filming on location in the Czech Republic town of Cesky Krumlov.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas (“Tom and Huck,” TV’s “Home Improvement”) provides the voice for Pinocchio. He also makes a brief appearance as the character near the end, after the puppet (obviously modeled after Thomas) has completed his evolution into a flesh-and-blood creature. It’s not meant as a slam against Thomas to note that, all things considered, the animatronic Pinocchio is much more fun to watch — sort of like Jean Marais was more enchanting before he turned back into a handsome prince in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast.”
“The Adventures of Pinocchio” isn’t as noisy or frenetic as most other summer releases pitched at youngsters and their parents. But it is a lively and pleasant piece of work, one that likely will be a staple of video libraries in many households for years to come.