Of all the pop culture trends to emerge in 2022, one of the most unexpected was the sudden influx of Pinocchio adaptations. In all, three films based on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fairy tale were released last year, and together they might as well be known as the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The flat-out bad version of Pinocchio was Disney’s live-action remake of the studio’s acclaimed 1940 animated film; if it weren’t for Elvis, this would’ve been Tom Hanks’s weirdest performance in years. But even one of the worst Pinocchio adaptations of all time is practically Citizen Kane in contrast to the ugly, Russian-made Pinocchio: A True Story, which features the vocal talents of [checks notes] 55-year-old Pauly Shore as the titular puppet. (It must be seen to be believed.)
With the other Pinocchio movies best appreciated as meme fodder, Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro is responsible for the only good 2022 adaptation by default. At the same time, comparing Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio—the full title of the Netflix film—to the projects from Disney and Mother Russia would be like lining up Kevin Durant next to a couple of YMCA hoopers and expecting an even fight. Worthier peers can instead be found in the Oscars’ Best Animated Feature category, which, in addition to del Toro’s Pinocchio, includes Marcel the Shell With Shoes On, Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, The Sea Beast, and Turning Red.
One could make a compelling argument for any of the nominees taking home an Oscar, be it another heartwarming Pixar joint or A24 getting into the animation game. But even in a loaded category, del Toro’s Pinocchio is a genuine triumph that belongs in a class of its own: a fresh take on a familiar tale courtesy of the filmmaker’s gothic sensibilities, coupled with a gorgeous, painstaking, and underutilized animation technique that takes literal years to execute. Along the way, del Toro has been fighting against the misconception that animation is somehow a lesser medium, or by extension, an artform that appeals only to children—a dismissive sentiment echoed by none other than Disney’s former CEO, Bob Chapek. The strongest endorsement for Pinocchio is that it’s not just a deserving Best Animated Feature winner: you can hold the movie up against any live-action Oscar nominee and find just as much life teeming through its stop-motion world—wooden boy and all.
Set in fascist Italy during the rise of Benito Mussolini, Pinocchio begins with the kindly woodcarver Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) mourning the loss of his son Carlo (Gregory Mann) after he’s killed in an aerial bombing of their small town. (Admittedly, not the most uplifting start to a film one can watch with the whole family.) Years after Carlo’s death, Geppetto carves a boy figurine out of pine in the midst of a drunken stupor—the puppet is then brought to life by the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton), a magical fairy who takes pity on the grieving man.
From there, Pinocchio (also voiced by Mann) attempts to conform to society at the behest of a trio of father figures: the skeptical Geppetto, the conniving ringmaster Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), and the town’s resident Podestà (Ron Perlman). Each character has their own perspective on Pinocchio: Geppetto initially focuses on all the ways the puppet isn’t like his flesh-and-blood son; Volpe sees him as the perfect main attraction for his floundering circus; the Podestà realizes Pinocchio would make the perfect soldier after discovering he can come back to life. (As Pinocchio learns over the course of the film, immortality is both a blessing and a curse when loved ones don’t share the same gift.)
Given the fascist backdrop, the moral of del Toro’s Pinocchio isn’t hard to miss: blind obedience and assimilation is a slippery slope, especially when it comes at the expense of what makes each of us special in our own ways. But while it’s never a bad time to remind audiences about the dangers of fascism—to wit: Italy’s newest prime minister is from a far-right political party with fascist roots—it’s far from the only admirable quality of del Toro’s movie. On a much lighter note, it’s nothing short of iconic that Cate Blanchett voices Volpe’s right-hand monkey Spazzatura, a role that mostly requires the Oscar-winning actress to grunt and howl. (Blanchett has called Spazzatura, which translates to “garbage,” her “spirit animal.”)
Lydia Tár making monkey noises notwithstanding, perhaps the greatest strength of this Pinocchio adaptation is the use of stop-motion: an ideal (albeit laborious) format to convey the magic of bringing a puppet to life while also bridging the gap between Pinocchio and the other characters’ human-like qualities. Essentially, stop-motion levels the playing field when everyone in the movie looks a little uncanny—as a result, Pinocchio isn’t really an outlier, even if some of the characters treat him that way. It all weaves nicely into del Toro’s subversion of the Pinocchio fable: Instead of Pinocchio trying to become a “real boy,” Geppetto must learn to accept the puppet for who he already is.
Seeing as Pinocchio is del Toro’s first animated film, codirector and stop-motion veteran Mark Gustafson deserves plenty of plaudits for his role in the project. (Gustafson’s previous credits include Fantastic Mr. Fox, where he served as the animation director.) But what really separates this version of Pinocchio from all the big-screen adaptations that have come before it are the typical hallmarks of a del Toro project: misunderstood creatures, the atrocities of war viewed from the perspective of children, the presence of Ron Perlman, and ethereal character designs. (The Wood Sprite and its counterpart in the afterlife, also voiced by Swinton, wouldn’t feel out of place in the mythical underworld of Pan’s Labyrinth.) If previous del Toro films create the impression that they’re fairy tales aimed at adults (The Shape of Water, Crimson Peak), then Pinocchio is the director’s way of giving an actual fairy tale his own imprint—one which underlines that fundamental goodness shines brightest in the face of darkness.
If Pinocchio wins Best Animated Feature, it would be only the second stop-motion movie to achieve this milestone after Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, back in 2006. The fact that it’s taken nearly two decades for another stop-motion film to emerge as a potential winner is certainly down to Pixar, in particular, dominating the category for years with computer animation. Pinocchio may not herald a new era of stop-motion becoming a trendy filmmaking technique, especially when it’s such an arduous process to begin with, but what del Toro has accomplished is a testament to animation as a medium that excels in many forms. Much like its eponymous puppet, we should celebrate Pinocchio exactly the way it is, and there’s no better way to do that than by giving it the Oscar win it so richly deserves.