Arts and Entertainment

Fascism, Fantasy, and a Puppet on a String: Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio places Walt Disney’s classic Pinocchio in fascist Italy, exploring the conflict between Pinocchio’s innocence and the horrors of World War I.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Stacey Chen

Adapting a beloved children’s story with an updated focus on World War I and fascist Italy is a risky endeavor, but the gamble pays off with Guillermo del Toro at the helm. Del Toro is a Mexican filmmaker known for incorporating political and religious themes in his fantasy and horror films. He began his career as a makeup artist but began to direct his own films after 10 years of designing special effects makeup. He drew upon his training to infuse his films with a signature aesthetic, often featuring clockwork imagery and depictions of the underworld. His genre-spanning filmography is thematically united, with many of his films exploring fascism through horror tropes and grotesque imagery. These themes recur throughout Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, his latest animated film.

In the film, Geppetto, an Italian woodcarver, carves Pinocchio, a magical wooden child, to replace his late son, Carlo, who died in an Austro-Hungarian airstrike. The immortal boy becomes the town’s outcast and is pressured to join the circus by the mysterious Count Volpe, whose fight with Geppetto leads to Pinocchio’s accidental death. Pinocchio embarks on an ominous journey, traveling in and out of the underworld, fighting in the Italian military at the request of a Podesta (head of the fascist municipal government), and getting swallowed by a whale with his father, for whom Pinocchio sacrifices his life.

The film’s gloomy tone is set by the opening shot, which depicts Geppetto brushing snow off Carlo’s grave as the narrator mentions World War I. This dark tone is enhanced in a flashback to when Carlo rushes back to his father to point out the warplanes flying overhead, disrupting their otherwise peaceful mountain view. After the villagers first encounter Pinocchio, the Podesta visits Gepetto to inform him that Pinocchio must attend school to become more like his late son, a model fascist youth. This scene introduces one of the central themes of the film—the contrast between Pinocchio’s unquenchable curiosity and others’ restrictive aspirations for him. All Pinocchio wants to do is sing and dance, but his father wants him to be well-behaved and respectful like Carlo, whom Gepetto holds in the highest regard. Gepetto is not the only adult who wishes for Pinocchio to act differently—Count Volpe wants him to be a circus star and the Podesta wants him to be a fearless soldier.

Del Toro uses the unique aesthetic of stop-motion animation to convey these darker themes while maintaining Pinocchio’s joyful innocence. The film was made using puppets that were animated through a combination of live action and stop-motion animation. This gives the human characters an unsettling gait and a nefarious air. The humans in the film have crooked noses, hunched bodies, and discolored faces. On the other hand, the Pinocchio puppet ironically moves without the rigidity of the other characters. Pinocchio, voiced by Gregory Mann, has a bright, clear voice, while many of the humans have husky, intimidating voices. The contrast between Pinocchio and the rest of the cast highlights the conflict between Pinocchio’s playful personality and the responsibilities adults project onto him.

The songs Pinocchio sings throughout the film reinforce these themes. When Pinocchio decides to leave Gepetto to work in the circus, he sings a song called “Ciao Papa.” It begins with Pinocchio singing in a soft, melancholic voice, but as he continues to sing, he becomes increasingly upbeat. This moment encapsulates the difference between Pinocchio’s joyous heart and the worldly struggles with which he is forced to grapple. Though he is momentarily saddened, he quickly looks on the bright side and does all he can to find hope. This attitude wins out in all of Pinocchio’s songs; whether he is praising the Italian fascists or insulting Benito Mussolini to his face, he cannot help but sing in a cheery tone.

Most adaptations of La Storia di un Burattino/The Story of a Marionette focus on Pinocchio’s moral journey, criticizing children’s delinquent tendencies. In contrast, del Toro’s Pinocchio focuses on the adults’ issues and highlights Pinocchio’s boyish charm. This difference gives the film a unique tone, reflected through its horror-inspired visuals and pacing, which amplify the thematic solemnity. Unfortunately, this uniqueness is not reflected in the plot, which includes every element of the classic Pinocchio tale, causing the film to feel long-winded at times. Adapting original plotlines to better suit his darker version of Pinocchio gives del Toro room to focus on character development. However, his borrowing from the classic tale undermines the solemnity he is striving to convey through the movie’s visuals and storytelling. Though hampered by the whimsical adventures of the original story, del Toro’s Pinocchio adapts the themes of the original Pinocchio to convey the difficulties of coming of age amidst the horrors of fascism and commercial greed.