#21 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis’ films.
This cannot be Robert Zemeckis’ last film. He has to make Here. Even if Here is terrible, at least his last film won’t be Pinocchio. There is something wrong at the heart of this film. There’s also a lot wrong all around it, but at its heart it seems too self-aware for the kind of lightly fantastical fairy tale that Pinocchio actually is. That is evident in the film’s opening moments, and weird choices continue to just pile up as the thing goes on. The choices are so off, it almost makes me think that Zemeckis intentionally sabotaged the film after a certain point in production. That’s probably not it. It’s just that Zemeckis is so much more than this material.
I actually have watched this twice now. The first was a few weeks ago. I watched it over two days, not really sure of why I was so off-put by the whole thing, only getting an idea by the end. I couldn’t bring myself to write about it because the whole thing depressed me, particularly from the viewpoint of Robert Zemeckis’ career. This is Zemeckis’ becoming a tool of Disney just to keep working at the production level he wants to work. Instead of making smaller films, he can’t walk away from giant budgets even if it’s remaking a beloved animated film in live action. So, I set out to watch it again, and I watched the original right before, just to get a better handle on certain narrative decisions.
I think there are two big reasons changes were made. The first was to make certain plot turns that seem somewhat like haphazard coincidences more purposeful. The second is designed to deepen character. Regarding the first, I’m not entirely in opposition to all of these changes, especially in concept. There are moments in the original that feel completely random to get Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) back with Pinocchio (Benjamin Ainsworth), for instance. However, these changes also introduce more haphazard coincidence, as much as it takes out, so it’s something of a wash. In terms of the character stuff, though, I question the introduction of it all.
This is evident from the opening scene that gives Geppetto (Tom Hanks) a sad backstory as a widower and father to a son who had died at some point in the past. This is an odd scene, in no small part because it’s actually a song that Hanks mostly just mumbles through (perhaps one of the lingering effects of Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables), and it’s imparting this deep sense of pathos at the beginning of the film. It undermines the fairy tale aspect of the story that the film never gets rid of. It’s an approach to introduce psychological complexity for a relatively minor character in what is ultimately a much simpler story about growing up to be a good boy. I can excuse make all day for Robert Zemeckis, but this feels like something he would introduce himself. He’s got a history of things like Flight that take characters seriously and deep-dives into them. It’s wrong for this movie, though.
This also extends to a new character introduced, Fabianna (Kyanne Lamaya), a puppeteer in the traveling theater run by Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) who befriends Pinocchio. She’s disabled, with some mechanical contraption on her bum leg that she pirouettes on. I really don’t understand the introduction of this character from a narrative point of view. I don’t see what she adds. She’s some kind of support to Pinocchio, but that’s at the expense of Jiminy. Seriously, Jiminy is under a glass jar for almost a third of this movie, unable to interact with Pinocchio. It’s so weird. She seems to be a proxy for Jiminy in the middle section of the film, and it dilutes the key relationship in Pinocchio’s story.
Now, in terms of the smaller changes around plot convenience, I just want to highlight two moments. The first is early when Geppetto sends Pinocchio to school. In both versions, Jiminy sleeps through the goodbye and then tries to catch up. In the original, he happens across Pinocchio with Honest John as they go off to meet Stromboli. It’s pure coincidence. In this, Jiminy meets a seagull, Sofia (Lorraine Bracco), who happened to see what direction Pinocchio went off, and she carries Jiminy to Pinocchio. So, it takes a quick little moment of coincidence and gives it a more opulent and visual way to accomplish the same thing. Is that worthwhile? To answer that is to address the nature of the story.
Pinocchio is a fairy tale. It’s a light, fun movie with some elements of danger to test our main character as he grows and becomes a real boy. Do we need really tight narrative construction? I don’t want to say no to that, but it doesn’t feel necessary to this kind of story. So, the additions in general don’t bug me, but they do feel extraneous and excuses to use special effects in Zemeckis’ trademark loose style. There’s one later that feels really off, though.
In the original, Pinocchio escapes from Stromboli and meets up with Honest John again who connects him with the Coachman who then takes him to Pleasure Island. In this new one, Pinocchio runs away, newly reconnected with Jiminy who got out of his glass jar through pure coincidence, and gets swept up by the Coachman (Luke Evans) in a net. Coincidence. The point though is different. It’s supposed to be an evolution of Pinocchio’s journey. Having Pinocchio listen to Honest John again is something of a repeat of his first mistake. Suddenly finding himself in the Coachman’s vehicle, surrounded by kids who sing a song about how Pinocchio needs to go, is Pinocchio falling to a different kind of outside influence: peer pressure. However, it’s built wrong. Everything moves too fast to really settle into the idea, and the extreme coincidence of Pinocchio just getting picked up is extreme and weird.
And then we get to Pleasure Island. In the original, the boys (all boys) drink something that’s obviously actual beer and smoke cigars while destroying some property. In the new one, the boys and girls drink what is explicitly root beer, there isn’t a cigar in sight, and they destroy everything while riding a roller coaster like thing that takes them all the way through the park while Luke Evans pops up out of the nearby floorboards to hand them more root beer. The edges have been sanded down, and the glossiness upped through special effects. It all feels wrong. Everything in this movie, even things meant to improve things narratively, feel wrong.
Nothing in this movie works except, most of the time, its visuals. Especially during the daylight scenes, this movie is often beautiful. Bright with colors that really pop off the screen, almost like old-school Disney animation. And that’s really it. Hanks is barely in the film, so his efforts at giving Geppetto pathos are wasted. The plot is something of a jumble, somewhere between fairy tale sensibilities and an effort to update it. The knowing self-awareness, especially around Jiminy and the clocks in Geppetto’s shop that are all Disney references, undermine everything around them. The effort to make Pleasure Island safe for modern child audiences (an unnecessary move) grinds down the point of the whole episode. Everything feels wrong, and that’s just simply something I wouldn’t expect from Robert Zemeckis.
This is just outright depressing. Pretty, but depressing.