2022 saw two very different cinematic takes on the classic story of Pinocchio: One was Guillermo del Toro’s unique stop-motion adaptation, and the other was the latest installment in Disney’s seemingly never ending live-action remakes of their animated back catalogue. While no Pinocchio adaptation will ever likely live up to Disney’s animated original, it’s somewhat ironic that between the two 2022 versions, it’s Guillermo del Toro’s film that more lives up to the Disney classic with its unique take on the material. Disney’s own remake, on the other hand, feels like it’s lifelessly going through the motions just to give Disney+ an extra piece of content.
As mentioned, Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio was another entry in their ongoing trend of live-action remakes, which have been a point of contention among Disney fans (if an animated classic is timeless, what’s the point of remaking it? Unless we’re buying into the blatant falsity that live-action somehow makes films more legitimate). To be fair, not all of Disney’s live-action remakes have been bad (the CG showcase that was 2016’s Jungle Book was a spectacle, and 2019’s Aladdin was enjoyable), but by and large these remakes feel mostly unnecessary. Sadly for Pinocchio, it proves to be the rule and not the exception, as it comes across as another live-action remake for the sake of another live-action remake.
I’m sure we’re all familiar with the basic outline of Disney’s Pinocchio by this point, but here’s a quick synopsis anyway: an elderly Italian toymaker named Geppetto creates a wooden puppet he names Pinocchio. Gepetto wishes upon a star that Pinocchio could be a real boy, to fill the void Geppetto feels from not having a family (in this version, Geppetto has a dead wife and son, which feels unnecessarily cruel to the old man). The Blue Fairy answers Geppetto’s wish, brings Pinocchio to life, assigns Jiminy Cricket as Pinocchio’s conscience, and claims that if Pinocchio proves himself to be “brave, truthful and selfless” he will become a real boy. Naturally, there’s a lot of obstacles that get in the way of Pinocchio’s journey, among them a conman fox, a villainous puppeteer, an angry whale and a conniving Coachman, who takes children to Pleasure Island so that they may make literal jackasses of themselves so he can sell the children-turned-donkeys to salt mines. Yeah, Pinocchio was always a pretty eventful movie.
Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio more or less sticks to the 1940 original’s outline, but fails to capture the charm and spirit that has made the animated film endure for decades. Not even putting Robert Zemeckis – a man known for weaving story and visual effects together – in the director’s chair and casting Tom Hanks as Geppetto helps elevate this Pinocchio retelling into anything above average.
To be fair, Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio has its share of positives: Tom Hanks makes for a convincing Geppetto, and as odd a fit as it may sound, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great as the voice of Jiminy Cricket (Gordon-Levitt does a pretty spot-on Cliff Edwards impression). And for all the people who complain whenever an animated character is redesigned, this Pinocchio looks identical to the 1940 animated character. So you can’t say the film isn’t faithful there. The supporting cast also does there best to liven things up, with Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy, Keegan-Michael Key as the voice of Honest John the fox, and Luke Evans as the evil Coachman (Evans seems to be making a habit of playing the villains in Disney’s live-action remakes, previously portraying Gaston in 2017’s Beauty and the Beast). But really, there’s only so much they’re able to do to liven the film up.
The movie just falls flat at trying to capture the magic of the original at every turn. While When You Wish Upon a Star and I’ve Got No Strings are still present, the new songs added to the film are entirely unmemorable. And while the visual effects on Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) and Jiminy Cricket do their job, much of the CG in the movie looks surprisingly cheap and unconvincing (we all know Disney can afford better, and we all know Zemeckis can do better in this area). Things look particularly artificial once Pinocchio gets to Pleasure Island, which is created with CG that looks dull and outdated.
Even the themes and tone of the story feel skittish here. The original film is considered one of Disney’s darkest and scariest animated features, and while the new film makes token attempts to capture those elements, it is only willing to go so far. One of the most shocking moments in the original is when Pinocchio’s mischievous friend Lampwick gets turned into a donkey for “making an ass of himself” by smoking, drinking, gambling and causing damage across Pleasure Island. It’s a sad fate that befalls Lampwick, but it’s a fate he made for himself by his actions, which kind of hits home the whole point of Pinocchio’s journey. In the 2022 film, that same scene is played more for laughs, which pulls the rug out from under the scene and weakens its intended purpose in the story. It further cheapens things that Pleasure Island no longer serves cigars and alcohol, instead opting for the more PG root beer in their place. I get that it would be taboo to feature children drinking and smoking in a movie, but isn’t that the point? It’s bad behavior. It’s what Pinocchio needs to learn not to do. Drinking soda pop may not be good judgement in terms of health, but it’s hardly a moral conundrum in the same way alcohol can be.
I have to admit there are a couple of changes that I appreciate. As classic as the 1940 film is, it always annoyed me how the Blue Fairy basically served as a deus ex machina when she rescued Pinocchio from a cage at the hands of Stromboli. Here that’s been changed to Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket using the puppet’s extending nose to reach a key, which makes the characters feel more crafty and independent (though having Pinocchio lie to make his nose grow to get out of the jam may be questionable in its own right). Without spoiling too many details, the ending of the film is even slightly changed in a way to question what it means for Pinocchio to be “real” (it’s a change that’s appreciated in concept, though could have admittedly been executed better). I also like that Geppetto’s infamous cuckoo clocks are now themed around various Disney references (though some of the fun of that idea is taken away when the film gives us too many close-ups of the clocks, which just gives away the references. And the fact that one clock features Roger and Jessica Rabbit only reminds us of an infinitely better Zemeckis film we could be watching). And I suppose Stromboli gets thrown in jail here, so at least one Pinocchio villain finally gets some comeuppance.
I certainly can’t say that 2022’s Pinocchio is the worst of Disney’s live-action remakes, but it does continue the sub-genre’s trend of creating a decidedly inferior version of a classic tale from Disney’s animated history. An unnecessary retelling that just kind of goes through the material, but without the beating heart of the Disney original.
That this live-action remake has made Pinocchio less “real” is an irony that probably won’t be lost on anyone.