Guillermo del Toro always knew he wanted to make something Pinocchio like a stop-motion animation. The medium suited the story of a doll brought to life, and it would fulfill his dream of making an animated film, thwarted 30 years ago by a burglary and a vandal who literally farted on his dreams. His version of Pinocchio would allow him to explore what he saw as the “sacred” bond between pop and animator through the arcane practical techniques of stop-motion.
But he also knew he wanted to make profound changes to the source material, Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century children’s book about a mischievous puppet who teaches obedience and selflessness. He even wanted to subvert it, and stop-motion would help him do that. Del Toro found a poetic irony in telling Pinocchio’s story this way, he recently told Polygon.
“Very poignant, it’s going to be a movie about a puppet in a world of people who don’t know they’re puppets,” he says. “But she to be dolls. Everyone is a puppet there. And the one who acts less like a puppet is the one everyone thinks is a puppet! I thought there was something delicious in there.”
That irony is at the heart of Del Toro’s signature Netflix version of the story, which redefines both the setting and morality of Collodi’s. Pinocchio. He moves the action to Mussolini’s Italy and recreates Pinocchio himself as an anarchist force who liberates the people he encounters, rather than learning to conform to them. It has a lot in common with del Toro’s Spanish horror films The backbone of the devil and Pan’s labyrinthboth of which offer a child’s perspective on mid-century fascism.
“The three are about innocence and war, and dictatorships, fading or active, and how it seeps into everyday life, or family, or a town, or a little church, or a little life,” says del Toro. “I think one of the themes connects that Pan’s labyrinth until Pinocchio disobedience is an instant virtue – which is a real counter-movement to the traditional Pinocchio story, namely, “If you obey, you become a real child.” In this it’s “If you disobey, you’ll always have been true to yourself,” you know?
When asked why he keeps returning to this era and setting, del Toro reaches for a feeling he experienced in childhood: a fear and mistrust of the world that was no less profound for being inexplicable in the context of his comfortable life. “It was not normal, the amount of anxiety I had as a child, when I was in a time of peace, in a middle-class family. But I felt it,” he says emphatically.
“On the one hand, you are presented with the world of childhood, permeated with fairies and wishes and magical worlds. And on the other hand, you are dealing with a world of cruelty and inhumanity, and you to see the. I mean, it’s impossible for a child not to see it. And everyone tells you things you see they constantly disbelieve, or break the rules they tell you to obey. This paradox is essential to how disorienting and scary childhood was for me.”
Del Toro’s look up Pinocchio is just as concerned about what it means to be a parent as a child. It spends “a disproportionate amount of time” with Geppetto, the creator of Pinocchio, who in this version renders the puppet in a drunken fit of grief and anger over the death of his son, Carlo. The scene of Pinocchio’s creation is filmed in a sinister, terrifying way, like a Frankenstein movie. Del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters: is his Pinocchio also a monster?
“Yes, in a way he is. Especially in this movie,” says del Toro. “I mean, a monster to me is the anomaly that tests the world. […] This man has asked, almost like in a horror story, “I want my child back.” And the child comes back in a way it doesn’t recognize, and has a slightly unholy, almost elemental energy as a result of the resurrection. And I think it’s very important that Geppetto prays for a miracle, and when the miracle happens, he is unhappy. You know, because he is doing get what he wants.
Geppetto, who is obsessed with perfection […] learns that imperfection, and things as they are, is the only wisdom you can have in this world; not to seek perfection, but to seek imperfection as a virtue.”
Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro now streaming on Netflix.