'Pinocchio' Review: Disney CG Reboot Makes a Bizarre Fairy Tale Even Weirder
No lie: Tom Hanks carves a strange new version of the classic cartoon, on Disney Plus now.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
I don't know how long it's been since you saw Pinocchio, but it is super weird. A brand new remake of the classic Disney animation sanitizes the aging cartoon's more dubious elements, but still manages to be bizarre as all get-out -- and in fact, this awkward mishmash of digital effects and live action adds new levels of weird.
Reuniting the Forrest Gump team of Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, the 2022 Pinocchio is streaming on Disney Plus today, Sept. 8. It isn't showing in theaters, and the suits at Disney have rather strangely chosen to drop the film when summer vacation is already over, but they have managed to release their version before Guillermo del Toro's stop-motion Pinocchio tells the same story (in theaters Nov. 25 and on Netflix Dec. 9).
Disney's version specifically remakes the House of Mouse's 1940 film. Uncle Walt's second animated feature after Snow White, Pinocchio was the first animated film to win an Oscar, and remains a visual treat. You can watch the original on Disney Plus, but while it smoothed over the nastiness of Carlo Collodi's original 1880s novel it still included a few quirks that will leave modern audiences wincing. So Pinocchio is the latest Disney classic to be remade for modern sensibilities and effects, following The Jungle Book, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Tim Burton's Dumbo and more (with a new Little Mermaid on the way).
Hanks plays Geppetto, a shambling woodcarver in a bustling Italian village who wishes on a star and gets more than he bargained for when his newest puppet comes to life. There are no strings on this marionette in the shape of a little boy, but naive Pinocchio is soon pulled in all directions as he's seduced into various unsavory adventures.
The film opens with an animated cricket narrating the story (in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's ripe accent), only to get into a meta argument with himself about being a narrator. It just gets stranger from there. The main story about a talking puppet makes sense in a fairy tale-logic sort of way -- a wish is made, it comes true, any kid can understand that -- and a subtly suggested new backstory about Geppetto's grief for his lost family actually adds a new dimension of poignancy to his yearning wish. But the world into which Pinocchio emerges makes zero sense.
Not only does Pinoke hang out with a talking grasshopper, but also a singing fox and, for some reason, a sexy goldfish. If it's a world in which sentient creatures are commonplace, that surely takes away from Pinocchio's uniqueness. In fact, the new film lurches into this awkward space where it isn't clear if Pinocchio is unusual at all. Geppetto is surprised to see his creation walking and talking, and the puppet is billed as a remarkable sensation when he's pushed on stage at a traveling theater, but various other people interact with him like he's entirely unremarkable. And unlike in the original film, we never see villainous talking fox Honest John interact with any humans, so it isn't clear whether animals can even talk to people.
I'm probably overthinking it.
But if you haven't overthought Frozen after watching it three times in a week, are you even a parent?
Don't get me wrong, the randomness and surrealness of this weird storybook world is one of the best things about any version of Pinocchio. It feels unmoored from the all-too-familiar conventions of Western storytelling (y'know, the hero's journey and Save the Cat and all those narrative conventions that rob most movies of their power to surprise). Compared to mainstream films like, for instance, that other film in which Tom Hanks builds a surrogate son, Pinocchio offers a frisson of demented imagination and a heady whiff of the unexpected that you're usually more likely to find in a film from Japanese animators Studio Ghibli, like Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro, than a Disney film.
It has to be said that the new version, directed by Robert Zemeckis, plays some things safe. Gone are the original's eyebrow-raising puppet burlesque show, underage cigar smoking and dubious ethnic stereotypes. Fair enough. Although the new version also disinfects the original film's characters, who were far from perfect: the cartoon Pinocchio was endearingly happy to be led astray, embracing sensual pleasures with gusto; while Jiminy Cricket bailed on Pinoke more than once. But in the new version, Pinocchio is disquieted by other juveniles' delinquency, while Jiminy is only torn from his do-gooding task when he's attacked by the film's antagonists. It's all a bit patronizing, and takes away from the misguided marionette's flawed relatability.
This modern version updates some of the songs and jokes (including Keegan-Michael Key enjoyably blustering some pointed commentary on what it means to chase fame in 2022) and adds a smattering of new characters. There's a lot of potential in the character of Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), whose physical disability doesn't prevent her expressing herself through her ballerina puppet. But she and the other additions largely fall flat; for example, in the original, Pinocchio didn't make it to school, but this time he gets there only to be kicked out because of… puppet racism? This new stuff is chucked in and then just as quickly forgotten, rather than being carried through to play a part in the film's conclusion.
Other eccentric choices made by Zemeckis and chums include ripe Italian accents (and the decision to keep the sexy goldfish). It's also afflicted by that all too common blockbuster problem of being too dark -- literally. Pinocchio 2022 is bafflingly murky during several key sequences. When Luke Evans dances along the backs of a team of horses, it should be the sort of memorable showstopper you used to get from Dick Van Dyke in classic Disney fantasies. Instead, you can barely see what's going on.
Ultimately, even if you embrace the fairy tale oddness of this enjoyably bizarre world, the weirdest thing about this new film is how it looks. The recent crop of Disney reboots are often billed as "live action" remakes, but that's a misnomer: they're more accurately described as "photorealistic," because aside from a couple of human actors the visuals are almost entirely computer-generated.
Technically very clever, but in this case it's harder to buy into the bizarre fairy tale world. Disbelief is easily suspended about animals and humans interacting when they're all of them are animated, but the presence of real human actors may have you questioning why some animals can walk and talk. Most importantly, while I hate to be down on what is probably a mindboggling technical achievement by talented, hardworking and probably underpaid visual effects artists, I just found the smoothly CG-animated Pinocchio puppet less alive than the lively '40s cartoon version.
There's a definite irony here that a movie which makes such a fuss about what it means to be "real" so frequently looks like nothing on the screen is real. Still, the 2022 Disney Pinocchio is amusingly bonkers. And if you or your kids aren't into it, you only have to string them along until Guillermo del Toro's version comes to life.
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