Pinocchio premieres Sept. 8 exclusively on Disney+.
Pinocchio is Walt Disney Pictures’ 18th go at revisiting one of their beloved classics into what’s become their signature live-action/computer animation hybrid adaptation style. None have ever exceeded what the 2D originals accomplished in terms of originality, visuals, or pure creativity, and only a handful have even tried to distance themselves just a little from their source material. Despite having the incredibly talented Robert Zemeckis directing this one, Pinocchio lands firmly in the middle of that mediocre pack. Creatively, it clearly wrestles with adhering too closely to the superior 1940 version while awkwardly trying to force the old-fashioned story to dip into a jarring, modern voice that is incongruous with how it firmly embraces a 19th century setting and aesthetics. The result is a schizophrenic, bland watch that feels like a big-budget movie made only for 6- to 12-year-olds.
If you’re familiar with either Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, or Walt Disney’s 1940 animated Pinocchio, the script for this adaptation is going to feel very familiar. It’s still about a little boy puppet, Pinocchio (voiced by Ben Ainsworth), carved by the kind and lonely woodcarver, Gepetto (played by Tom Hanks). Mourning the loss of his own young son, Gepetto wishes upon a star that his creation might become real. Through the magic of The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), Pinocchio is brought to life with the caveat that for him to become a real boy, he must prove himself to be brave, unselfish, and true. Deputized as his temporary conscience, the earnest Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) promises to help Pinocchio achieve all those things despite lurking temptations.
Co-screenwriters Zemeckis and Chris Weitz (Cinderella) adhere to the same structure, sequences, and original songs from Disney’s 1940 animated film. The only material changes here come from Zemeckis’ decision to have some actors give live-action performances, like Hanks’ Gepetto and Luke Evans’ Coachman, and placing some scenes in real standing sets like Gepetto’s workshop shop interior and the wrecked ships inside Monstro, the sea monster’s, belly. The rest is all computer animation which has been a comfort medium for the director since 2004’s The Polar Express. Everything from Gepetto’s tiny pet companions, Cleo and Figaro, to the majority of the hedonistic Pleasure Island are part of the expansive digital canvas of zeros and ones.
In some places it works well, like the ethereal interpretation of The Blue Fairy with her delicate wings and blue glow, or the dappled lit streets and buildings of Gepetto’s charming Italian town. But the film relies on a full cast of entirely computer-generated characters that vary wildly in their success. The digital fur on Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) and his silent cat pal, Gideon, is far from realistic in a distracting way, which means the uncanny valley problem is strong with them. And narrator Jiminy Cricket is designed to be longer and less cherubic than his 2D-animated counterpart, so he’s more shiny and plastic looking, which translates to coming off as less endearing. He’s also got a meta mouth on him that never quits, which doesn’t help the overall issues of us bonding with the chronically calamity-prone cricket. He’s like a modern character shoehorned into the piece to be cool for today’s kids.
There are also some major sequences involving water that are undercooked visually. The integration of human actors into crashing waves or riding in boats is a major downgrade from what Zemeckis usually does in the medium, which hopefully implies a suddenly tightened budget and not taste. It makes for some underwhelming scenes that certainly don’t support the “CGI is better than 2D animation” argument.
For those looking for what might be new in this Pinocchio, it’s pretty minimal. There’s the addition of a talking seagull, Sofia (Lorraine Bracco), and the young puppeteer Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), who works for Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) and befriends puppet Pinocchio when he’s kidnapped by her boss. She’s given her own marionette, Sabina (voiced by Jaquita Ta’le), who gets her own song, “I Will Always Dance,” that is bouncy with a semi-Samba vibe. And musically, legendary composer Alan Silvestri is responsible for the lush score that’s the highlight of the film. He also co-composes with Glen Ballard the aforementioned song, along with three others that unfortunately don’t rise to the caliber of Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s 1940 compositions, “When You Wish Upon a Star” or “I’ve Got No Strings.”
Otherwise, this Pinocchio feels like a movie mandated to mirror far too closely the animated original, stifled from finding its own original path. And plenty of modern storytellers have had original takes on the Pinocchio story (Guillermo del Toro’s even releasing his own later this year), so it's not an impossible feat. Yet this script doesn’t try anything new, aside from the sweet addition of Fabiana and a slightly unexpected ending. Otherwise, it’s like watching someone literally turn the 1940 movie, original designs and all, into a computer-animated version of essentially the same thing.
Which begs the question, if there’s nothing substantive worth changing from their previous take of Pinocchio to make it fit for this generation, why make this at all? Are the anachronistic inclusions in the dialogue, like the name check of actor Chris Pine, or the visual representation of Disney classics in all of Gepetto’s clocks, worth the millions of dollars to make this, enough to get kids today to embrace this version as hip or for them? I’m not sure how that can be when this movie is so firmly immersed in the 19th century that it’s clearly old-fashioned by choice. Suffice it to say, this Pinocchio is going to have a tough time making nostalgia-loving adults happy or demanding tweens (and older) not deem it twee and corny. Its fate will likely be to fade into the background like so many of these adaptations do.
Source: IGN.com Pinocchio Review