Make no mistake: scary Disney can be some of the best of Disney, and Pinocchio (1940) certainly earns a medal for the cautionary tale it tells to children. Because of this, the 2022 Pinocchio remake seems the best Disney fit for director Robert Zemeckis. After classic hits like Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, Zemeckis pivoted to visually impressive CGI films, including The Polar Express (a film that stunned me with its visuals as a child, even as it also made me feel a kind of dread I have never felt since) and The Christmas Carol (a film so uncanny I’ve repressed it).
So the man who envisioned The Polar Express‘ cursed train car full of terrifying toys in would appear to be an excellent match with the character Pinocchio and his imperilment on Pleasure Island. The problem, however, is that Zemeckis’ Pinocchio falters when it comes to tone and consistent world-building.
Spoilers ahead for Pinocchio (2022).
The plot follows most of the same beats as its predecessor while adding a few new details. Geppetto (Tom Hanks), a father grieving the death of his son, makes a marionette out of pine and calls it Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). (“Pine-occhio” is emphasized. I need you to know that there is a Chris Pine pun later in the film.) After Geppetto wishes on a star, the Blue Fairy (a nice appearance by Cynthia Erivo) relieves Pinocchio of his strings and lets him go walking and talking like a real boy, while Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, sounding a bit too much like Ted Lasso) gains the title of Conscience.
Geppetto is thrilled and raises Pinocchio as his own, but eventually realizes the boy needs to go to school. Pinocchio’s major struggles from the original film remain. On the way to school, he meets the fox Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key, performing his voice work at a fever pitch) and John’s non-speaking feline companion. The fox insists on making Pinocchio famous, and sets him up for a perilous series of abuses. Pinocchio will cross an evil puppet show director named Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) and the Coachman (a nearly-unrecognizable and creepy Luke Evans) who takes a cartful of kids to Pleasure Island. And yes, there’s still a whale-of-a-tale with Monstro, who is now a tentacled sea monster.
Despite Zemeckis’s experience with the unsettling, Pinocchio feels relatively tame – except for one scene. But that scene is frightening enough to traumatize a new generation of Disney fans. In a reflection of the original animated picture, a boy named Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd) takes a boat-ride with Pinocchio through Pleasure Island (itself a carnival wonderland of sensory overload). Lampwick then challenges the puppet to a game of pool that ends with Lampwick’s fearful and graphic transformation into a donkey. It’s much more disturbing than the original animated sequence, and might be a bit much for very young viewers.
Although the film is visually impressive at points with its production design and character CGI, the switch to live-action disrupts the seamless suspension-of-disbelief that one grants animation. For example, in a world where normal animals can’t communicate with humans (a seagull talks to Pinocchio and Jiminy but not to Geppetto), I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the fox and his cat friend who dress in human clothing and gallivant about in the streets. (This example is very much unlike Jiminy, who’s small and easy to overlook). I’ll buy it in an animated film, but it’s harder to allow in a live-action film. Plus, if only human children are allowed to attend school, where do the anthropomorphic animals go? Animal school? I need answers. This might seem like a failing of my imagination, but I suggest it’s a worthwhile example of where and how we might expect more consistent world-building and logical realism from a movie where Tom Hanks is not a motion-capture woodworker but just a human guy.
Pinocchio also seems to aim for a reflexive exploration of its own nature as a constructed artifact, but it never quite reaches cogency. Rather than feeling postmodern with a consistent pastiche-panache, the film and its few contemporary references feel jarring and twee. In an early scene in Geppetto’s workshop, Pinocchio reminds us it’s a movie by having the wall lined with Disney-themed cuckoo clocks, including ones featuring Toy Story and The Lion King. The clock featuring Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is particularly jolting due to that film’s hyper-modern setting. But Pinocchio doesn’t make meaningful use of these references; the clocks feel like Easter eggs that the animators didn’t bother to hide well. Although drawing attention to its own construction as a piece of art could be compelling for a movie about a built boy, Pinocchio never feels that smart.
One particularly salient moment that demonstrates Pinocchio‘s tonal issues is a shot of the innocent Pinocchio standing in the street examining animal feces. Instead of coming off as funny and childish in an absurd embrace of the profane, this one-off moment feels dismissive. It’s as if the film doesn’t particularly care about whether it’s earned an image of literal dung.
There’s still some good to be found here, particularly in Tom Hanks’ surprisingly stubborn commitment to the role. It’s possible that he can’t sing, because he talks his way through a tune early in the film’s, but his delivery still feels earnest despite the awkwardness. And Geppetto’s pride in Pinocchio’s craftmanship and delight in his new son doesn’t feel phoned-in; rather, it helps flesh out the emotionality of the film’s journey.
Pinocchio (1940) may be my favorite Disney animated film, so I wanted a lot from the 2022 Pinocchio remake even as I tried to contain my expectations. If anything, Zemeckis’ attempt made me love the original that much more – I have a fresh respect for its consistency and artistic innovation. Nor am I against the idea of Disney doing live-action remakes. It’s just hard to put some things from animation into a realistic-looking world without raising more questions than a script has time to answer.