The first question I ask myself is whether I am interested in my own thoughts about a review subject. Passing that test, a film will get a write-up. If I’m curious, someone else should be. Failing that, I’m not sure what we’re doing here, dear reader, except turning the tires until we both care to think about something together. If thinking about film becomes uninteresting, then the writing becomes uninteresting. It falls into the same subset of thoughts I have about most television. It exists and I watch it. I do not need to write about most of it because I’m not interested in telling you what I think about the second season of anything, just like I’m not that interested in telling you what I think about a Disney “live-action” remake of a beloved property from a formerly prestige director that has none of the sauce of their early works.
Let’s take off our cynicism caps. Why remake Pinocchio? After some 14 years of trying to make it happen, Guillermo del Toro gets to release his dark fable approach to Pinocchio with a blank check from Netflix. Why not then, in the name of corporate IP management, strike first with a quick and dirty reminder that this is a foundational work for your company, the second animated work it ever produced? Why not drive eyeballs to that wonderful old property, this reviewer’s favorite animation of all time? Because this reviewer and anyone who thinks as I do will just have to see about it. What have they done to my boy?
It goes how you would expect and almost feels like nothing is happening at all. Feels like someone retelling your favorite movie but it’s not your favorite movie anymore. It’s not all misses, certainly. Tom Hanks is OK as Geppetto, why wouldn’t he be? Bob Zemeckis can handle basic CG movies well because that’s all that interests him. I like Joseph Gordon-Levitt and his Jiminy Cricket is a fun role. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth has a good enough voice for Pinocchio. These movies are made to check boxes in this way. You can account for all the things that make Pinocchio a movie that could be remade. Disney has done the basic legwork of creating a film. They have employed CG animating workhorses who really carry the lion’s share of the burden and have their work slaughtered in online criticism.
The film is dark like all of these are presumably to make that animation work easier. Largely it’s shot for shot, song for song, with some asides which basically stretch out a taut perfectly determined movie length into one that’s just a bit too long. There are not quite profound additions. Maybe some sensitivity cleanup with puppets and some of the pseudo-sexual woodiness of the original. The puppetry always looks false, because it always looks made of computer composite, even though the Pinocchio model actually looks distinct and newly designed for ways that make sense in his world. Because it’s washed of color, it’s less a visual treat than the animation, and gives little reason to prefer it, or why it should capture a child’s imagination.
It’s hard to forget when watching the film that it’s based on the property that cemented animation as an equally valid artform next to live-action feature films. It’s hard to forget that Pinnochio is Disney’s most important picture, one that took two years to make and launched as a failure amidst World War II, but then grew in stature until it became the most significant animated film they ever produced. There is surely a right way and a wrong way to make these, but that does not leave the viewer thinking only of the original film. 2016’s The Jungle Book even has some sense of imagination. When you remake Pete’s Dragon as David Lowrey did in 2017, you’re in the money for what these can actually become: impressionistic reimaginations of what the original stories were like. Nobody else has to agree, but the politically fraught Mulan of 2020 is what I want: a very basic genre film wrapped around a story that needed a little more. Instead, this one falls closest in line with 2019’s Dumbo, as Tim Burton and Bob Zemeckis continue to work towards the same ends of making bland CG movies where they used to make interesting ones.
Bob Zemeckis’ Pinocchio is, ironically, lifeless. It fails at the one thing the original was so beautiful at: creating a sense of childlike wonder and awe out of animated wooden parts, making us believe a puppet could be a real boy in that movie world. It does not effectively do that, so it fails at the mission of the text. Worse, it does not interest us in our thoughts. We cannot engage with anything in the movie. It just reshuffles a deck of cards we’ve already played and lays them out the same way again. “Why did you do that?” is the right question but the answer is unsatisfying. Disney had to be first, before the new Netflix film and even the atrocious-looking Lionsgate cash-in that’s also coming. If the film does give us interesting thoughts, it does re-engross us in the original property. It reminds us of all the ways it has always been better for us. It’s a rough start for this cycle of films and allows a lot of space for Netflix to make a better argument for itself, yet it does one important thing it had to do: points us back to the original work and reminds us of the movie that made Disney.