Much like buses, sometimes you wait for a film, then two of a kind come at once: The Jungle Book and Mowgli, Armageddon and Deep Impact, Antz and A Bug’s Life… And now Carlo Collodi’s dark morality tale Pinocchio is getting the same treatment.
Robert Zemeckis’ reimagining of the classic Disney cartoon arrives first – ahead of Guillermo del Toro’s darker stop-motion treatment for Netflix – becoming the latest in the Mouse House’s line-up of live-action musical remakes. As with Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mulan, Pinocchio follows the original closely (earworms 'I’ve Got No Strings' and 'When You Wish Upon A Star' are present) while also updating certain elements for modern audiences (including a new song, 'The Coachman to Pleasure Island', that’s a highlight).
The story starts with carpenter Geppetto (played by Tom Hanks, wonderfully gruff and haunted by grief) wishing his wooden puppet would be a real boy, only for the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo in a very brief cameo) to answer his prayers and wake up the toy. To truly become human, though, Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) has to prove that he’s "brave, truthful, and unselfish", and so he goes on a journey that sees him chase fame with a circus master, get swallowed by a whale and take a detour to a Disneyfied-version of Pleasure Island – without the tobacco hall, drug taking, and drinking of the 1940s version.
A lot has been made of the removal of these elements, with online think pieces questioning whether we should be sanitizing art. Really, it’s of little consequence – the cartoon was a tamer version of Collodi’s very dark novel, anyway – and the conversation misses the real talking point: the remake’s truly breathtaking animated characters. Both Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) look as they did in the original; there’s a warm nostalgic feeling every time they’re on screen. More than that, the effects department has elevated their designs to a point where Pinocchio looks more akin to the puppetry of The Dark Crystal than CGI.
Zemeckis seamlessly weaves together the visual effects with real performers, the creatures meshing with the real world thanks to costuming, make-up, and sets that play into the heightened reality of the story. The actors similarly embrace the fantastical atmosphere: Luke Evans puts in a memorable Fagan-style turn as the dastardly Coachman, while Kyanne Lamaya’s Fabiana and her marionette Sabina, both new creations, add some much-needed heart and kindness.
Unfortunately, though, the film is let down by some serious pacing issues. Every scenario sees Pinocchio finding himself in trouble, resolving the problem, and coming out with a clear moral takeaway. It quickly becomes repetitive – the structure aping A Christmas Carol but not succeeding – and the overall effect is a film that sometimes seems too slow, and at other points too fast - especially the final act, which ends abruptly (and might be controversial among Disney purists).
Jiminy notes that "many stories have been told about Pinocchio", but this one doesn’t do enough to update the core tale at the center or overcome narrative issues that sometimes jumble the story. The result is another enjoyable yet flawed addition to Disney’s live-action catalog, with stunning visuals that capture the magic of the original but ultimately fail to keep up the pace.