Enough time has passed since Roberto Benigni’s ill-starred “Pinocchio” for the actor to move more happily into the role of Geppetto in Matteo Garrone’s visually rich though oddly subdued version of the perennial tale. Given the director’s penchant for multi-strand narratives (“Tale of Tales,” “Gomorrah”), the classic story would seem a good fit, offering potential to explore some of the darker elements present also in the Disney masterpiece. Instead however, Garrone’s live-action entry, while more faithful to Carlo Collodi’s original novel, underplays the significant elements of cruelty, creating a child-friendly movie with its fair share of enchantment but curiously lacking in memorable highlights.
Whereas the animated film brilliantly managed to subsume the piecemeal nature of the storytelling with an exciting narrative cohesion, this “Pinocchio” doesn’t hide the novel’s composite structure, resulting in a movie reliant on familiarity with the source material and the superb work of the makeup artists and prosthetics makers. Christmastime box office in Italy should be strong, yet international play is likely to be uneven, potentially boosted by a special screening at the upcoming Berlin film festival.
Though it features one of the world’s most-beloved characters (or so we’re always told), “Pinocchio” is at its heart a disturbing morality fable in which a child insensible to personal attachments repeatedly flouts the wisdom of those who care about him and suffers accordingly in a world full of traps laid by bunglers, bullies, braggarts, and blackguards. He’s all id and no superego, easily distracted and in need of constant gratification.
The excuse of course is that he’s just been created and doesn’t know any better, the wooden equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster formed not by an obsessed scientist but a simple, lonely craftsman. Garrone aims to make the relationship between Geppetto and Pinocchio meaningful and moving, foregrounding the father’s bond with his son, yet the story’s flaw, starting with Collodi’s novel, is that this essential connection is too easily lost in Pinocchio’s ensuing picaresque adventures, weakening the emotional core.
Benigni’s ingenuous yet earthy take on Geppetto goes a long way toward ensuring viewers feel the unadulterated love of a father for his child — the star’s reputation for buffoonery tends to disguise just what a sensitive actor he can be, as here, deeply attuned to words and the bigger pictures they embody. His freewheeling shouts to fellow villagers of “I’m a father!” upon discovering that his newly-carved wooden puppet is alive provides a genuine moment of joy that transcends fairy-tale emotions.
Now that Geppetto has a son, christened Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi), he needs to do the fatherly thing and send him to school, even if it means selling the coat off his back to buy an exercise book. However, the world outside Geppetto’s dark peasant house proves too enticing for Pinocchio, intrigued by an itinerant marionette theater run by Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti).
Narrowly escaping being turned into kindling, Pinocchio wins over Mangiafuoco and even gets some gold coins to take home to Geppetto, but then he encounters the Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and the Fox (Massimo Ceccherini, also co-writer with Garrone), who easily prey on the puppet’s naïveté. Not for the first time, the conniving pair gets the better of Pinocchio, who is subsequently captured by a band of assassins and hanged from a tree until rescued by a mysterious coachman and brought to a large house where the young Fairy with Turquoise Hair (Alida Baldari Calabria) and her governess the Snail (Maria Pia Timo) nurse the injured puppet. The Fairy is quick to recognize Pinocchio’s streak of wilfulness as well as his penchant for exaggeration, leading to the famous nose-growing moment, which Garrone uses just this once.
After a few more adventures, Pinocchio meets the Fairy again, now grown to womanhood (Marine Vacth), who tells him that if he’s good and goes to school, one day he’ll become a real boy. But the wooden puppet hasn’t yet learned to control his need for immediate gratification, and he’s off with a friend to a promised land of nonstop fun until all the boys magically turn into donkeys, and only the Fairy is able to recognize Pinocchio in the animal’s sad eyes.
Once back to his old self after being almost drowned in the sea, he’s swallowed by a whale where he finally reunites with Geppetto, perfectly happy to remain inside the giant creature’s belly now that he’s together again with his son. This time though it’s Pinocchio who gets up enough gumption to rescue them both, befriending a charismatic talking Tuna (Maurizio Lombardi) along the way.
Burned, hanged, sold into bondage, tied to a boulder, and tossed into the sea, swallowed alive: the list of cruelties heaped upon the wooden puppet are Grimm-like in their pitiless savagery. This being a kids’ movie though, few of these torments leave even a hint of uneasiness once the next scene begins; Disney’s brilliant envisioning of the whale scene, for example, is far more terrifying than Garrone’s curiously unexciting rendition. Other scenes and characters are more successful, such as the ape Judge (Teco Celio, marvellous in his simian noises and gestures) who rewards Pinocchio for his foolishness. The Cricket (Davide Marotta) is barely a secondary character, returned to his role as Collodi’s doomsaying Cassandra rather than Disney’s conscientious Jiminy Cricket.
A significant change of emphasis between the new film and its famous animated predecessor (leaving aside the scores of adaptations in-between) is how Garrone downplays Pinocchio’s desire to be a real boy. In the Disney film, this driving ambition formed a running thread that helped to connect disparate adventures; its near absence returns the narrative to a series of largely self-contained short stories.
Master prosthetics and makeup artist Mark Coulier (“Stan and Ollie,” “Suspiria”) again confirms his talents with some terrifically imaginative creations — particular standouts are the Snail, the Judge, and the Tuna. Benigni, with no facial enhancements, is very fine, as is Vacth, the essence of a kind and beautiful fairy. Cinematography by Nicolaj Bruel, who also shot “Dogman,” is picturesque yet muted, not nearly as dark as something from Guillermo del Toro, whose own “Pinocchio,” scheduled for an early 2021 release, is already eagerly awaited. Dario Marianelli’s repetitive score begins with wooden flute and guitar, then gradually adds strings and accordion but remains overly precious throughout.