Plot: Academy Award® winner Robert Zemeckis directs this live-action and CGI retelling of the beloved tale of a wooden puppet who embarks on a thrilling adventure to become a real boy. Tom Hanks stars as Geppetto, the woodcarver who builds and treats Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) as if he were his real son.
Review: Disney’s remakes of their classic animated masterpieces come in two distinct flavors: reinventions that play with the conventions of the original story in a new way like Maleficent and Alice in Wonderland or they are almost beat-for-beat reenactments of the original with photo-realistic animation or live actors like in The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. Occasionally, these new films are refreshingly unlike the films that inspired them, like Cruella or even Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, while still maintaining the heart and soul that earned the originals the title of “masterpiece”. The latest Disney remake is Pinocchio and comes with the marquee talent of star Tom Hanks reuniting with his Forrest Gump and Cast Away director Robert Zemeckis. Unfortunately, this new Pinocchio is a hollow and superficial retelling of the fairy tale of a wooden boy come to life that cannot overcome the limitations of honoring the 1940 original.
Pinocchio is an odd film right from the start. First, we are introduced to Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who follows a similar narration to the animated film and recounts how he came to know Pinocchio. After an awkward interaction between present-day Jiminy and the version in the story, we move to Gepetto’s shop. From the moment we first meet Gepetto (Tom Hanks) as he works in his shop, Robert Zemeckis’ film takes on an air of a cartoon come to life. Hanks wears a wig and mustache that mimics the animated version of Gepetto as he walks around his shop delivering his lines in a barely sing-song inflection that avoids Hanks needing to fully project a singing voice. Hanks also maintains a similar accent to the one he employed in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis which sounds neither Italian nor very convincing. Hanks, always an actor who gives his all, seems to sleepwalk his way through this performance as he needs to interact with the fully animated cat Figaro, goldfish Cleo, and Pinocchio himself.
The opening scenes gave me hope that the movie would capture a different feel from the 1940 version and I appreciated the various Disney easter eggs peppered throughout Gepetto’s shop. Despite Cynthia Erivo’s wonderful performance as the Blue Fairy, once Pinocchio comes to life, the film begins to look and feel very much like a beat-for-beat recreation of the original. There are a few new characters introduced as Pinocchio ventures into the world, but then we meet Honest John and Gideon. While Keegan-Michael Key’s instantly recognizable voice is perfect for the sly anthropomorphic fox, seeing the all-CGI characters on-screen pulls the story from feeling realistic and more along the lines of Zemeckis’ movies The Polar Express and Beowulf. When human actors appear on screen alone, the film feels a bit more fresh but when they share the screen with the computer-generated performers or the animated creations are the only thing we see, Pinocchio loses much of its charm.
There are some highlights in the movie, including Luke Evans as the proprietor of Pleasure Island, which remains a nightmare-fueled sequence in live action as it did in animated form. Giuseppe Battiston steals the film as the malicious puppeteer Stromboli while the iconic Monstro the Whale is even more jaw-dropping in its updated form than it was eighty years ago. But, despite moments here and there, Pinocchio never really feels like a tangible character. Because of how recognizable the character design for the wooden boy has become, Robert Zemeckis did not deviate at all from making him look and move just like he did in the original movie. Everyone else got a slight upgrade in their design but by keeping the unrealistic and cartoon look and feel of the title character, this movie never gets to feel like it exists outside of the shadow of the first version.
I feel bad for Tom Hanks after seeing Pinocchio. Three of the beloved actor’s last five films have premiered on streaming platforms rather than the big screen and both Greyhound and Finch feature far better performances from the reliably great actor. Even Finch, which also had Hanks acting opposite a CGI co-star, felt more genuine and emotionally resonant than this hollow movie. Robert Zemeckis as well is underwhelming here behind the camera in every way. Zemeckis’ 2020 remake of The Witches at least reinvented the Roald Dahl novel enough to feel like a distinct feature from the 1990 Nicolas Roeg version. Pinocchio harkens back to Zemeckis’ last Disney project, 2009’s A Christmas Carol, which also sacrificed the quality of its performances and story for the quality of the technological achievements on screen. The animation in Pinocchio is softer than in Zemeckis’ earlier animated features but it still smacks of artificiality. With a story that relies as heavily on heart and emotion as Pinocchio, the last thing your movie should feel like is wood.
With a screenplay by Chris Weitz (Rogue One, Cinderella) and Zemeckis, Pinocchio looks both well-made and very artificial at the same time. I am not shocked that this movie is premiering on Disney+ rather than in theaters as the story doesn’t have the same scale as some other Disney classics like Aladdin or Mulan that would benefit from the large screen format. While there are a couple of changes to the overall story and some contemporary jokes that had me laugh a bit, a lot of the new Pinocchio just feels underwhelming. When I saw the trailer for Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming take on the Italian fairy tale, that version at least felt like a genuine effort to tell the story in a way that we have not seen before. From the classic “When You Wish Upon a Star” to the character designs, Robert Zemeckis never imbues this film with anything authentic or original.
Pinocchio premieres on September 8th on Disney+.