Arts and Entertainment

“Pinocchio”: A Lifeless Reimagining

Robert Zemeckis’s “Pinocchio” joins Disney’s list of live-action failures.

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Disney has been enchanting children with its fantastical animated films since the early 20th century, but as these young viewers age into adults and the legacies of Disney classics dwindle, Disney has turned to a new tactic to appeal to older audiences: live-action remakes. With the entertainment giant reimagining several animated classics, from “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) to “Aladdin” (2019), it was merely a matter of time before Disney recreated another one of its beloved tales.

The live-action remake of the widely-loved “Pinocchio” was released in September 2022 and directed by the acclaimed Robert Zemeckis, who is known best for directing the classics “Back to the Future” (1985) and “Forrest Gump” (1994). The story of Pinocchio follows a sweet puppet with a nose that grows longer each time he lies, who is determined to shed his wooden body for a living, beating heart.

Narrated by the iconic Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the live-action “Pinocchio” begins in the workshop of an eccentric old carpenter named Gepetto (Tom Hanks). On the night of his late son’s birthday, Gepetto fashions a puppet out of pin oak wood that he names Pinocchio. As he goes to sleep, viewers watch Gepetto make a wish upon a star, though the film never explicitly reveals what he wished for. Gepetto’s wish causes the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) to materialize and grant Pinocchio (Ben Ainsworth) life.

Unfortunately, the naïve Pinocchio gets conned by a fox, ironically named Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), on his first day of school, and is whisked off to be sold to a corrupt puppetmaster named Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston). From this point on, Pinocchio embarks on a journey with the help of Jiminy Cricket, his companion/conscience, exploring the inside of a colossal whale’s stomach, encountering a plethora of sinister characters, and learning the hard way to make the right choice, all in efforts to be a real boy

The live-action Pinocchio’s plot stays mostly true to that of the original movie’s—and that’s exactly the issue. Besides one plot change, nothing significant is added to deepen the audience’s understanding of Pinocchio’s story, begging the question of whether this live action adaptation was even worth making.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the storyline staying more or less the same, the character of Pinocchio himself has been reduced to a shell of his animated counterpart. Furthermore, with the faster pace and intensity of live-action adaptations, “Pinocchio” feels rushed, flinging its protagonist from scene to scene without pausing to allow for adequate self-reflection: one moment, he’s getting conned by Honest John, and the next we see him on Stromboli’s stage doing a snazzy little dance number. The transitions between scenes are generally abrupt and barely allow for any breathing room, thus diluting his character development.

Perhaps to compensate for the lack of soul in the main characters, Zemeckis has made a few new additions to “Pinocchio”’s cast: a disabled puppeteer employed by Stromboli (Kyanne Lamaya) and a talking seagull (Lorraine Bracco). Though they are certainly nice breaks from the live-action’s otherwise complete adherence to the original plot, they only get a few minutes of screentime and don’t do much to further the story. The puppeteer shows a hint of promise when she befriends Pinocchio and swears to help him escape, but she doesn’t quite follow through and acts as an informant to Pinocchio rather than an actual accomplice, therefore confusing viewers with her appearance. From then on, the live-action’s plot strictly mirrors the original’s up until the very end.

At the dramatic conclusion of the original film, Pinocchio sacrifices himself to save his father from drowning. The courageous puppet dies, but is later brought back to life and granted boyhood by the Blue Fairy for his selflessness. However, the live-action remake follows a different ending. In Zemeckis’s version, Gepetto sacrifices himself for Pinocchio instead. Pinocchio revives his father with a magic tear and the movie ends with Pinocchio remaining a puppet. This new finale removes a lot of sentimental value from the original, largely because the audience has spent much more time with Pinocchio. Gepetto’s death, to put it quite frankly, just isn't as heart-wrenching as Pinocchio’s. It also leaves audiences wanting as it fails to express Pinocchio’s growth as a character by letting Gepetto perform the selfless act instead. Pinocchio's resurrecting tear doesn’t prove to viewers that he has learned human behavior like love and morality; instead it conveys the message that Pinocchio gets the easy way out simply for being a magical puppet. The movie consequently concludes with a lack of completion and a forced “happily ever after.”

However, all is not lost, for “Pinocchio”’s largest redeeming quality is Zemeckis’s over-the-top animation. From Pinocchio’s tiny hand-knit gloves to the magnificently unsettling Pleasure Island set design, there is painstaking care put into the tiniest details. Still, the whimsical fluidity in the movement of the characters’ animated counterparts is something that the live-action, for the most part, doesn’t achieve. The original Honest John, for example, was a darkly charismatic character who appeared to ooze rather than walk. The live-action’s Honest John fails to retain the same wonderful slinkiness, opting for a jumpier-moving character who is presented as more goofy than malevolent.

But there is one character whose live-action movements outshine that of the animated film’s, and that character is, thankfully, Pinocchio. Zemeckis’s interpretation of Pinocchio’s gait is simultaneously adorably clumsy and light, and combined with his brightly animated smile, the puppet is a delight to the eyes. His character is further enhanced thanks to Ben Ainsworth’s take on Pinocchio’s innocent, child-like voice. In fact, the entire movie has been blessed with a soaring soundtrack and multiple enchanting singing voices. Cynthia Erivo’s cover of “Wish Upon a Star,” for instance, is definitely one of the few highlights of the film.

But “Pinocchio”’s absence of imagination and whimsy is ultimately what places it in the lower ranks of Disney's ever-growing live-action roster. Live-actions that put an original spin on an old story, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” and live-actions that offer a completely different side to a classic tale, like “Cruella” (2021), stand out as sparkling successes, while Zemeckis’s “Pinocchio” fails to reimagine the original tale and adapt it to the live-action format. While the remarkable animation and talented voice actors are definitely admirable, it’s not enough to make up for the fact that Zemeckis’s “Pinocchio” is, simply put, empty. It brings nothing new to the table and has about as much personality as Pinocchio’s pre-puppet form: a big ol’ slab of wood.

Fans of Pinocchio the puppet boy need not fret yet, though. Another Pinocchio live-action adaptation, directed by Guillermo del Toro, is set to be released in November 2022, and promises a fresh, darker spin on the tale. We can only hope that the upcoming version does the justice to Pinocchio’s story that Zemeckis failed to deliver.