Streaming reviews: Pinocchios (2022)
There are two movies that came out this year based on The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, the story of a marionette who gains life and then proceeds to, well, go on adventures. Both for all intents and purposes went straight to streaming services, but were treated on the higher "prestige" end of streaming movies, though we're still, as a culture, not sure if streaming first is on par with theatrical releases or more along the lines of straight to video trash (or are they TV movies?). Both were directed by Best Picture/Best Director Oscar winning directors. I personally found them both not actually very interesting, one being ridiculously over-hated, the other just as ridiculously over-loved.
The first was Robert Zemeckis's Pinocchio, which is less a straight adaptation of Collodi's novel than another one of those "live action Disney remakes" that everyone loves so much, this time of the 1940 version of Pinocchio. It released on Disney+ back in September, so I've been very efficient getting around to it. The second is Gillermo Del Toro's Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio. Normally, I hate when they do that "Director's Name's Whatever" thing to titles, it comes off as pretentious and boastful, but given the circumstances, I'm going to have to allow it this time. It released to Netflix this month.
Let's get one thing out of the way, outside this paragraph, I'm not talking about Pinocchio: A True Story, a straight to video Pinocchio mockbuster. People are acting like it's weird a straight to video mockbuster came out around the same time as the movie it's trying to mockbust, despite the fact that's how straight to video mockbusters work. This is not interesting. Besides, I've already done my time in the "True Story of Public Domain Fairytale Character" mockbuster content mines. If that's what you're looking for, go read that.
It's really not that weird that Pinocchio would end up with two seperate movies coming out at the same time. I mean, when you've lived through Volcano/Dante's Peak, Deep Impact/Armageddon and A Bug's Life/Antz all happening within a space of two years, two Pinocchios in a year is nothing. And, to a certain type of director, movies about Pinocchio are apparently catnip. Italian actor and director Roberto Benigni loved the concept and character so much that he followed up his big American break, the Holocaust dramedy Life Is Beautiful, with a live action adaptation of Pinocchio where he, an adult man, thought it would be a good idea to play the title role (to be fair, what are you supposed to follow up a Holocaust dramedy with?), and even after that debacle, took another swing at the story as Geppetto in a 2019 adaptation. During the Steven Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, multiple direct references to the original Disney Pinocchio are made, with Richard Dreyfuss's character attempting to evangelize the movie to his children before deciding to abandon them when they show disinterest (there were, admittedly, other factors involved). Both Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro are directors of that same "certain type."
Robert Zemeckis's Pinocchio
We'll start with Robert Zemeckis, partially because his movie came out first, but partially because, on paper, he is so of that "certain type". His last theatrical feature, Welcome to Marwen, is literally also about a toymaker's creations coming to life and going on adventures. He's also an early disciple of the aforementioned Pinocchio evangelist Spielberg. This Disney+ movie may just be another corporate attempt at keeping control of Disney's IP, but they picked a director that makes a lot of sense for the material.
The problem with adapting not just Pinocchio in general but the 1940 animated version in particular is that you have a lot to live up to. I wrote earlier this year about the problems with pseudo-adapting Blazing Saddles, but that's nothing compared to straight up adapting Pinocchio. This is a movie I have seen described as "technically perfect" by serious critics, and critics do not like to throw around the "p"-word lightly. The opening song, "When You Wish Upon A Star", is still used to open every Disney movie. Basically, you come at the king, you best not miss.
So, anyway, they missed. Let's be real, when's the last time Robert Zemeckis made a good movie? I've heard good things about Flight, but I never bothered to watch it. Before that, 2000's Cast Away? I'm sorry, but anything involving animation Zemeckis has touched has been pretty bad. I think this may be his third best movie this century, which is more telling on Zemeckis than praising Pinocchio. The thing is that this movie is very bland. Despite reuniting Zemeckis with Tom Hanks, an actor he works well with, plus having material obviously suited to his tastes, it seems like a pretty rote adaptation that can't help but be compared unfavorably to the original.
There are only really two egregious own goals in the movie. One is a segment on Pleasure Island where one of the possible activities is apparently "protesting". The scene in context with the movie seems to be criticizing pointless protesting for the sake of protesting rather than actual protesting, but seeing as how Zemeckis has been accused of political conservatism since at least Forrest Gump in his movies, it's an obvious target for criticism along those lines. The other scene is one where Pinocchio, still not even a day old, is fascinated by a pile of horse dung. I get the joke; for someone who finds everything new and fascinating because it's the first time he's ever seen it, even crap holds his interest. But the upshot of this scene is that of course every clickbait YouTube "reviewer" used a screenshot of this scene for their video's preview image, meaning I, literally, had to look at a lot of their crap this September every time I opened up YouTube.
Don't get me wrong, this isn't a good movie, but it's not as bad as all that, either. There's an entire industry of "critics" who's entire bit is watch a children's movie and then literally scream out loud that this is the worst possible thing that could exist, when it's usually, at worst, kind of boring. Don't get me wrong, I have a copy of Roger Ebert's Your Movie Sucks on my bookshelf, but you have to remember it took him decades to use that phrase in an actual review, he did it for a very specific reason, and he never used it another review. There was a build up to Roger Ebert saying "your movie sucks"; when your entire website is called YourMovieSucksDotOrg, what do you do when you have to review a movie that actually sucks? Being a children's movie does not exempt it from valid criticism, but valid criticism does not exempt you from acting like a jerk. When you understand this, you will finally be a "real critic".
Well, I guess I shall anti-climactically share the two things I genuinely liked about the movie. Keegan-Michael Key voices Honest John the fox, and yes, of course I liked that. The effects are rather well done. When Pinocchio tells him he wants to be a real boy, John asks him why on earth he would ever want to be real? Which somehow made Honest John the moral centerpiece of the movie, because the other thing I liked about the movie was the change to the ending, which features a great performance by Tom Hanks, acknowledging that Pinocchio is, and always was, a real boy. Because you should always be the real you, not what you think other people believe is real.
Unless you can be a fox. Then you should be a fox.
Guillermo Del Toro's Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio
Moving on, we have Guillermo Del Toro's version, which, while the better movie, I actually enjoyed less. I like Del Toro as a person, but as a director, I've never really been on his wavelength. Or maybe he's never been on mine. Either way, while I've never watched a Del Toro movie and felt like it was a terrible waste of time, I've also oftentimes felt a little like "that's it?" Which is how I felt about this movie.
It doesn't help that this movie was, and still is, being talked up as an amazing work of art that proves once and for all the importance of animation as an artform, and will totally win the Oscar for Best Animated Feature and should probably even be nominated for Best Picture. Well, precursors seem to show that second one's not happening, and though it's still the odds on favorite for the Animated Feature on Oscar predictions supersite Gold Derby, I wouldn't be super surprised if Turning Red pulls an upset on Oscar night. The Academy sure does hate them a Netflix movie actually winning a big Oscar. Also, Turning Red deserves it more.
And the thing is that a lot of people are really banging on the "animation is not just for kids" drum, which I find to be an odd choice, given that this is a kid's movie. It's a little dark, sure. So was the 1940s version. Did we all not actually watch that movie? Because you should probably watch that movie. It's pretty good. Words like "technically perfect" have been thrown around. This has become a big thing recently. Last year it was The Mitchells vs. The Machines (another kid's movie) versus Encanto. We get it, you're tired of Disney winning that particular Oscar. I don't know why you have to code that; first of all, you can just say "hey, can someone besides Disney win?" Nobody cares. It's also a weird argument to say Disney doesn't care about animation as a medium. And, finally, maybe make a better movie than The Mitchells vs. The Machines to hang your hopes on. The crime last year wasn't that a Disney movie won, it was that the wrong one won. But as far as Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio is concerned, I grew up on VHS tapes of 1980s Don Bluth. I've seen dark animated kid's movies before. An adults only animated feature film is something I would love to see, but I am getting tired of the people complaining that no one is making animation for adults also being the people who are not making animation for adults. Unless your name is Phil Tippett, you can sit down and shut up. (To be fair, I just noticed that is a Guillermo Del Toro quote on the Mad God poster, there. Well played, Del Toro.)
Enough of that, the movie itself is a decent enough dark kid's movie, if you're into that sort of thing. I do like the Pinocchio design. It's definitely weird in a good way. There's always going to be a problem with Pinocchio movies, in that the premise is by it's nature uncanny and creepy. Basically the only difference between Frankenstein's monster and Pinocchio is that the monster has a higher body count. Barely, though. When you remember the original novel Pinocchio actually did (accidentally) kill a kid, add in that inevitable Pinocchio slasher from the 90s plus this movie's decision to actually take out all the villains, the score is closer than you might think. So, giving the titular character what is basically a monster design is a good decision. I think maybe he could have tried clothes at some point, though.
I thought David Bradley was excellent as the voice of Geppetto. Between Tom Hanks and Bradley, we got two very different performances of the character, and while Hanks was more broadly comic, Bradley did play the more realistic version of the character. A major departure from the Disney version is that this Geppetto doesn't actually wish for Pinocchio to come alive. He takes responsibility for Pinocchio, but the movie almost seems to make the case he doesn't have to.
I was a bit disappointed by Christoph Waltz's Count Volpe, who is not a fox, and yes, of course, I did not like that. You're telling me I could have had a villainous fox voiced by Christoph Waltz and instead I got a weird ginger with Wolverine hair? Not impressed. All in all, this is the less furry of the two movies. Really, there is only the cricket, here named Sebastian and voiced by Ewan McGregor, to represent the animal kingdom in full anthropormorphic mode. There is also the monkey Spazzaturo, who doesn't actually directly talk but is still voiced by Cate Blanchett. A bit of stunt casting, there.
The truth of the matter is that neither film feels like something that will stand the test of time, especially with the 1940 version really, really standing the test of time to compare them to. The Robert Zemeckis version can't replace the 1940 version anymore than any of the other Disney live action remakes have replaced the originals, and it doesn't even have the distinction of being popular in its own time, when at least, say, The Lion King remake made money. Meanwhile, the Guillermo Del Toro movie may be a passion project, but it still feels more like Animated Feature Oscar Bait than anything else. Oh, there will be gnashing of teeth from certain corners if Turning Red pulls off the upset, just as there was when Zootopia beat Kubo and the Two Strings. But when's the last time you thought about Kubo and the Two Strings?
Of course, time dilutes all things, and even the 1940 version of Pinocchio has less sway than it once did. In fact, I'd argue the version of the character most children, the actual audience of this story, are familiar with is not the 1940 version, and certainly not the Del Toro version, but instead the goofy parody version from the Shrek movies. Make of that what you will.