With 2015’s richly inventive and dark group of classic children’s stories, Tale of Tales, on his filmography, director Matteo Garrone now brings his uniquely baroque touch to the ultimate Italian fairy tale, Pinocchio, and lands perhaps closest in spirit and design to Carlo Collodi’s original 1883 creation than ever seen before. And we have seen a lot of this wooden puppet that just wants to be a real boy, most notably Walt Disney’s 1940 animated version and even one from Oscar-winning actor Roberto Benigni in 2002, where he not only played the title role (though long in the tooth for it) but also directed.
Benigni returns to the tale but this time as more age-appropriate Geppetto, the carpenter and woodcarver who discovers his latest creation has a beating heart and can talk and act just like a boy. Future takes on the beloved story already are in the works, from another animated version by Guillermo Del Toro to a live-action take from Disney (again) by Robert Zemeckis. They will all have a lot to live up to after this lavish, visually stunning version.
It is clear this material hits right at the heart for Garrone, and he does not hold back. Benigni may be the marquee draw, but Geppetto is in only for the beginning and the ending. The bulk of the film, as always, revolves around the various misadventures of Pinocchio himself, here played in a lovely performance by newcomer Federico Ielapi. The real action starts right after Geppetto drops his new creation off for his first day of school, like any proud parent might. Unbeknownst to him, though, the wooden lad never goes to class but instead sets off on a series of dizzying encounters beginning unpromisingly with a circus manager, Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti), and discovery he is not a good fit for that particular puppet show. Then there’s a chat with the Talking Cricket that sets him straight; an encounter with Cat and Fox as they raise him to pull gold coins off a tree; and then to a really harrowing image, no matter what your age, as some assassins he meets actually leave him hanging, lynched-style, from yet another tree. Fortunately, that is the darkest this dark vision of Garrone gets as more delightful times are to come including a fateful meeting with the wise Fairy with Turquoise Hair and her snail-paced housekeeper; words with a talking tuna fish; a demonstration of the downside of lying as his nose extends longer than any previous Pinocchio in memory; a CGI transformation into a donkey; and a visit inside a whale, which becomes an unlikely setting for a reunion with Geppetto.
What Garrone has managed to bring to the screen is nothing short of sumptuous, and that starts with the creation of the title star himself — a brilliant feat of makeup from two-time Oscar winner Mark Coulier and company. Add to that sparkling special effects, gorgeous production design and cinematography, plus a rich and melodic score from Oscar winner Dario Marianelli. Actors, decked out in wild costumes, hit their marks in style, and Benigni brings a nice low-key touch to Geppetto. The director, responsible for such recent Italian dramas as Gomorrah, Reality and Dogman, even weirdly borrows from that unlikely trio of films in some small ways to create this uniquely magical world that ought to delight kids, when not giving them nightmares, as well as being a fine nostalgic trip for their parents.
Pinocchio premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and was a big hit in Italy before the pandemic closed cinemas. Roadside Attractions is releasing it Christmas Day in theaters in America as a holiday treat (hopefully they can remain open wherever the distributor finds them) in a dubbed English-language version that, as dubbed movies go, isn’t half bad in execution (most of the actors at least sound Italian). That is how it was reviewed. Check out my video review with scenes from the film at the link above.
Do you plan to see Pinocchio? Let us know what you think.
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