Guillermo del Toro always knew he wanted to make Pinocchio as a stop-motion animated film. The medium suited the story of a puppet brought to life, and it would fulfill his dream of making an animated feature, thwarted 30 years ago by a break-in and a vandal who literally shat on his dreams. His version of Pinocchio would allow him to explore what he saw as the “sacred” bond between puppet 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 naughty puppet who learns obedience and selflessness. In fact, he wanted to subvert it, and stop-motion would help him do that. Del Toro found a poetic irony in telling Pinocchio’s tale this way, he recently told Polygon.
“Very poignantly, it becomes a movie about a puppet in a world of people that don’t know they’re puppets,” he says. “But they are puppets. Everybody is a puppet in there. And the one that behaves less like a puppet is the one everybody thinks is a puppet! I thought there was something delicious in that.”
That irony is at the heart of del Toro’s distinctive Netflix take on the tale, which redefines both the setting and the morality of Collodi’s Pinocchio. He relocates the action to Mussolini’s Italy, and re-creates Pinocchio himself as an anarchic force who liberates the humans he meets, rather than learning to conform with them. It has much in common with del Toro’s Spanish-set horror movies The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, both of which present a child’s-eye view of midcentury fascism.
“The three of them are about innocence and war, and dictatorships, fading or active, and how it trickles down into everyday life, or family, or a town, or a little church, or a little life,” del Toro says. “I think one of the themes that links Pan’s Labyrinth to Pinocchio directly is disobedience as a virtue — which is a real countermovement to the traditional story of Pinocchio, which is, ‘If you obey, you’ll become a real kid.’ In this, it’s ‘If you disobey, you will always have been real to yourself,’ you know?”
Asked why he keeps coming back to this era and this setting, del Toro reaches for a feeling he experienced in childhood: a fear and mistrust of the world that was no less deep for being inexplicable in the context of his comfortable life. “It was not normal, the amount of fear that I had as a kid, when I was in a time of peace, in a middle-class family. But I did feel it,” he says emphatically.
“On the one hand, you’re handed the world of childhood, which is permeated by fairies and wishes and magical worlds. And on the other hand, you are interacting with a world of brutality and inhumanity, and you see it. I mean, it’s impossible for a kid not to see it. And everybody’s telling you things that you see them constantly not believing, or breaking the rules that they tell you you should obey. This paradox is essential in how disorienting and scary childhood was for me.”
Del Toro’s take on Pinocchio is just as concerned with what it means to be a parent as a child. It spends “a disproportionate amount of time” with Geppetto, Pinocchio’s creator, who in this version makes the puppet in a drunken bout of grief and rage over the death of his son, Carlo. The scene of Pinocchio’s creation is shot in a sinister, frightening way, like a Frankenstein movie. Del Toro is known for his fascination with monsters: Is his Pinocchio a monster, too?
“Yes, in a way he is. Certainly in this movie,” del Toro says. “I mean, a monster for me is the anomaly that tests the world. […] This man has asked, almost like in a horror tale: ‘I want my child back.’ And the child comes back in a way that he doesn’t recognize, and has a slight unholy, almost elemental energy due to the resurrection. And I think it is very important that Geppetto prays for a miracle, and when the miracle occurs, he’s unhappy. You know, because he does get what he wants.
“Geppetto, who’s 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.”
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is streaming on Netflix now.