“Pinocchio” will never stop becoming a real boy. Nearly 150 years after its initial publication and exactly 70 after the first Disney adaptation, the story continues inspiring new interpretations, from Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming animated version for Netflix to the just-announced Robert Zemeckis live-action take for Disney, which knows a thing or two about the potential for recycling IP.
By the time these updates arrive, however, Matteo Garrone’s “Pinocchio” will have already set a high bar for modern takes. The only new “Pinocchio” movie actually made in Italy, the tale’s country of origin, Garrone’s enthralling version taps into the creepy, kinky nature of the material, resulting in a gothic fantasy that embodies the original’s appeal.
Despite an unruly running time and some rough transitions, the movie loads up on imaginative visuals and surreal flourishes that feel like a natural continuation — and a more complex variation — of the fairy tale playground the filmmaker last unleashed with 2015’s anthology “Tale of Tales.” Garrone takes his cues from Carlo Collodi’s 1883 story collection, while dousing the vignettes in enough kooky practical effects to exploit the nostalgia for 1980s fantasy to its fullest extent. In the process, he exhumes the appeal of the original story all over again.
Already a commercial hit in Italy, Garrone’s “Pinocchio” doesn’t look like any version an American studio might produce today, and instead occupies a peculiar limbo between the sensibility of a children’s movie and a more unsettling adult take. That uncertain blend throws the movie off during its rough first act, when it goes through a familiar set of circumstances but struggles to find a consistent note. Garrone seems obliged to get through the origin story one beat at a time, setting the stage for unleashing the crazy once the pieces are in place.
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You know the drill: Scatterbrained carpenter Mister Geppetto (Roberto Benigni) roams around his rural village looking for work, finding sudden inspiration when he spots a traveling puppet theater passing through town. Garrone sketches out Geppetto much like many of the underclass hustlers who populate the director’s work — including “Gomorrah” and “Dogman” — but this one wears out his welcome pretty fast. Almost 20 years after playing Pinocchio himself in a 2002 adaptation he directed, Benigni looks like a weary old punchline, and threatens to throw the entire story off with his overwrought giddiness. Fortunately, he’s just a supporting character in place for the real story to take over.
Borrowing a log from his pal Cherry (Paolo Graziosi), Geppetto shows little shock at the inexplicable possibility that the wood might have life in its fibers. Moments after carving a bust, Geppetto notices a heartbeat, and keeps chipping away. (This isn’t a movie that demands prolonged mythological explanations for the magic at hand.) Before long, Pinocchio’s gazing back at his creator through curious eyes, all too eager to embrace Geppetto’s paternal instincts. The second the creature chirps an adorable “Babbo!” back at his creator, “Pinocchio” settles into its unnerving blend of spookiness and charm, as young newcomer Federico Ielapi embodies the wooden kid with the wide-eyed curiosity of a bite-sized golem.
Garrone mastered the art of underclass struggles compelled to reckless pursuits years ago, but in this case the protagonist who meets that fate isn’t Geppetto so much as his magical creation. After Pinocchio abandons school to explore the circus, he’s thrust into slavery with his own kind, marking the first of several dark twists in the boy’s winding journey. Pinocchio’s harsh experiences at the hands of unruly circus overseer Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti) don’t quite click, though they hint at many of the more unusual circumstances to come. Following Pinocchio’s abrupt encounter with a stern advisor named the Talking Cricket (Davide Marotta, dressed up like a green alien), the boy drifts off on a series of quests that find him wandering further from home as he gets closer to realizing his true potential.
“Pinocchio” gets better as it gets weirder, and taking cues from its Homeric origins, it gets very weird. The poor creature contends with the scheming Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and Fox (Massimo Ceccherini) in an ill-advised journey to pick gold coins from a tree, then falls into the hands of crude assassins who actually the hang the poor child from the tree and leave him dangling there, in a harrowing twist sure to traumatize a few young minds. He finds some measure of sympathy when he lands in the home of the Fairy with Turquoise Hair (alternately played by Alida Baldari Calabria and Marine Vacth), whose magical benevolence introduces Pinocchio to a whole range of inventive new characters, from rabbits hauling a tiny coffin to coax him into taking his medicine to the Jabba-like Snail (Maria Pia Timo), the Fairy’s doting housekeeper whose slimy path creates a tripping hazard everywhere she goes.
Once the movie enters its loony collage-like trajectory, the hits keep coming. Pinocchio endures a range of imaginative horrors, from that terrifying whale to the eventual donkey transformation that in this version includes a hat-tip to Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar.” Of course, no “Pinocchio” is complete without a few white lies and a growing schnozzle, though this one seems like a pretty blatant metaphor for puberty (if it wasn’t already baked into the material from the start). Garrone’s penchant for juggling eerie soul-searching with ebullient storybook visuals matches Terry Gilliam in his prime, and the whole thing has been laced together by Dario Marianelli’s inspired cosmic score.
Above all, “Pinocchio” imbues its circumstances with a surprising degree of naturalism, thanks to the filmmaker’s careful handling of practical effects that suit the unusual tone. Unlike recent effects travesties of the “Cats” variety, “Pinocchio” understands the inherent disturbing quality of human faces melded to non-human bodies — from gastropods to a very funny tuna fish — and exploits that disconnect at every turn.
This story can only end one way, and when it does, “Pinocchio” tops off the silly-strange rhythm with a poignant finish. By the time it gets there, however, the movie has accrued many layers. Garrone doesn’t dig deep into the material as much as he revels in its surfaces, though the director of zany sociopolitical dramas like “Reality” and “Dogman” can’t help but inject a few contemporary zingers. Sitting in front of an ape judge, Pinocchio proclaims his innocence. “In this country, the innocent go to prison!” he’s told.
Such is the nature of Pinocchio’s plight, and no matter its otherworldly nature, Garrone’s version shows how the premise has grown more relatable with time. Pinocchio’s an innocent creature at the mercy of ever-changing surroundings who learns to take charge, which is enough to make him a walking zeitgeist. More than that, however, he embodies the endless frustrations of a cruel world, as well as the emotional charge that comes from learning to roll with its merciless twists and hope for a happy ending.
“Pinocchio” premiered at the Berlin Film Festival as a special gala. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.