Real Boy: A Peek at Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

If only Pinocchio could see the wood for the trees.
If only Pinocchio could see the wood for the trees.

Kambole Campbell enjoys the jovial expletives, shambling strangeness and really quiet moments of Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio preview at Annecy.

Annecy, France. At one point in a delightfully curse-laden speech about his love of animation, Guillermo del Toro finds a nice point of synchronicity between what he’s long admired about animation from the outside, and the story of Pinocchio: “To animate is to give a soul to something that’s not alive.”

Out of the entirety of Netflix’s Animation Showcase at Annecy this year, it’s clear that Pinocchio was the most anticipated, the director walking out to a standing ovation and continuing to elicit loud cheers throughout his discussion of what drew him to the medium. It came at the tail end of the presentation, following new footage from Henry Selick’s Wendell & Wild, Kid Cudi’s Spider-Verse-adjacent series Entergalactic, and Nimona, an adaptation of ND Stevenson’s graphic novel that nearly perished along with the recently shuttered Blue Sky Studios (RIP).

Pinocchio, with Guillermo del Toro for scale. — Photographer…​Netflix
Pinocchio, with Guillermo del Toro for scale. Photographer…​Netflix

The fairy tale of the little wooden boy built by the carpenter Gepetto (in this film voiced by English character staple David Bradley) is familiar, but it is renewed through del Toro’s lens, full of the rich textures and macabre little touches that have become the hallmark of his fantastical filmography.

To an immediately enlivened crowd, del Toro notes stop-motion as a medium that’s constantly “on the ring of extinction”, before referring to it as perhaps one of the earliest forms of cinematic expression, reminiscing of a time in his family home, with a box of chicken in hand, that he watched the film that taught him what animation is—the 1933 King Kong, its stop-motion sequences supervised by the pioneering Willis O’Brien.

Del Toro told the audience—one full of animation students as well as press—that everyone projects something onto animation, and of course that was true for him as well in the process of making Pinocchio. His desire was “to push the acting up… to animate silence and unnecessary gestures”, relishing in slowing things down rather than solely focusing on key poses for the sake of efficiency (in his terms, that’s just reducing animated acting to “emoji bullshit”). So, for Pinocchio, he asked that anything animated in one gesture be elongated to four, for moments of quiet to be languished in, for the film to soak in the joy of its own creation.

Sebastian J. Cricket soaks in the joy of Pinocchio’s creation. 
Sebastian J. Cricket soaks in the joy of Pinocchio’s creation. 

Co-directed by Mark Gustafson and Del Toro from a screenplay by the latter as well as Over The Garden Wall’s Patrick McHale, artist and storyteller Gris Grimly and Hollywood stalwart Matthew Robbins, this Pinocchio looks both more whimsical and spookier than previous interpretations of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of the wooden marionette and his grieving woodcarver creator. The lead stop-motion animator is Anthony Elworthy, a favored animator of Wes Anderson, Henry Selick, Claude Barras and Tim Burton, as well as animation director of the Kiri and Lou series (now on Nick Jr. in the US).

The first clip shown at the event was one del Toro thought would play better to a crowd of animation enthusiasts, i.e. “a really quiet moment”. It takes its time observing a hung-over Gepetto, who only stumbles to life after trying and failing to take another swig of booze from a bottle that is broken in half from its base. Walking through a set full of warm lighting and rich wooden textures, he goes back to his workbench, before exploring a disturbance in the attic—and soon, the hand-carved wooden boy shows himself.

In a highlight of del Toro’s embrace of the story’s ties to that of Frankenstein and his monster, Gepetto immediately reacts in horror at the sight of the formerly lifeless puppet unnaturally contorting itself into shape before his eyes. In an even better touch, the first we see—at least at this presentation—of his cricket buddy Sebastian J. Cricket (an analogue for Disney’s Jiminy bug, here a bit creepier and voiced by Ewan McGregor) is when he crawls out of a hole in Pinocchio’s body, as the wooden boy creakily emerges from a dark corner.

Now that you’ve had a nosey at Pinocchio, add it to your watchlist.
Now that you’ve had a nosey at Pinocchio, add it to your watchlist.

The shambling strangeness of the puppet feels almost in line with the work of Selick (who opened the showcase with a sweet video message about his upcoming stop-motion feature Wendell & Wild). But it’s in service of what’s quite a personal take on the character for del Toro, which he attributes to how he felt about his own father—noting in a cheeky aside, “I’m sure my dad wouldn’t like that, but that’s how it felt” —⁠before adding that the story is about “the value of disobedience”, something that is sure to be extrapolated from the father-son relationship to the story’s fascist backdrop.

The story of “imperfect fathers and imperfect sons”, as described by Sebastian, has been a journey of fifteen years to production hell and back. So del Toro’s keenness to show off an unfinished trailer, incomplete compositing and all, was more than understandable.

Pinocchio signs an NDA not to reveal anything further until the film releases in December.
Pinocchio signs an NDA not to reveal anything further until the film releases in December.

A quick behind-the-scenes clip revealed several of the sets and the scale of the puppets, and elaborated on the film’s ties with gothic horror as well as classic fantasy, and the crew’s prioritization of “a sense of age”, shooting things to feel real and with what del Toro calls “an old-world beauty”.

Throughout it all, del Toro’s passion for animation is clear as day, from his jovial expletives when talking about this being “not just a fucking genre”, to the way his new film delights and luxuriates in giving life to a spooky wooden puppet.

Pinocchio’ is scheduled to arrive on Netflix in December 2022.

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