We all know the story: an Italian woodcarver makes a puppet of a young boy, a puppet that is brought to life by the Blue Fairy. The puppet yearns to become a real boy and faces terrifying situations like a cruel puppeteer and a giant whale on his journey with a talking bug by his side. Though Pinocchio’s tale was first published in 1883, the best known version is of course 1940’s Pinocchio, the second animated feature from noted antisemite and cartoonist Walt Disney. Pinocchio is an unbelievable achievement from the early days of animation, seemingly effortless in propelling the medium towards legitimacy after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs opened the door. Robert Zemeckis’ latest, also titled Pinocchio, is essentially a one-to-one remake of this interpretation, but less memorable and worse. This is of course the case for most if not all of the Disney live-action remake spawn, but it needs to be said again and again. Pinocchio (2022) feels particularly egregious, as it is going straight to Disney+. If these remakes don’t exist to make a cool baseline of $400 million worldwide, what is the point? You can watch the original on Disney+ just as easily!
Tom Hanks is our Geppetto for this go, doing a loud Italian accent but not going as hard as he does in Elvis, for which he is going to win an Academy Award. The Blue Fairy is Cynthia Erivo, who only appears once, I assume due to scheduling issues. Some child voices Pinocchio just like the original. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is on hand as Jiminy Cricket, giving a performance almost as bad as the CG bug he inhabits. As always, JGL is just doing an impression of what has come before, mimicking the high-pitched “gee willikers” Jiminy of 1940 because he is a hollow man with talent but no soul. We also have Lorraine Bracco as a new character, Sofia the seagull, for reasons that are stupid. Onward!
The film’s marketing hid Pinocchio himself for as long as they could. While he is dressed and shaped exactly like the 1940 version, the CG is just offputting enough that the little puppet is Polar Express-level creepy at times. The facial expressions are good, but the effect overall is unnerving. Sometimes he moves just a little too fast, like a roach. I assume a little puppet does not weigh much, but he often seems weightless. Despite Zemeckis being the pioneer of real actor/cartoon interaction, any scene where Geppetto holds Pinocchio looks simply cruddy. The puppet floats in Hanks’ hands as if he were on set doing mimework. How hard would it have been to have a real puppet for these scenes to work with? Or worse, maybe they did and that’s just how hard the CG animators have been overworked. This is a growing issue within Disney and other studios, and it’s hard to see a solution beyond unionizing and strikes. Which I do support! I’d also love for talented artists to get to work on things beyond dull remakes, but one issue at a time. Credit where credit is due: when Pinocchio starts to transform into a donkey on Pleasure Island, his tail is made of wooden blocks on a string. It’s a creative and cool looking idea!
I don’t think anyone was expecting much from this film. Zemeckis lost his way long ago, though Flight and Allied did have promise. Much like Tim Burton, Zemeckis forgot the human side of his storytelling, instead going deeper into technology that doesn’t have the same touch– ironic for a story about a puppet becoming a real boy, though even that gets muddy in this retelling. SPOILER ALERT: Somehow, this remake does not end with Pinocchio turning into a human child. Sure, Jiminy Cricket says this may have occurred in his final narration, but we don’t see this onscreen. After defeating Monstro, who is no longer a whale but an ugly tentacled sea creature that reminds one of the barracuda from Finding Nemo, Pinocchio brings a drowned Geppetto back to life with a magical teardrop. Just like in Tangled. The last thing we see is father and son walking towards a blue light coming from a cave, with no solid answer beyond that. Does this “be yourself” message apply to a CG puppet who runs the risk of total annihilation if he gets too close to a candle? Is it subtly anti-trans by saying you’re stuck as what you were born as? Or is it just a strange way to somewhat differentiate the story, one that goes against the whole point? I can assure you I have thought about this more than the creative team behind the film, which is not saying much at all, and is in fact a way worse reflection on me.
There’s no need for anyone to watch this film other than to track the continued erosion of Disney’s creative output, or to catch up for the podcast Blank Check, which is doomed to cover Zemeckis for the rest of time. “The puppet doesn’t look as scary as it could, mostly” is not very high praise. One of the most impressive achievements in animation history has been reduced to a cheap facsimile from a once-great director on a streaming platform primarily used to rewatch The Simpsons. I’ll be back in a couple months for another Pinocchio interpretation, this one from Guillermo Del Toro. There, I assume, the creepiness will be intentional.
Dir. Robert Zemeckis
Available to stream Thursday, 9/8 on Disney+