‘Pinocchio’ review: One of Disney’s darkest films lightens up (a little) with Tom Hanks

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Pinocchio might not be everyone’s go-to favourite classic animated Disney film — it’s often overlooked for the likes of The Lion King or The Little Mermaid — but critically, it’s still one of the most celebrated. With director Robert Zemeckis at the helm and Tom Hanks in the lead, Pinocchio(opens in a new tab) is the latest Disney animated feature to get the live-action treatment, further exploring Geppetto’s backstory, slightly toning down the malevolent villains, and constantly shoving the question at us: What makes a “real boy”? 

Zemeckis was tasked with quite a balancing act for the latest iteration of this morality tale. The Forrest Gump helmer had to incorporate Disney’s key trademarks while drawing out the more cheerful and poignant components of the 1940 film but still keeping in mind its sinister roots. With Guillermo del Toro promising to lean hard into the tale’s eldritch elements for his own film, Disney’s live-action adaptation treads a pretty safe path into a messed-up fable.

How different is the film to the original Pinocchio?

Disney doesn’t just have a soft spot for Pinocchio; the film’s Oscar-winning song “When You Wish Upon a Star” is synonymous with the brand. Suffice to say, the live-action remake sticks pretty closely to the animated original, with a few notable updates to the screenplay from Zemeckis and Chris Weitz — including, to a degree, the way the story ends. 

Like Disney’s 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast, the narrative, dialogue, set and costume design, and even framing attempts to replicate the original. In Pinocchio, the narrative and physical appearance of most characters is almost the same, with somewhat more logical pacing (even though it’s longer). Plus, four original songs from Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard lighten things up a bit.

Pinocchio himself is voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, with a bright, innocent optimism that matches the original work by Dickie Jones — a far cry from his creepy, creepy work in The Haunting of Bly Manor. Jiminy Cricket, voiced by an almost unrecognisable Joseph Gordon-Levitt, gets even more fourth wall-breaking moments as “Pinocchio’s Conscience, Lord High Keeper of the Knowledge of Right and Wrong, Counsellor in Moments of Temptation, and Guide Along the Straight and Narrow Path.” This time, Disney has added cute little cricket chirps every time Jiminy jumps, but they’ve kept in memorable moments like Jiminy accidentally resting his hand on the rear end of a wooden woman or warming his little cricket butt on an ember.

A man with grey hair and a mustache holds the hand of a wooden puppet boy, smiling.

If Tom Hanks wasn’t an incredible actor, these scenes may not have worked.
Credit: Disney

Luckily for longtime Zemeckis collaborator Hanks (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, The Polar Express), this new Pinocchio expands Geppetto’s backstory by giving context as to why this Italian woodcarver creates a wooden boy in the first place, what he really wishes for upon a star, and why exactly he’s filled his home with elaborate (Disney-themed) cuckoo clocks. This all makes space for Hanks to fish for motivation for the relatively one-note character, and he brings his signature eye twinkle trying valiantly to sell us on song lyrics like “Pinocchio! Pinocchio! Holy smokey-o!” The new film has ditched a couple of Geppetto’s more dated behaviours, like smoking a pipe in bed and hiding a huge blunderbuss under one’s pillow, and has also toned down the slapstick comedy, especially for the sequences in which Geppetto terrorises his pets with his new puppet.

The script adds Sofia the Seagull (voiced by the iconic Lorraine Bracco), a new character that gives Jiminy Cricket someone to talk to other than the audience, as well as a whole new storyline with puppeteer Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya) and her marionette, Sabina (Jaquita Ta’Le). Fabiana’s scenes are a sweet addition that allow Pinocchio to learn ethics and self-confidence from someone other than Jiminy. Notably, her character is part of the Marionette Traveling Theatre troupe run by Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), a problematic character associated with a negative stereotypical portrayal of Romani people who was as questionable a representation in the original film as it is here. It’s unclear why more pains weren’t taken to address this, as the director has corrected other elements of the film that needed it.

The best thespian: Keegan-Michael Key

Playing dramatic con man Honest John, Keegan-Michael Key steals the show so deftly it’s a crime how little time he’s given. Bringing a wildly melodramatic Ms. Darbus energy to this anthropomorphised foxy thespian, Key voices the character as if he were standing miles from the microphone, throwing dramatic gestures and possibly wearing a cape in the sound booth. Booming lines from the already-snappy original script while throwing in modern references to influencers and dropping a truly perfect Chris Pine joke, Key’s Honest John is a spectacularly fun highlight of a film weighed down in conversations around morality. In all his whimsical swindling, alongside his Harpo Marx-like, silent accomplice Gideon, we forget for a second they’re dodgy as hell.

The script makes a tweak here to the original storyline to give Pinocchio a little more moral credit early on. In the World War II-era version, Pinocchio ditches Jiminy Cricket on his way to school and heads for fame and glory right away; this time around, Pinocchio actually listens to Jiminy and tries to go to school but is cast out by the schoolmaster for not being a “real child,” then he joins Honest John. So, at least he tried.

What, exactly, is a “real boy”?

Let’s clear up the Dumbo-sized elephant in the room. It’s an interesting time for Disney to be releasing a film that hinges around the concept of what makes a “real boy,” according to a film released in the ’40s. In order to be one, both the new and original film declare, “You have to prove that you are brave, truthful, and unselfish.” These ground rules are laid down by the Blue Fairy, played here by the incredible Cynthia Erivo, who thankfully doesn’t waste a minute of her limited screen time. (And, yes, she sings.) It’s these three key traits that the films declare the most important parts of being a “good” person, learned by recognising what’s right and wrong — with the help of their conscience, of course. I’d add the importance of speaking out against misogyny and working to dismantle systems of oppression to that list as key values for boys to learn early, but anyway. The director makes a point about the “realness” of Pinocchio with an ambiguous ending, but whether this lands with the audience is up to them.

A fairy with glittering wings uses her magic wand on a wooden puppet boy.

Cynthia Erivo uses every single minute of her limited screen time.
Credit: Disney

At its core, Disney’s Pinocchio is a moral parable encouraging boys to behave, to ignore the supposedly “sinful” temptations of the world, and to tell the truth lest their noses grow. But it’s also about atoning and being able to redeem yourself after a few errors. At one point, when he’s drowning in hedonistic peer pressure, Pinocchio does deliver the perfect line: “I don’t want to be jerk, I want to be a real boy.” A good aim, in my opinion.

Is Pinocchio Disney’s darkest film?

In full acknowledgement of the shocking village massacre of Mulan, the utter devastation of Dumbo and Bambi, and the brutal regicide of The Lion King, let’s talk about the darkness of Pinocchio. Disney’s 1940 Pinocchio was already a sweetened version of a grim book with some truly terrifying narrative twists. In Carlo Collodi’s gruesome 1883 novel, Pinocchio isn’t an impressionable sweetheart but a cruel, mischievous brat who makes some choices. Friends, that Pinocchio murders “The Talking Cricket” rather than listening to his advice. The characters of Honest John and Gideon, referred to only as “The Fox and the Cat,” are less wacky scoundrels and more twisted psychopaths who hang Pinocchio from a tree.

A wooden puppet smiles at a man whose hand he is holding.

Collodi’s Pinocchio wasn’t the sweetheart of Disney’s films.
Credit: Disney

But even with Disney’s dilution of Collodi’s frankly horrifying tale, Pinocchio is still one of Disney’s darkest films, especially the utterly uncomfortable storyline involving the Coachman (played by Luke Evans, who’s giving off a weirdly Captain Jack Sparrow-like energy here). This character in the original film is a lecherous, grinning man who “collects stupid little boys” and carts them off into a custom-built, no-rules theme park (seriously) called Pleasure Island. The park contains zones for every kind of morally indecorous act, but there’s a catch to all this hedonism, which is transfiguration at best and a human trafficking scheme at worst. There’s an inevitably sinister feeling underlying these sequences, and Evans has toned down the creep factor, but it’s still not completely gone.

Zemeckis’s film keeps Pleasure Island intact but updates it by eliminating a racist attraction, replacing the pints of ale and cigars Pinocchio and Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd) throw back with root beer, upping the ante on the Coachman’s Hellbound-like henchmen, and offering his own take on the horrifying transformation scene. (If Zemeckis can make Pinocchio cower in a corner like that, I truly fear del Toro’s take on this moment.) Plus, the film expands the Coachman’s cart to include girls. (So progressive!)

It’s here on the cart that we’re treated to one of most shockingly on-the-nose song lyrics. During “The Coachman of Pleasure Island,” Evans sings, “Real boys always want more / And real girls always like the real boys more.”

Disney, really? Where do I even start?

Aiming to be a technical feat worthy of its predecessor

Pinocchio was only Disney’s second feature-length animated film, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it was considered a staggering masterpiece of animation and technology at the time. The film’s surrealist underwater sequences are still magical to watch today, and the escape from Monstro is a stunning blend of fluid, hand-painted waves amid the bold character animation. 

Zemeckis’s film, which boasts all the modern effects technology and set design resources of Disney’s various departments, has some similarly gorgeous sequences, including the extremely Disneyland-like ride through Pleasure Island; the Blue Fairy’s glittering, moving costume; and the use of stunningly animated bioluminescence to logically light the scenes within Monstro the sea monster. The film’s bonkers storyline allows for no-holds-barred creativity — if your brief is to get Tom Hanks into Cast Away mode while rowing a puppet boy, goldfish, and a kitten out of a sneezing whale, the sky’s the limit. 

You may not have asked for a live-action remake of Pinocchio, but now you’ve got one, and it’s still as weird, surreal, and morally pompous as the original. While still figuring out what a “real boy” is, the film tries at least to give depth to its characters and paints a visual adventure aiming for the surrealism of its predecessor.

But one thing’s certain: Del Toro’s is probably going to get even weirder.  

Pinocchio is streaming on Disney+ from Sept. 8.(opens in a new tab)





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