The tale of Pinocchio is an odd one where some animals are as big as men and talk, but others do not. And little puppets walk about and nobody bats an eye. But it’s a very popular tale. Many versions of this story, based on Carlo Collodi’s original text, have been told on the big screen, but none are as popular as Walt Disney’s 1940 animated masterpiece. It still holds up with a 100% Rotten Tomatoes score. Now the company that Disney once led, is trying to outdo itself, or at least present a live action remake worthy of the original. Like all of the other live action remakes, no one was asking for a redo. Some (like Cinderella) have fared better than others (Dumbo). Unfortunately, Pinocchio falls into the latter category. I suspect that Disney was already aware of this when they made the decision to release it straight to Disney+ instead of theaters, which was the original plan.
The live action Pinocchio has been in the works at the studio for years, switching out directors and whatnot. In the end, it was Robert Zemeckis (A Christmas Carol, The Polar Express) who served as director working from a script by Chris Weitz (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) and starring Tom Hanks as the woodcarver, Geppetto. On paper, this doesn’t sound like a bad mix at all.
Staying true to Disney’s original, Pinocchio begins in Geppetto’s workshop. Jiminy Cricket is dressed like a hobo looking for a warm place to stay and he comments on the old cheerful man at his workbench. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes a fine Jiminy Cricket which at times sounds very much like Cliff Edwards) The movie hints that he is heartbroken after losing his wife and son many years ago. He creates a puppet in his son’s likeness. Hanks sings (talks?) about it in a new song, “When He Was Here with Me.”
The story drags way too long before Geppetto gets around to wishing upon a star. Time is taken up focusing on the many cuckoo clocks that he has made. Some feature Disney cartoon characters from other films, and the gimmick is very clever, but it takes you out of the story. Finally, the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) arrives and she is a good choice for the role. And kudos to the studio for smartly choosing to have her sing the classic, “When You Wish upon a Star” instead of Levitt. But her screen time is way too brief only appearing once in the film.
Some will say that the reason to watch the new Pinocchio, is to see Tom Hanks, but I disagree. Hanks makes a suitable Geppetto despite the fact that his Italian accent comes and goes. The best reason to watch the movie is for the scenes that involve Keegan-Michael Key’s voice performance as Honest John. His character is a large fox who sings, “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee” with such flourish, I could listen to it over and over again. (And I have as I can’t get the song out of my head.) It is ironic that the best scenes in a live-action film features three characters animated with CGI.
Disney does a fine job of bringing the character of Pinocchio to life sans strings and all. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth provides a good voice for the character even though his tone gets a little too high-pitched at times and sounds screechy. Unlike Collodi’s character, which is more like a mischievous imp, this Pinocchio is innocent and naive. Even more so than Disney’s original film. But the new movie makes some questionable choices for the puppet this time around. In one scene, Pinocchio discovers a mound of horse manure and is fascinated by it. Why is this in this movie? What purpose does it serve? Is that funny?
The scenes that take place at Treasure Island are over-the-top in such about every way possible. Whereas in the original, Treasure Island is tucked away and hidden, this one is larger-than life with bright lights and loud music. (If this is every parents’ nightmare, why hasn’t this place been shut down?) Luke Evans plays the Coachman and ringleader of the baddies who encourage children to make jackasses out of themselves so that they can be sold off to work in the salt mines. He has a small army of smoke monsters that capture and lock up the donkeys. He also sings a forgettable tune. In the original film, Pinocchio is peered pressured to smoke cigars and drink beer. In the new film, root beer is chugged and there isn’t a single cigar to be found. But there is a clock-bashing station for some reason. The scene might be scary to little ones, but like most of the movie, pales in comparison.
Luke Evans as the Coachman and Jiminy Cricket voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (Walt Disney Pictures/Disney+)
This film also introduces a couple of new characters to the story including Sofia the seagull (Lorraine Bracco) and Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), a kind puppeteer working for Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston). Her role is well intentioned as her character longs to be a ballerina but knows that will never happen as one of her legs in held with a wooden brace. Still she sings a pleasant song, “I Will Always Dance” which is the best of the new songs in the movie.
Finally, the movie ends with a terrible ordeal with Monstro, but in this case, he is sea monster, not a giant whale. And the movie ends with a twist on the original ending. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but it also doesn’t have the emotional punch of the original either.
All in all, new Pinocchio will appeal to little ones, but will make their parents cringe. It is a morality tale that is constantly telling you that it is a morality tale with no subtlety at all. Ironically, when Pinocchio lies and his nose grows, it only serves as a way for his to escape Stromboli. He isn’t repented for lying at all. The movie is at its best when it follows the original script. It falters just about every time it goes off script. It’s not offensive, but it is just a mediocre take on a much better film. At least it’s better than Disney’s 2000 made-for-TV musical Geppetto that starred Drew Carey.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.