When caught in that perennial dilemma of going head-to-head with an identical-sounding movie (meteor threatens planet; volcano threatens city; Truman Capote makes friends), it’s probably comforting when a filmmaker can tell himself his competitor is a nobody whose film Won’t be a real concern. What you don’t want is for the other movie to be made by Guillermo del Toro — especially when the subject is one the Mexican auteur was practically born to interpret.
But Robert Zemeckis’ live action/CG hybrid version of Pinocchio wouldn’t be in a great spot even without a second ambitious adaptation coming soon. A well-intentioned work that largely falls flat, it arrives today as just another widget in Disney’s “remake ’em all!” agenda, one whose pedigree offered the hope of something better. (At least, unlike Warners, Disney’s profit strategy doesn’t involve erasing movies they just made from existence. Yet.)
The Bottom Line
The best news first: Zemeckis has not, thank heaven, sent star Tom Hanks back into the CG uncanny valley of The Polar Express. The actor wears his own skin as Gepetto, alongside a curly wig and inoffensive Italian accent. There he sits, muttering to himself in rhyme as he carves a little toy while pining for the dead son it’s meant to resemble. Outside the old man’s shop, an odd-looking cricket is dressed like a tramp, speaking in a folksy tongue that’s definitely not Italian. Joseph Gordon-Levitt isn’t immediately recognizable as the voice; but since much of Jiminy Cricket’s value here is kinetic — being blown hither and yon, riding on fireworks and dodging beasts as he tries to keep up with Pinocchio, that’s not much trouble.
The cricket has moral obstacles to dodge, as well. After a wishful Gepetto accidentally summons a Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), who animates the puppet while he’s asleep, she tells Jiminy he’ll have to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience, helping him become worthy of the transition from sorta-real to an actual flesh. and blood boy.
More happy news: Freed from his strings, the kid moves and sounds almost exactly as one would hope. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth’s vocal characterization walks up to the border between endearing and too cute, but stays on the right side; Animators move his limbs with a happy sense of discovery. Alas, the pine-skulled kid is too cheerfully gullible to make the right discoveries.
Walking off on his first day of school, Pinocchio is immediately waylaid by Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), a crafty fox who promises him fame instead of schooling. John, Pine-boy and the humans around them don’t exactly look like they exist in the same dimension, but Key’s delivery sells the pitch. If only screenwriters Zemeckis and Chris Weitz could’ve resisted the temptation to add the dreaded word “influencer” to his spiel, and to underline it with a “did you catch that?” visual flourish.
(At a couple of other points, the script has better luck with throwaway lines meant to amuse grown-ups. But they’re far too few to matter.)
Vaguely or specifically, viewers will remember that Pinoke gets into one dangerous situation after another, being taken farther and farther from home even though he has no desire to leave his maker/papa. And most of the new friends he makes can’t be trusted, although one puppeteer — Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), a quasi-prisoner of the grotesque impresario Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), really does want to help him. Lamaya gives Fabiana a warm heart, but the new song Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard wrote for her feels out of place here; Fortunately, Zemeckis isn’t really committed to making this a musical, and songs (even the famous ones) tend to trickle off to silence before wearing out their welcome.
The most memorable of Pinocchio’s perils is his trip to Pleasure Island, a zone of very bad behavior where kids unwittingly turn themselves into jackasses. They gorge themselves in an amusement park that is vividly designed but executed without enough care: Maybe it was an artistic choice to make downing that giant mug of root beer look completely unrealistic, but the fakiness of those boats coursing through seas of candy is too much to forgive, and certainly not intentional. Similar FX problems recur later, with water and boats sloshing around inside a sea monster’s innards. In 2022, you just shouldn’t be able to find bad CG in a production with these resources.
But some substandard CGI is small potatoes in comparison Pinocchio‘s overall lack of spark. Very little in the movie clicks, and highlights (like the “I’ve Got No Strings” number) aren’t potent enough to keep us involved. Disney isn’t likely to make this year’s Pinocchio vanish from the menu of its streaming service any time soon. But they’d be smart not to let the 1940 animated version drop below it in search results.
Production companies: Depth of Field, Imagemovers
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hanks, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Angus Wright, Cynthia Erivo, Giuseppe Battiston, Kyanne Lamaya, Luke Evans, Lewin Lloyd, Sheila Atim, Lorraine Bracco, Keegan-Michael Key, Jamie Demetriou
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis, Chris Weitz
Producers: Andrew Miano, Chris Weitz, Robert Zemeckis, Derek Hogue
Executive Producers: Jack Rapke, Jacqueline Levine, Jeremy Johns, Paul Weitz
Director of photography: Don Burgess
Production designers: Doug Chiang, Stefan Dechant
Costume designer: Joanna Johnston
Editors: Jesse Goldsmith, Mich Audsley
Composer: Alan Silvestri
Casting directors: Victoria Burrows, Scott Boland
Rated PG, 1 hour 45 minutes
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