By Allen Michie
There are cringe-worthy moments as well as scenes of mesmerizing beauty in Disney’s live-action Pinocchio. But I’ll go against the critical grain and argue, for several small reasons, and for one big one, that it was necessary to make it.
Pinocchio, directed by Robert Zemeckis. Streaming on Disney+
Disney has made a live-action (sort of; there are just a handful of real humans in it) remake of Pinocchio, and the critics have been whittling away at it, using the chips as kindling in their snarky reviews. It currently has a dismal 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which puts it one notch below Jurassic World: Dominion. “Like the previous Disney remakes, it’s faithful and watchable but an unnecessary retread of a superior film that should have been left alone,” writes Loren King. “While new additions are made that elevate its story, Pinocchio is just another Disney remake that never really proves why it should exist,” writes Sara Clements. “Pinocchio ends up as another unnecessary remake that’s mostly forgettable,” writes Neil Soans. Rotten Tomato summarizes the critical consensus: “Visually dazzling but soulless, the largely inert Pinocchio reaffirms that you should always let your conscience be your guide… away from unnecessary remakes.”
Everyone knows we’re living in a time of seemingly endless remakes, reboots, and adaptations. Occasionally we’ll see an original script, but they often get lost in the noise (metaphorical and literal) of more comic book movies and retreads of familiar franchises. When exactly is a movie like this — or any movie, for that matter — “necessary”?
It depends on who’s watching. That might sound like a lazy answer, but it’s true. If you’re a studio executive answering to the stockholders, it’s certainly necessary. That is not automatically a bad thing. The box office take from one weekend of the upcoming Indiana Jones 5 movie will be enough to pay for the entire development, production, and promotion costs of a small-budget, original-scripted film that appeases critics and aesthetes. If you’re a critic, I suppose a film is “necessary” only if it improves on the original, and that is a subjective call. Or is it supposed to provide some kind of artistic or political corrective to the original? Was it necessary for Joel Schumacher to follow Batman Forever with Batman & Robin? No. Was it necessary for Christopher Nolan to follow Batman & Robin with his own Batman trilogy? Yes, absolutely no question.
With the live-action Pinocchio, Disney is maximizing the profits they can squeeze from their huge intellectual property catalog. The target audiences are young kids and their nostalgic parents (and grandparents, and in this case great-grandparents) who remember the original animated version from 1940. But don’t let that dictate your judgment. Pinocchio is just one episode in a new series of experimental live-action remakes of animated movies, perhaps partially inspired by the massive artistic and commercial success of The Lion King on Broadway (and, perhaps, the non-Disney phenomenon of Wicked). The effort raises some engaging questions for directors, writers, and actors. How can we find a new angle on this familiar story? What’s the backstory? How does this story play differently in the 2020s compared to decades ago? How have tastes changed? How can the writers walk the fine line between doing something creatively original and still remain true to the framework and feel of the original? What can live-action and CGI do that animation cannot, and vice versa? (As yet, there’s no live-action Fantasia. Paging James Cameron.) For actors, it must be tempting, at least on some level, to consider how — in front of a green screen — they can play a lobster, a candlestick, or a python.
There have been some artistic and commercial successes in the series (Alice in Wonderland, Mulan, Cruella). Some have been justly forgotten almost as soon as they premiered (Dumbo, The Jungle Book). The upcoming live-action adaptation of The Little Mermaid is already generating the predictably depressing conniption fits from the online trolls for casting a Black actress, Halle Bailey, as Ariel. But the kerfuffle is a case study in how and why different people consider a live-action remake to be an opportunity to either denigrate or improve on the source. Just ask these adorable little black girls watching the Little Mermaid trailer for the first time if they think this remake is necessary.
So, is Pinocchio good? Well, it’s OK. It’s no classic masterpiece, like the 1940 original. It has some cringe-worthy moments, but it also has some scenes of mesmerizing beauty. But is this movie necessary? I’ll go against the critical grain and say yes, for several small reasons, and for one big one.
As I wrote in a reconsideration of the original Pinocchio in 2020, “it’s a marvel to see the way the Disney artists would lavish their craft on backgrounds of worn carved wood, old leather, stone stairwells, melting candles, and off-kilter cottages.” We are far too jaded now with CGI to expect anything less than the sharpest detail, from the wood grain on Pinoke’s shoes to the soft felt of his yellow hat. The digital animation misses the warmth and soul of Disney’s original artwork. But the artistic change is necessary for today’s young audiences because, in case you haven’t noticed, warmth and soul couldn’t be more dead in today’s animation. Even in Disney’s own new jerky Mickey Mouse cartoons, everything is flat and shadowless. No one is pausing long enough in today’s hyperkinetic animation to take a good look at anything. The truth is, the original Pinocchio is far too slow-paced and richly animated for today’s kids. If this generation is ever going to enjoy Disney’s version of the Pinocchio story, then it’s got to have the CGI treatment. It’s not artistically better, but it’s the necessary ticket for admission in 2022.
The script makes some upgrades on the original. (Many spoilers follow.) The goldfish no longer wears lipstick. Pleasure Island has gone co-ed, acknowledging that the girls can make asses of themselves, too. Geppetto is no longer criminally incompetent as a father and spends some days with Pinocchio at home before hesitatingly sending him off to school (Jimmy Cricket assures us that they became a “stable, well-adjusted household” first). Some other minor things are lost. There are some jokes that fall flat, at least to my over-nine-year-old self, such as Pinocchio pondering a pile of horse shit and marveling at all the things he’s about to learn in school. There are TikTok jokes.
Just because something is hokey doesn’t always mean that it’s unnecessary. For example, it got on my nerves that this movie couldn’t decide where it was located. Pinocchio has an American accent, Tom Hanks as Geppetto uses a weird kind of Italian/German hybrid (the American version of a generic European accent is to just Enunciate. Very. Clearly.), Stromboli is coarsely Italian, there’s a brassy seagull from New York City, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Jiminy Cricket is hopping around Italy with an irritating Southern accent saying things like “darn tootin’” and “what in the Sam Hill.” Lampwick is a Southie (Boston residents will need to massage their cringing muscles after watching).
But this gumbo of races, accents, and even species (Are Gideon the humanoid alley cat and Figaro the cute kitten members of the same species? Are Goofy and Pluto?) is all a part of a larger effort to create a fantastical “once upon a time” zone. The original 1940 movie did that to an extent as well, but this 2022 version goes all-in on postmodernism. From the very first scene, Jiminy is having an interactive dialog with his younger self, breaking the fourth wall to tell us that this both is and is not the story you remember. It’s no accident that there’s an entire section of Pleasure Island called Clock Stoppers. The whole idea of a linear, internally consistent timeline is mocked in the machinery of Geppetto’s elaborate cuckoo clocks: we see little wooden cameos from Donald Duck, Dumbo, Snow White, Maleficent, Woody the Cowboy, and Roger Rabbit. Maybe it’s an unnecessary sight gag. But maybe it’s a much needed endorsement of Disney’s canonicity as well as strategic move to free the film from being anchored to any particular spot in the “Disney universe” timeline. The new movie doesn’t replace the old movie, it exists alongside it, in that suspended postmodern Neverland of intersecting textualities.
One of the postmodern touches probably won’t register with the kids, but I’ve been trying to get it to work. This version adds a new character, Fabiana, a puppeteer in Stromboli’s show who is persevering with a disability in her leg. She has an elegant ballerina marionette named Sabina. (There’s a nice moment when we first see Sabina — she’s hanging on her strings backstage, and her head falls to one side with a slight turn — maybe it’s just a bit of gravity working on a toy puppet, or maybe she’s checking out the new guy Pinocchio. It’s subtly done.) Fabiana, like Geppetto, is lonely and broken, and her marionette is much more to her than just a tool. It’s clear that Sabina, like Pinocchio, has a spark of life of her own beyond the strings, but not quite to Pinocchio’s extent. Does this mean that the Blue Fairy’s magic is helpful but not completely necessary? That any puppet can have life if the puppeteer has the skill and we can sufficiently suspend disbelief? Are we seeing Sabina only through Pinocchio’s eyes? Or is it a postmodern twist: we’re watching a movie of a remake of a movie of a remake of a novel and all of it is fictional but yet somehow real to us, etc. ad infinitum? Might it be an addition calculated to set up a sequel where Pinocchio has a girlfriend and the grieving widower Geppetto has a companion? How many layers are there — should there be — to this onion?
But there’s one change in particular at the very end, and it’s a big one, that clarifies everything (major spoiler ahead).
When Pinocchio saves his family of Geppetto, Jiminy, Figaro, and Cleo (her bowl of fresh water remaining intact yet again) from the sea monster Monstro, the 1940 version has Pinocchio killed. Gepetto takes him home, and they all mourn his loss. The Blue Fairy returns, announces that Pinocchio has proven himself brave, truthful, and unselfish, and she uses her magic to turn him into a real live boy. But in this 2022 version, it’s not Pinocchio who dies on the shore, it’s Geppetto. Pinocchio does everything in his little power to resuscitate him, accidentally saving him by giving him a spark of his own uncanny life in the form of that most human of medicines — a tear. The Blue Fairy does not appear, because she isn’t needed.
Pinocchio’s merits are his own, his rewards have been earned, and the point is that self-determination is not something that comes magically from above. Pinocchio isn’t rewarded because he has endured his deserved punishments, which was the point of the original movie. That kind of moralistic paternalism seems dated now. Here, Pinocchio never did anything wrong in the first place, so he saves others by giving of himself. You’ll notice that Jiminy Cricket spends most of his time being trapped, delayed, or otherwise frantically trying to catch up with Pinocchio — there’s hardly a moment that demands Pinocchio’s conscience. This Pinocchio isn’t someone who often makes decisions, right ones or wrong ones. Instead, his innocence is manipulated by others. He’s a victim of systematic abuse — what we recognize in 2022 as a failed school system and child labor traffickers.
Best of all, there’s something that I never knew I missed in the original animated movie until this one pointed it out. This has always been a story about disability. It justifies the addition of the new character, Fabiana, balancing gracefully with her damaged leg on the wooden apparatus. Pinocchio is rejected from school because education is for “real children,” so he believes his only remaining option is to be famous in a freak show. His greatest wish is to become whole and healed. But Geppeto’s final lines in this movie are quite moving: “You’ll always be my real boy. There isn’t a single thing I would change about you.” We don’t get to see Pinocchio transform into a “real boy” — that might be the final straw for the Pinocchio purists. Jiminy Cricket posits that that part of the story is just mythic and perhaps never really happened. For today’s audiences, this is the perfect ending, an improvement on the original. This Pinocchio is for the disabled kids; the ones who think differently, move differently, and have mechanical parts where their missing muscles are supposed to be. The emphasis of the original 1940 version fell on the first line of the famous theme song: “When you wish upon a star.” The 2022 version necessarily stresses the second line: “Makes no difference who you are.”
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas, and he has a PhD in English Literature. He has no strings to hold him down, to make him fret or make him frown.
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