Pinocchio, for all its ardent fans was never one of the Disney mainstays I was was introduced to as a child. For all the talk of growing noses and his desire to be a real boy, the rest of this outlandish fable eluded me. Upon further research, the original source material by author Carlo Collodi seems unsuited for a Disney children’s film. Matteo Garrone’s adaptation however pays more faithful attention to Collodi’s story and by that I mean it embraces the more garrish elements of this at times dark and twisted take on a coming of age story. If it wasn’t for an impressive eye for detail this somewhat slow adaptation might be the kind of forgettable addition to an already played out story but this honest retelling is worth the watch because this isn’t the story of your childhood and despite a 12A rating, it probably isn’t something I’d take the kids to.
Much like its counterpart, Pinocchio begins with poor woodworker Gepetto (Roberto Benigni), who is gifted a strange piece of wood that seems to be alive. Not knowing this and needing the wood to make his very first puppet, he is astounded by his new creation, Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) ,the puppet come alive. He quickly takes to Pinocchio like a son but his overprotective nature clashes with the young boys desire for adventure which leads the puppet on a long journey as he tries to figure out his place in a world where he doesn’t really belong or understand. Meanwhile Gepetto, mournful of the son he misses goes in search of his wayward creation, embarking on his own adventure.
Although this is an film of adventures at its core, Garrone’s version lacks the childlike enthusiasm of its stories more fantastical moments. Stark moments of fear and danger are beautifully handled with some bleak and striking cinematography that seems ripped straight from the sketches for the original novel but the brutal imagery of a hanging child, although in keeping with Collodi’s parable is still horrifying for a film screening populated by young children (which mine was). While Pinocchio’s actions bring about some distubing moments as almost warped lessons of empathy for a wayward and selfish child, the way Garrone plays his punishments for comedy seems at odds with the barren and squalid set design and dark imagery. While Garrone has embraced his tale fully, he has rid it of the irresponsibility and spontaneity of a tale about doing what you want, when you want to.
Although Garrone’s eye for detail should be praised here with an authentic peasant feel to his story, it is in the characters and costume design that the film really jumps out at you. Be it in the entirely practical makeup used to design not just Pinnochio but the various other puppets he encounters but also the degrees of poverty that is brought to life through the costumes of the community Gepetto thinks he belongs to, not knowing that he is the town joke. Be it the impressive varnished finish of Pinocchio’s skin or the tattered and torn clothes on Gepetto’s back, there is an undeniable authenticity here that makes this Pinocchio a squeamish affair at times.
While the English dubbing proves more distracting than a subtitle track would have, Pinocchio has two strong central performances with Benigni stealing his screentime with a lonely and sad but playfully optimistic performance that lifts you up in a film lacking in levity. While most here would play to a story of bizarre events and magical happenstance, Benigni sees the tragedy of trying to force someone to be exactly like you, but never for the wrong reasons. Ielapi, despite his characters questionable decisions still manages to make a problem child acceptably naive, trusting and most of all caring, even for someone who most of the time ignores others in favour of having fun.
Garrone, along with his cast want to make a more sombre film, a melancholy musing on family and wayward dreams that the original story proved to be underneath all the educationable parables and Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen darker moments. What this all amounts to is a faithful, less child friendly take on an Italian classic but in doing so it has created something that conflicts with the playful nature of the fairytale it was meant to be. Constantly facing the consequences of his actions instead of brushing them off in favour of more adventure, Garrone is more grown up, messy in its conflicting tones but compelling in its beauty and production. It’s still painfully creepy for a kids film though.