Monday, September 12, 2022

Movie Review: Pinocchio (2022): No Strings, No Magic Either


Disney's slew of unnecessary remakes of classic animated films continues with Robert Zemeckis's "live-action" Pinocchio, now streaming on Disney+.  Starring Tom Hanks in a lethargic, half-hearted turn as Geppetto and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the voice of Jiminy Cricket (channeling his best Cliff Edwards from the original), this version omits numerous magical moments and songs from the old film, adds new tunes and characters we didn't need, and somehow strips the story of all its former urgency.

Consider a moment in the scene where we're introduced to the incorrigible, scheming fox Honest John and his dimwitted partner Gideon.  As they stroll past Pinocchio, lost in their own "conversation" (John speaks, Gideon does not), John half-notices the living puppet skipping past and remarks "A little wooden boy..." before doing a double-take as the amazement of what he's just seen sinks in.  In the original film, the double-take is sudden and big and hilarious.  But here, even the comedically prodigious Keegan-Michael Key as Honest John can't muster the energy to make this bit work - the timing of the moment has no tightness, and Key's reaction is so underplayed it scarcely conveys how mindblown he's supposed to be.  And for me that's almost a Rosetta Stone for how ineffective this film is.  
Another example of Pinocchio's sluggishness is in the opening scene where Geppetto famously wishes upon the star.  In the original, Geppetto is super excited to see the star and wishes in all earnestness for his newly christened marionette to be a real boy.  There's a sweet, innocent sincerity to it.  Hanks though, fails to convey any of that, sort of stumbling through the wish, almost as though Geppetto knows the wish is in the script and he's doing it out of obligation.  The tone of moments like this is just wrong for the story.  Instead of being caught up in the narrative, you're waiting for the next familiar story beat, and then it falls flat anyway.

The scene where Pinocchio's mischievous friend Lampwick turns into a donkey, gut-wrenchingly distressing in the original, and at the time maybe cinema's best-executed horror-movie transformation sequence, is handled here with so little regard for the abject horror of what's happening to this child, it feels like the filmmakers reeeeeally didn't want to upset the kids in the audience.  Which of course defeats the entire purpose of the scene: kids who make bad choices and misbehave pay a dreadful price, so be a good boy instead.  It's literally the central theme of the story.  This movie is so sanitized they even removed the cigars and beer-drinking from the Pleasure Island sequence, instead substituting root beer.  That's right, soda.  Yes, I understand that the idea of children drinking and smoking is appalling, but ISN'T THAT THE POINT?  That's why as punishment they get turned into donkeys.

Characters like Stromboli and the evil Coachman, legitimately pretty terrifying in the cartoon, are toothless and non-threatening here; the latter is robbed of his best scene from the original, where he explains his ghastly plan to Honest John - "They never come back.....AS BOYS!"  That red-faced closeup in the cartoon is positively shudder-inducing.  Instead 2022 Coach gets an awkward, Broadway-esque new song wherein he convinces the doubting Pinocchio to go along for the ride to Pleasure Island.  Did Disney not want their updated protagonist to fully lose his way before finding it again?  2022 Pinoke seems really reluctant to do most of the things he's not supposed to do - like for example when John and Gideon pitch "An Actor's Life for Me," Pinocchio says "no thanks," goes to school, gets kicked out because he's a marionette, and only then decides to try his hand at show business.  Doesn't this go against the spirit of the story, wherein Pinocchio pretty easily caves to temptation because he doesn't know any better and doesn't grasp the idea of consequences?

Maybe the most baffling change is the film's finale.  

**SPOILER ALERT**  

After saving his father from the attack by Monstro the whale-- er, sea monster with the body of a humpback and the tentacles of a Kraken, Geppetto observes how brave, truthful and unselfish Pinocchio has been (wow, those are precisely the qualities the Blue Fairy said he needed), and how he deserves to be a real boy.  And then narrator Jiminy goes "some say he actually became a real boy, but what really matters is that he has the 'heart' of a real boy."  Soooooo, like, the whole objective of the protagonist in this timeless story doesn't necessarily ever come to fruition?  What the actual hell?  This would be like at the end of Sleeping Beauty if the Prince kissed her and then the movie ended with "We don't know whether she actually woke up or not, but the point is, she really wanted to."  Evidently no one involved in making this film is familiar with the phrase "If it ain't broke...."   

As for the casting, Benjamin Evan Ainsworth is fine as the titular character, JGL is fine as Jiminy, Cynthia Erivo is fine as the Blue Fairy (who for some reason only gets one scene in this version), Keegan is alright as Honest John but not scummy enough.  Everyone else is just sorta there.  Worse, Tom Hanks is woefully miscast as Geppetto, playing the role with a sense of tight-lipped melancholy that drags the whole film down whenever he's onscreen, and evidently Mr. Hanks couldn't be bothered to even attempt a convincing Italian accent.  I'm legitimately not sure what inflection he's going for, but this Geppetto sure ain't from around these Italian parts.

To be fair, Disney was always going to have an uphill battle with me on this remake - the 1940 Pinocchio is my favorite animated film ever made - but a) as a lifelong Pinocchio fan I was legitimately interested to see what they did with it and b) they've had success in the past with some of these remakes.  Jon Favreau's 2016 The Jungle Book is a pretty excellent reimagining, far superior in my opinion to the 1967 original.  The 2017 Beauty and the Beast, while certainly no substitute for the 1991 version, is at least a competent retelling with a charming lead performance by Emma Watson.  Pinocchio however fails to improve on the original on any level, admittedly a tall ask, but it's not even close.  The 1940 version is superior to this one in every single way; even Figaro and Cleo don't get the delightful character moments their hand-drawn predecessors did.  

The fact of the matter is there hasn't been a legitimate reason to remake most of these animated films into live-action versions, particularly since most of them feature precious little live-action.  I know Disney's main justification for this overhaul has been simply to make more money, but artistically most of these films haven't added anything to their classic counterparts.  In fifty years will anyone be talking about Pinocchio 2022?  Not bloody likely.

The good news is Guillermo Del Toro's stop-motion version is coming soon, plus if you're looking for an actual live-action version based more strictly on Carlo Collodi's book, check out the 2019 Matteo Garrone-helmed version starring Roberto Begnini as Geppetto (not to be confused with Begnini's own 2002 version, which is said to be pure drivel).

I give the film *1/2


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