You might think the story of “Pinocchio” is familiar, but it isn’t. There have been at least 60 film adaptations for film and TV, including of course Disney’s 1940 animated version.
In “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” the filmmaker and his team don’t follow the plot too closely, but it’s more faithful than most in retaining the darkness, tenderness and humor of Carlo Collodi’s 1881 novel.
The Netflix movie was written by Patrick McHale and del Toro, who shares director credit with Mark Gustafson. It’s not a children’s movie, but it is.
“Patrick and I were writing for an audience that could include children,” del Toro says. “There’s a difference between a ‘family movie’ and a ‘babysitter movie.’ The latter has been pasteurized to be consumed without parental supervision. We wanted a movie that could be discussed and enjoyed by adults and kids, whether they were together or not.”
“The basic ideas were always there,” del Toro says. Eventually, the writers came up with father-and-son stories that parallel each other. Aside from Pinocchio’s relationship with Geppetto, there is the fascist Podestà, who cannot recognize who his son is; and Count Volpe, with his abused monkey-henchman Spazzatura.
The filmmaker had been impressed by Gris Grimly’s illustrations of the story and they met around 2003. Del Toro says the first screenplay was written about five years later.
In the film, a likely Oscar contender in multiple categories, there is an important shift from the book, he says. A key change was “the fact that Pinocchio doesn’t have to be turned into a quote-unquote ‘real boy’”; del Toro rejected the idea that Pinocchio has to change in order to deserve love and acceptance.
In conversation, the filmmaker draws comparisons between the puppet and Dr. Frankenstein’s creation in Mary Shelley’s novel, since both are innocents thrust into a world for which they’re unprepared.
As the script evolved over the years, it was important to retain the sense of fun and adventure but also to deal with heavier topics. “We started discussing mortality, life and death, and the brief period of time we have on earth. All that evolved from my father’s infirmity, losing my father, and considering my own role as father,” he says.
Collodi’s book stresses obedience, but del Toro prefers civil disobedience. “Those themes and the idea of disobedience are applied not only to a regime but also to parenting.” This explains the presence of Mussolini and fascists in the film.
One aspect of the book rarely brought out in adaptations is “the fact that Pinocchio changes everyone, including Geppetto. It became as much a story of the transformations of Geppetto and the cricket. Pinocchio is a handful. He is hyperkinetic, loud, largely uncaring, and Geppetto is an imperfect father; he is obsessed with perfection, but his journey ends with him accepting the imperfect and loving it more.
“The cricket is full of grandiose wisdom at the beginning but it’s not very useful, and when he suffers, he gains a humility, and his final scene shows that the cricket gained an earthly wisdom.”
The filmmaker sums up, “If at the end of the movie, you feel a desire to call someone you’ve been estranged from, then we’ve accomplished something — for this brief moment we’re together, as imperfect as we are.”