This article contains spoilers for Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.
Guillermo del Toro still vividly recalls the first time he saw Walt Disney’s classic animated film, Pinocchio, as a child. That 1940 Disney movie, only the second feature-length effort from the company, is likely darker than most adults remember. And on more than a few occasions it even reaches toward the nightmarish imagery of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio. But del Toro remembers it all.
“I was very young and all of a sudden I saw Disney’s Pinocchio,” del Toro tells Den of Geek. “I thought this movie understands how scary childhood is for me. Somebody got it.”
Somebody did, but perhaps even then del Toro sensed he had a different temperament from the values implied by Pinocchio, both as suggested by Disney and by Collodi’s literary source material. In those versions, Pinocchio is a wooden marionette granted life by a benevolent fairy. He also is urged to obey his conscience as personified by both a cricket and his father Geppetto, all in the effort to eventually prove himself worthy enough to become “real.” And in the end, he is rewarded for conforming to the image his father Geppetto forces on him by being transformed into a child made of flesh and blood.
Conversely, del Toro admits that he celebrates “disobedience as a virtue, and I celebrate not being changed to be loved.” He essentially saw a different moral to Pinocchio, and after many years of struggling to get it made, he’s realized it this month on Netflix in all its stop-motion glory.
For those who’ve already watched Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio on the streaming service, the ending came as something of a surprise… and a breath of fresh air. Throughout the new movie, the character with a debilitating flaw is not the wooden boy who has a penchant for embellishment; rather it’s his greatly wounded and suffering father Geppetto. Del Toro’s Geppetto is not simply a sweet toymaker, but a long aggrieved father who carved Pinocchio out of wood on a night of drunken madness. His son Carlo had been dead for many years by this point, yet Geppetto couldn’t stop visiting the grave, or eventually desecrating the tree by it in order to create a ghastly wooden reflection of the boy who’s gone away.
When the carving does come to life as Pinocchio, Geppetto cannot help but imagine he sees Carlo, the boy who was lost, in his wooden visage, which leads to Geppetto’s constantly comparing Pinocchio to “a real boy.” Thus the catharsis at the end is Geppetto’s accepting Pinocchio as he is, just as Pinocchio must accept his father’s own mortality.
When we catch up with del Toro about a week after Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio premiered on Netflix, the gregarious Mexican filmmaker seems genuinely pleased to have reached a massive global audience on Netflix with his first stop-motion film. He also is open about how early in the process he came to realize that he did not want Pinocchio to be transformed into a flesh and blood boy, telling us it went back to when he first started looking at artist Gris Grimly’s 2002 design book that was inspired by the story of Pinocchio.
“I always wanted to make it about disobedience and not changing in a way,” del Toro says of the early development process of his film. “I knew I wanted him to stand his own ground. I didn’t know how the ending would play out but I was looking at a drawing Gris Grimly did of Pinocchio standing in front of a mirror, and in the mirror you saw Carlo, and on the other side of the mirror you saw Pinocchio. I felt that was really interesting, and [I realized] he shouldn’t change physically.”
Del Toro later adds, “The movie is not about Pinocchio learning to be a real boy, but Geppetto learning to be a real father.”
Indeed, and part of being a real father, or any parent for that matter, is about preparing a child for the finality of life. That dawning awareness of mortality is likewise felt in Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, which takes its story years past Geppetto and Pinocchio’s reconciliation, and all the way to Pinocchio being the one standing by a grave where he buried Geppetto.
According to del Toro, tying the ephemeral nature of life to this story is a reflection on his own current ruminations.
“At age 58, there is to me a very beautiful consideration of the metronome of life, being on the last third of the symphony,” del Toro says. “We are approaching the last part of life, or the later part of life, and there is something very beautiful and serene about saying what happens, happens, and then we’re done. It is only the time we have here that is precious. After that, we matter very little, universally.”
The perspective obviously challenges audiences who think they know the story of Pinocchio, as well as creates a more nuanced morality tale for the parents watching the movie than might be expected. But as del Toro reminds us, his version was never intended to be a “children’s movie.”
“I was very upfront and very direct in saying to anyone who would listen to the pitch that this is not a movie for kids,” del Toro explains. “This is a movie that kids can watch if the parents are willing to have a dialogue with them. But it was not necessarily created as a ‘babysitting movie,’ that you just plop the child in front of, and that’s it.”
In fact, del Toro very much sees the movie as being a piece with several other significant achievements in his career: The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). The director even goes so far as to tell us that each movie is part of a larger story that is being told through “interconnected films.”
It’s hard to miss the similarities, particularly with Pan. That 2006 film was set during the Spanish Civil War, with one little girl’s Gothic fairytale childhood being crushed beneath the boot of a rising fascist state. Conversely, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio relocates Collodi’s 19th century fairy tale to Italy during the 1930s and the rise of Benito Mussolini.
We pointed out those similarities to del Toro, asking why he comes back time and again to the contrast of childhood innocence and the brutal desolation of fascism. Intriguingly, the director teases it comes as much from the common childhood experience of being raised by adults as it does any specific historical reflection.
“It is to me more about the way we raise kids in a totalitarian manner, whether it’s in the intimacy of homes or in the structure of society,” says del Toro. “We have the perspective wrong. We tend to think we’re there to show kids how it’s done, and I think kids exist to show us what we [have lost] and what we could protect. It’s just flipping that perspective that I’m interested in. The strength of the girl in Pan’s Labyrinth, much like the strength of Pinocchio, is that she is tested over and over again on her resolve against things that are very daunting, and her spirit survives intact.”
The director admits these ironies of life have not been lost on him in his own experiences.
“It is very intimately related to what I learned from being a child of my father, and what I unwittingly repeated in becoming a father,” del Toro says with a rising chuckle. “I tried to avoid all his mistakes and in doing so ended up making every one of them!”
Still, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, as with Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone before it, asks parents to see the difference between top-down authoritarian parenting that resembles Il Duce and the kind that let’s a child be who they really are—even if that’s a wooden boy who will always defy the strings you attach to him.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is streaming on Netflix now.