Currently streaming on Disney+
Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is a wooden puppet made by lonely woodcarver Geppetto (Tom Hanks) out of pine that is brought to life by the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), who directs him to be brave, selfless, and honest so he can become a real boy. He is guided by Jiminy Cricket, an insect who becomes his temporary conscience, during a series of trials and temptations.
Who is the audience for this live-action remake of “Pinocchio”? Are we clamoring for this?
Based on Disney’s intentions to remake its catalogue for purely commercial reasons, this is one of the more perplexing choices. Granted, these revisions have been a mixed bag, with “The Jungle Book” faring the best, followed by “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and the worst, “Aladdin.”
“The Lion King” was universally scorned, and next up after this is “The Little Mermaid” in May 2023 with inspired casting (Halle Bailey as Ariel and Daveed Diggs as Sebastian!) and new songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda. So all is not hopeless
My initial reaction about “Pinocchio” – the first movie I ever saw in a theater -- was one of anticipation, for it has a good cast, led by the ever-reliable Tom Hanks. However, as Geppetto, he struggles with the Italian accent. (He is not doing so well in the dialect element lately, after the weird one as Col. Tom Parker in “Elvis”).
Whatever goodwill I had for the Disney film evaporated when it became strange and creepy. And live action is really a misnomer, with Pinocchio looking exactly like his cartoon counterpart and plenty of CGI figures, including Cleo the fish and Figaro the cat.
The 1940 animated classic was only Disney’s second full-length feature, following the landmark “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” in 1937. Innovative with its animation, the story, adapted from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, is rather unsettling and dark for children (we are more cognizant of these dangers for children now)..
Directed by Robert Zemeckis, whose “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” is the finest hybrid of animation and live action of all-time, this “Pinocchio” lacks the magic that elevates Disney films from OK to magnificent.
Zemeckis has worked with Hanks on multiple films, notably “Forrest Gump,” for which they both won Oscars, then “Castaway,” and another animated adaptation in 2004, “The Polar Express,” from the beloved 1985 book by Chris Van Allsburg – where the characters’ eyes are weird.
This latest dip into the pool, in Disney’s catalogue re-do, is a misfire. Zemeckis co-wrote it with Chris Weitz, who splendidly adapted “Cinderella” for the 2015 Kenneth Branagh version starring the luminous Lily James.
Here, they have unfortunately decided to intrude on the 19th century European setting and freshen it up with Honest John talking about social media influencers and acting like he’s snapping a photo with a cell phone. Huh?
But three bad choices stand out – with one a massive pile of horse manure in the middle of a street, and Pinocchio, on his way to school, stops to examine and sniff it.???
The other is when the Blue Fairy (a sparkly CGI’d Cynthia Erivo) inquires as to why Geppetto wanted a real boy. Jiminy Cricket responds: ‘There are other ways to make a boy, but I don’t think Geppetto gets out much. And I guess it’s the best he could do with the tools he’s got.” What?
And the third -- the score, featuring four original songs, by Glenn Ballard and Alan Silvestri, is mediocre at best, and some lyrics are baffling, including in “The Coachman to Pleasure Island,” where Luke Evan’s character is the dastardly ‘collector of stupid little boys.” Well, now we call it human trafficking. Here’s the line: “Real girls always like the real boys more.”
Isn’t this rather chilling?
There is even a curious reference to Chris Pine that’s meant to be comical.
It didn’t take very long before the alarm bells rang in this movie.
This script is indeed a head-scratcher, but there’s other missteps. Erivo, whose powerful silky vocals are always stunning, doesn’t even get to sing an entire “When You Wish Upon a Star.” This is Disney’s signature theme song! Say what?
Now, some characters fare better than others. The writers have given Geppetto a sad backstory about losing his wife and son. Hence, wishing for a companion – I guess to avoid the potential unseemly nature in today’s world.
Pinocchio’s naivete and wonder are captured sincerely by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, and amiable Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s voice is unrecognizable as he tries to copy the original Jiminy Cricket – Ward Kimball – with kindness and homespun wisdom.
The best supporting character is a new one, Fabiana, sweetly played by Kyanne Lamaya. She operates the ballerina marionette that becomes Pinocchio’s friend and sings a new song, “I Will Always Dance,” which is a bright spot.
They’ve added a seagull, Sofia, voiced by Lorraine Bracco, for no apparent reason.
The bad guys include Keegan-Michael Key as the predatory Honest John, Giuseppe Battiston as the evil puppet show proprietor and Luke Evans as the coachman overseeing Pleasure Island -- all scary and gross.
One of the film’s few highlights is Geppetto’s wall of cuckoo clocks, which feature Disney characters when the clocks chime – it goes fast, but there is a Woody from “Toy Story, Maleficent, and Princess Aurora, as well as a nod to Roger Rabbit, and Jessica.
Besides the Disney characters, they’ve recreated clocks from the original film.
Disney decided to stream this film on Disney +, and not release it in theaters. Because it is so flat, one wonders if parents and children will enjoy this experience. (And the original is available on Disney + too).
One also wonders what is the deal with multiple “Pinocchio” movies being released? Although made in 2019 in Italy, Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio” came out in the U.S. in 2020-21. Garrone went for a grimmer atmosphere and featured a real-life Pinocchio carved out of wood, with Roberto Benigni playing Geppetto. Last year, it received two Academy Award nominations for costumes and hair and makeup.
Later this fall, Oscar winner Guillermo del Torro’s version will drop on Netflix. It’s an animated one and will be darker.
You can go darker, of course, but this “Pinocchio” was badly in need of some light.