It feels as though the theme of this year’s BFI London Film Festival is coming to terms with the death of a loved one. Maybe with a side order of humanity versus religio-fascism. If you don’t believe me, remember this is the second film I’ve watched in the last twenty- four hours that takes a children’s story and recasts it with added violence in the midst of early twentieth century European fascism. The result is a film that is strangely full of childish enthusiasm and hope but that does not shy away from the reality of mortality, death and war. Del Toro was straightforward about its agenda when he introduced the film at today’s world premiere: it’s a film about disobedience as a virtue. And as Christoph Waltz said, there’s something worthwhile in a film about a wooden puppet who wants to be a boy, at a time when humans are being made into puppets.
The film is depicted with the most beautifully rendered stop-motion animation that has texture and vivid colours and the most wondrous attention to detail. Our narrator is Sebastian J Cricket - never referred to with his pejorative nickname. He’s voiced by Ewan MacGregor as a rather vain but ultimately lovely little insect, and he provides much of the comedy of the film.
We are treated to a prolonged prologue that tells us about the beloved son that Gepetto (David Bradley) lost, and after whom he fashions Pinocchio. One of the themes of the film is that one should never have to change to be loved. The narrative journey of Gepetto is that he has to learn Pinocchio for himself rather than trying to make him a good little Carlo.
The world around our trio is one of Italy falling into fascism under Mussolini. And we have a lot of fun with innocent Pinocchio mocking "Il Dolce" and inspiring others to disobey laws that are unjust. Gregory Mann gives a sensational voice performance as the puppet - full of energy and fun and heart. In one of the most moving scenes of the film, Pinocchio passes on the advice given to him by Sebastian - that fathers may say mean things when they fall into despair, but they don’t mean it. As in all totalitarian societies, there is no room for the personal in this Italy and poor little Candlewick (Finn Wolfhard) struggles to be the son his Fascist father wants him to be.
As with Pixar’s SOUL there’s a fair amount of time spent in the afterlife, or underworld or whatever you’d like to call it. And this is a subtly radical world insofar as it shows that the Catholic Church is quiescent to fascism. The imperative to obey moves easily from Church to State in this film as in UNICORN WARS - also playing in this year's festival. But in Del Toro’s universe it’s the spirits of nature that have real power, and it’s a pagan elemental world that we’re living in. This is depicted in the guise of two feminine powers, both voiced by Tilda Swinto..
So the subject matter is grown-up but as with all the best childrens' films it will appeal to the adults and to the children, who have always been aware of the horrors of this world. As Del Toro said in his introduction, this is fine for children to watch, so long as their parents talk to them about it afterwards.
GIULLERMO DEL TORO'S PINOCCHIO has a running time of 113 minutes. The world premiere is at the BFI London Film Festival 2022. It will be released on December 9th.