This review is of the original Italian release, not the version dubbed and edited for release in the United States.
In Roberto Benigni’s take on Carlo Collodi’s classic fairy tale, “Pinocchio,” the spirit of the late Federico Fellini — with whom Benigni talked of doing the project together — surfaces repeatedly. But that spirit fails to enliven a film substantially lacking in personality, energy, magic and humor. The most expensive Italian production ever, and something of a personal folly, Benigni’s $45 million follow-up to his global hit “Life Is Beautiful” is a traditional retelling that fails to expand the story’s themes. The actor-director’s iconic popularity — and the record 900-print opening Oct. 11 — virtually guarantee massive grosses in Italy, but international outlook appears more uncertain.
Miramax will release a dubbed English-language version in the U.S., opening wide Christmas Day and targeting family audiences rather than arthouse habitues. The under-10 crowd would seem to be the most receptive, while middle-aged folks seeking wholesome fare with a foreign flavor may also get in line. Home entertainment prospects look healthy. Commercially, much will depend on the quality of the translation and English dub, which in the case of “Life Is Beautiful” drew little interest when released after the subtitled version. Benigni will re-voice his own dialogue, with his heavily accented English perhaps injecting some much-needed laughs.
Regardless of its box office, the film seems unlikely to displace Disney’s 1940 animated classic as the quintessential screen version. While its small-screen, semi-realist approach made Luigi Comencini’s 1972 television five-parter (also condensed into a feature version) a local phenomenon, its enduring popularity in Italy is owed to an endearing quality and emotional connection largely lacking in Benigni’s production.
The union between the Tuscan fairy tale and the region’s most talented contemporary offspring would seem like the perfect marriage. In fact, it comes off as artificially exuberant and a little precious.
Benigni’s Chaplinesque gift for physical comedy and his irresistible double-takes color the action and deliver a share of low-key amusement. But the performer’s natural humor and irreverence seem sanitized, as if his obvious enchantment with the project had dulled his comic verve. Even when Benigni makes a cheeky, self-referential nod, bouncing across the seatbacks of a crowded marionette theater auditorium as he did at the Oscars, the actor’s usual boundless energy seems forced.
Unlike Steven Spielberg, who appropriated the central “Pinocchio” theme in “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” and molded this to his own sensibility, Benigni hasn’t come up with anything distinctive beyond a reverential faithfulness to Collodi’s original, first published in 1883. Also, there’s something vaguely off-putting about a 50-year-old man cavorting around in a clown suit, impersonating a capricious brat.
Smartly executed opening has a buoyancy the film never quite regains as a pinewood log slips off the back of a cart and bounces through town, creating chaos before landing on the doorstep of wood-carver Geppetto (Carlo Giuffre). The man sets about making a puppet to take the place of the son he never had, naming him Pinocchio. But Geppetto is startled when the puppet begins to talk and bolts out the door.
While Pinocchio wreaks havoc, the carabinieri arrest Geppetto for the disturbance, a form of misdirected justice that figures throughout the story and typifies Collodi’s caustic view of 1880s Italy. The puppet then begins a series of adventures, faced with the constant dilemma of chosing between wanting to cut loose or be virtuous as he yearns to become a flesh-and-blood boy.
Problem is that Pinocchio’s urge to become real, his efforts to be reunited with Geppetto, and his desire to comply with the wishes of the Blue Fairy (Nicoletta Braschi) don’t provide much of a narrative motor or any real dramatic fluidity.
The most significant departure from Collodi is the conclusion. While Pinocchio’s transformation into a real boy follows the classic mode, as he romps off to school, the puppet’s shadow veers off in another direction in search of fun, indicating that the spirit of adventure, fantasy and rebellion can never be entirely tamed. Other variation is a prologue in which the Blue Fairy states that bringing joy is the greatest accomplishment in the world, something the film strives to do by softening the darker, crueler aspects of the fairy tale. Several of the book’s set pieces and characters are deftly rendered. Benigni has chosen a cast of mainly stage actors that underline the literary origins while bringing some enjoyable theatrical quirks.
Giuffre makes a dignified, long-suffering Geppetto; Franco Javarone hits the right note as the fierce but softhearted giant fire-eater; popular comic duo I Fichi d’India (Max Cavallari, Bruno Arena) bring some malicious edge to the scheming Cat and Fox; and Kim Rossi Stuart captures the boyish pluckiness of Pinocchio’s alter ego, Lampwick.
Perhaps the best of the supporting cast is Neapolitan legit veteran Peppe Barra in his first film role. Barra lends a regal manner and innate wisdom to the talking cricket.
Weak link is Braschi (the actor-director’s wife and producer) in the film’s only femme role. She makes the Blue Fairy a maternal figure far too schoolmarmish and inexpressive to bewitch anyone, let alone a live-wire like Pinocchio.
Working with extensive special effects for the first time, Benigni achieves solid results, ranging from captivating (the runaway log; the Blue Fairy’s silver coach pulled by hundreds of white mice) to low-tech but functional (the diminutive cricket; Pinocchio’s extendable nose). Others, like the doomed donkey into which Lampwick is transformed, or the monster shark that swallows Pinocchio and Geppetto, are quaintly hokey. Seasoned British f/x hand Rob Hodgson, who worked on “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Armageddon,” served as visual effects supervisor.
The handsome production adopts a classic storybook approach in Dante Spinotti’s stately lensing and in the charmingly old-fashioned production design and pantomime-style costumes of Danilo Donati, who died during shooting and to whom the film is dedicated. Blending gorgeous Tuscan landscapes with rustic villages, cobbled streets, a fairy tale castle, the garish circus and glittering, frenetic Toyland — mostly constructed on the same soundstages in Terni, Umbria, where Benigni shot much of “Life Is Beautiful” — the film creates a convincing fantasy universe anchored in 19th-century rural Italy.
At times furthering the echo of Fellini, Nicola Piovani’s rich score ranges from carnivalesque tunes that recall Nino Rota’s work for the late director to more soulful full-bodied symphonic themes.