Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenwriters: Robert Zemeckis, Chris Weitz
Starring: Tom Hanks, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Cynthia Erivo, Luke Evans, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Kyanne Lamaya, Keegan-Michael Key, Lorraine Bracco, Giuseppe Battiston, Sheila Atim, Jamie Demetriou, Lewin Lloyd
In 1940 Walt Disney Productions released Pinocchio, the studio’s second animated feature following the smash hit that was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was received rapturously and was held as a high watermark for vibrant, detailed and expressive animation for decades afterwards. Now Disney have remade yet another of their beloved classics in a hybrid of live-action and CG-animation to a particularly uninspiring, straight-to-Disney+ result.
Loosely based on Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio”, we follow lonely carpenter Geppetto (Tom Hanks) who has carved himself a wooden son out of grief for the child he has lost. After wishing upon a star, Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) comes to life and sets out on an increasingly dangerous adventure with the help of his nominated conscience Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in an effort to become a real boy.
So let’s start with the positives, because sadly there aren’t too many of them…
Joseph Gordon-Levitt knocks it out of the park with his Jiminy Cricket vocal delivery; all cheer and old-timey gentlemanly charm masking neuroses and self doubt. It was a cunning bit of casting to have Tom Hanks, everyone’s favourite movie dad, play one of Disney’s most lovable parents too, because nobody likes to see Hanks upset and, therefore, we all hope Geppetto’s life is going to get much happier sooner rather than later. Disney must also be praised for wisely staying faithful to Pinocchio’s iconic design from the animation, while Benjamin Evan Ainsworth voices him with vigour.
Kyanne Lamaya’s supporting role is also an interesting one. Fabiana is a dancer with a clockwork leg brace working for sideshow honcho Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) who throws her voice ventriloquist-style to puppeteer ballerina marionette Sabina, who becomes the only character Pinocchio can truly engage with on the same level (everyone else either exploits or coddles him). This is the only new addition to this version of the story that seems worth the time. Meanwhile, the battle in the ocean with Monstro (a more fantastical sea monster than colossal whale here) is well worth a look; arguably the only scene in the film with enough spectacle to make you wish this got a cinema release.
But, you’ve got to ask if Pinocchio really works as a character when he’s realised so pristinely in a computer. It’s almost as if he needs to be more flawed, more obviously hand-crafted, to make a tangible connection with an audience and to make sense of his journey from talking, walking inanimate object to real boy.
I know using real animals in films is discouraged these days for a number of reasons, but why’d they have to do such a terrible CG job on Figaro the cat and Cleo the goldfish? Is it just because grafting human-like faces onto otherwise zoologically accurate creatures makes it easier to imitate the moments everyone remembers from the 1940 film? The devious huckster Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) is proof positive that Disney can never remake their take on Robin Hood in CG animation, because we now know that CG-animated anthropomorphic foxes are kind of creepy and they they can’t convey the required range of emotions with their canine faces. Key does his best to bring some life to singing “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee”, but it’s a really uninspired sequence nevertheless.
One of the biggest crimes the Disney remakes keep committing is the compulsion to over-explain absolutely everything including, in this case, Pinocchio’s name. “Pine-oak-io”: why on earth would Geppetto name a representation of his dead son after such a terrible wood pun?
We may be bringing too much logic into a story about a magical wooden boy, but Pinocchio has only been alive for a few days and never actually made it to school, and yet he fully understands complex concepts like combustion, propeller propulsion and even death when it suits the plot. Nothing is consistent or given a second thought it would seem.
In another moment of completely unearned Disney self-congratulation, you notice that all of Geppetto’s cuckoo clocks are shown to have Disney characters popping out of them, and it’s not a throwaway gag you’ve really got to pay attention to catch either; they give them very deliberate close-ups. All that is achieved by this is that you’re taken out of the story they are supposed to be telling.
Say what you like about the Disney remake of Beauty and the Beast from 2017, but at least they really went for it with the lavish Broadway-style musical sequences. Here, almost all the songs from the animation are cut short as if Zemeckis is scared that the kids will get bored without a new distraction every 30 seconds or so. The songs specially written for this version aren’t good or memorable, and a fun but cheesy scene where Pinocchio begins to dance a rumba with Sabina ends before it truly wins you over.
This may well be Luke Evans’ worst ever performance; all false teeth and grating accent as the Coachman, and a terrible new number that brings to mind Fagin without the rascally charm and singing in the dark. The Pleasure Island sequence that is built around the sinister Coachman’s child-napping machinations in the animation is pure nightmare fuel, but here it’s a knock-off riff on Hook but with added shadow monsters for some reason.
Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio has decent foundation of a beloved story and talented people involved, but is overly self-aware, unimaginative and distinctly lacking in magic no matter how lovely Cynthia Erivo’s rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star” is. When you compare this to the animated film it so often tries to directly replicate, Matteo Garronne’s twisted Italian film from a few years ago, or even what we’ve seen so far of Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion fable, Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio is just a painted block of wood.