How Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio Managed To Outdo Disney

This article contains spoilers for "Pinocchio"

Recently, two Pinocchio movies from rival streaming services received two very different distinctions from award organizations based in L.A. "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," co-directed by Mark Gustafson and available on Netflix, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Disney's live-action "Pinocchio," directed by Robert Zemeckis and available on Disney+, won the Razzie Award for Worst Remake, Ripoff or Sequel.

The Battle of the Two Pinocchios was fought, and voters decided (within two days of each other, even) that del Toro did a better job of rediscovering the wooden boy's soul. You can't really argue with that, yet he and Zemeckis were both indebted to Walt Disney's original 1940 animated version of "Pinocchio" (also on Disney+), not to mention Carlo Collodi's foundational children's novel, "The Adventures of Pinocchio," first published in book form 140 years ago.

In "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," the puppet is immortal, capable of reanimating after death. He's come back to life just as many times on film, but the respawn that marched in after "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" — just before the U.S. entered World War II — is the oldest known version that remains fully intact. In USA Today, del Toro recalled his mother taking him to see a theatrical rerelease of Disney's animated "Pinocchio" when he was young. "It was the first movie where I felt that somebody captured how scary childhood felt," he said.

The movie made a deep impression on del Toro, but he's his own filmmaker, and by personalizing "Pinocchio" with a fresh artistic vision, he managed to outflank the Disney machine and its latest in-house remake, starring Tom Hanks. The first step toward that, which Disney missed, was simply recognizing that the puppet didn't need to change his external appearance to be a real boy.

Inner beauty vs. outer beauty

In some ways, it's unfair to compare "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" with Disney's live-action "Pinocchio," since they're likely to appeal to different audiences. The dueling Pinocchio movies of 2022 both show us things we haven't seen before; del Toro's just does a better job of finding new life in an old premise. It ends with the line, "What happens, happens, and then we are gone," which reflects on the transient nature of human life. Yet Pinocchio never becomes human on the outside; he's still the same wooden marionette, carved from the memory of his maker's dead son.

Disney's live-action "Pinocchio" never fails to remind us of the phonetic origin of the puppet's name: "Pine-occhio," as in pinewood. It offers up the sturdy sentiment, "It's not about what you're made of on the outside. Being real is in your heart. That's what being real is all about." Yet this is the same studio that made the hollow, live-action "Beauty and the Beast," which co-starred Luke Evans as Gaston. Evans reappears here as another Disney villain, the mustache-twirling Coachman, and it serves as a subtle reminder of how "Beauty and the Beast" positioned outer beauty as the final reward by transforming its monster, the Beast, into a handsome prince. Imagine if del Toro had ended "The Shape of Water" like that.

Robert Zemeckis is discreet about how he handles Pinocchio's CG transformation, but it's still there if you look. As his Pinocchio walks into the light, we see the puppet's legs morph into those of "a real, honest-to-goodness boy." The idea that only now is he real somewhat undermines the message that Jiminy Cricket, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, puts forth when he says, "In his heart, Pinocchio is as real as any real boy could ever be."

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio: Art over death

Forget live-action, with its pretensions of photorealism. "Pinocchio" excels most in hand-drawn and stop-motion animation, where it lands with the life-and-death weight of "The Adventures of Mark Twain." The multiplane camera, still a relatively new invention at the time, added three-dimensional backgrounds to Disney's 1940 version, but in "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," there's even more texture.

Having David Bradley, who played vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian on "The Strain," voice Geppetto is inspired casting. Del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Patrick McHale, squeezes more emotion out of the opening minutes of his film than the live-action "Pinocchio" does in all two hours. It tugs at the heartstrings right away as Geppetto cleans his son Carlo's grave, and we flash back to a happier time when the boy was on his swing set: looking up at the sky as the planes flew in, blissfully unaware of the danger they posed.

Like "The Devil's Backbone" and "Pan's Labryinth" (which form a trilogy with it), "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" is a war-adjacent dark fantasy film. This is a movie that drops bombs on a church with a kid inside. Beforehand, the local villagers describe Geppetto, who's carving a crucifix for the church, as a "model Italian citizen" and "good father." Yet the world soon moves on without him and leaves him drowning his sorrows in wine, shouting to the heavens as his prayers go unanswered.

Darker doesn't necessarily equal better, but what it does signify here is an attempt to start a conversation and do something fundamentally different. When Pinocchio first reanimates, the men standing over him pronounce, "He is immortal!" and, "Long live the arts!" The message is clear: the marionette is a work of art, which offers a way to cheat death, legacy-wise.

Pinocchio 2022: 'Little wooden goldmine'

Superficially, Robert Zemeckis doesn't alter Pinocchio's external appearance that much. The new "live-action" — really, computer-generated — Pinocchio isn't so much a carbon copy as he is a 3D printing of the original. Reviews call the puppet "dead-eyed" (our own diagnoses it as "lacking life"), but the voice of child actor Benjamin Evan Ainsworth gives him life enough to dance some familiar steps until he lands on his nose, lancing it through a knothole all over again.

If you examine the rest of the movie around him, it soon becomes clear this Pinocchio is a mere figurehead with eyes that aren't so much dead as they are reflective of dollar signs and Disney+ Day (the movie's streaming release date in 2022). It's commercial art, which is still art — and undoubtedly, every film is a commercial endeavor — but all the best subtext derives from how it comments on itself as such.

Witness how the evil puppet master, Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), calls Pinocchio his "little wooden goldmine." This is a line from 1940, but it takes on a new crass context when you hear it in the 19th live-action Disney remake.

With its unnecessary new songs and characters (sorry, Sabina the ballerina), the live-action "Pinocchio" is doing the opposite of what "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" is. It's giving Walt Disney's "Pinocchio" a cosmetic makeover in a rehash that lacks the spark of the original.

Focusing more on the spirit within, both thematically and on the adaptation level, is what sets del Toro's version apart. This raises the question of what the true spirit of Pinocchio is, and that's in the eye of the beholder. But in his review of "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," film critic Mark Kermode recalled del Toro saying over breakfast that his is a movie "about death."

Hail, Franken-Pinocchio

In "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," the director's affinity for monsters is on full display in the way Pinocchio, voiced by Gregory Mann, comes to life. It's a scene worthy of a Frankenstein movie, with lightning crackling over a "house of horrors," as Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) describes it.

Geppetto gives life to a wooden model of the son he lost, and the creation initially scares its creator. Yet we soon learn that Pinocchio has an angelic singing voice. Though he's still quite innocent and learning as he goes, he's also multi-dimensional, with a rebellious streak and a readiness to give backtalk. This goes along with the theme of questioning authority (more on that later).

For his part, Sebastian is a less gee-whiz, more anatomically correct cricket with six legs (and a bushy blue mustache, but who's going to quibble over that). This iteration of the cricket is a well-spoken raconteur who is writing his memoirs in a tree when a drunken, grieving man cuts it down for raw puppet materials. It makes sense that he would go on living inside Pinocchio and eventually narrating his story from the great beyond.

Contrast this with Disney's live-action "Pinocchio," which immediately calls attention to its artifice as Jiminy Cricket's once-earnest voiceover gives way to self-aware narration, the kind that interacts with its own onscreen counterpart. The animated wall of cuckoo clocks becomes a gallery of in-your-face Disney Easter eggs in live-action, as the surrounding movie fills with po-mo jokes about Chris Pine, influencers, and blended families.

Both versions of "Pinocchio" feature new songs that can't outdo classic Disney tunes, but the new ones in del Toro's film come closest, particularly the light and airy "Ciao Papa," for which he co-wrote the lyrics with Roeban Katz. (Alexandre Desplat composed the music.)

Walking the walk

In "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," the more times you resurrect or remake art, the shorter its life expectancy gets. That's a lesson Disney should take to heart. "Pinocchio" remains a quintessential animated film, and you can't just throw in a fake cat and a goldfish with sexy eyelashes, do a modern reenactment, and expect to recapture lightning in a bottle.

Every line spoken to dehumanize Pinocchio or reinforce his counterfeit nature as "a toy who thinks he's a boy" could be applied right back to the live-action "Pinocchio" in its relation to "real" art. There's even a blue sky beam in the movie, which viewers and even flicks like "Suicide Squad" have been joking about for years as the hallmark of a naff blockbuster.

"When He Was Here With Me," which supplants "Little Wooden Head" in Geppetto's workshop, barely qualifies as a song, as it mostly consists of Tom Hanks muttering to himself in a rhyming, spoken-word fashion. While it's true that Italian opera has a tradition of recitatives, this case feels more like what's happened in other live-action Disney remakes, where they're shy about some of the old songs and can't decide whether they want to be a musical or not.

Geppetto works next to a framed photo of his son, mumbling about how he sees him in his dreams but "happily ever after was never meant to be." If this is meant to build backstory, it fizzles in comparison to "Guillermo de Toro's Pinocchio," where the loss of Carlo (Gregory Mann in a dual role) means more because we can see it. The flashback prologue allows it to resonate deeper.

The live-action "Pinocchio" talks the talk, but when it comes to the walking part, it gets lost following in the footsteps of its trailblazing predecessor.

Pinocchio 1940: 'When you wish'

In Disney's animated "Pinocchio," there's no mention of Geppetto's dead son — which is understandable, this being a kid-friendly '40s film. The flip side is that Geppetto, voiced by Christian Rub, sleeps with a gun under his pillow and isn't afraid to wave it around his workshop at night. Soon, his blunderbuss gives way to all sorts of scary images, like the big pink face of the leering Coachman (Charles Judels). If you're the frisky type of Guillermo del Toro fan, you could probably trace a line from Monstro the Whale to the Kaiju of "Pacific Rim."

Yet this is the "Pinocchio" people know and love. No other adaptation lives as large in the collective imagination. It's the movie that gave the Walt Disney Company its theme song, "When You Wish Upon a Star." That's a tough act to follow.

In the absence of any tragic backstory for Geppetto, Pinocchio '40 becomes both an emblem for a dream come true and the student in a straightforward morality tale, couched in subtle religious coding, about not living every day like it's a holiday. When Geppetto first wishes for Pinocchio (Dickie Jones) to become a real boy, Jiminy Cricket (Cliff Edwards) remarks, "A very lovely thought, but not at all practical." Then, by the grace of the Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable), the impossible is made possible.

As The Telegraph notes, "Jiminy Cricket" was a common minced oath for "Jesus Christ!" in the 1930s. The Dwarfs in "Snow White" even said it. (Another variation is "Jiminy Christmas!") According to the Oxford English Dictionary (via D23), the euphemism dates back to 1848. The Telegraph indicates that Walt Disney heard one of his animators exclaim it, and this gave him "his own 'Come to Jesus' moment" for the creation of Pinocchio's conscience.

Religious symbolism in Disney's Pinocchio

Carlo Collodi's "The Adventures of Pinocchio" does have a Talking Cricket, who admonishes the puppet for his bad behavior, but Pinocchio kills him with a hammer after one chapter. The Talking Cricket then returns as a ghost, but he's never named. The religious symbolism in Disney's animated "Pinocchio," meanwhile, goes beyond the familiar initials Jiminy Cricket bears.

When Jesus Christ Jiminy Cricket is explaining to Pinocchio what a conscience is, he calls it "that still small voice that people won't listen to." As notes, "still small voice" is a phrase of biblical origin. It comes from 1 Kings 19:12. There's also much talk of temptation, with Jiminy warning against a world "full of temptations," after the Blue Fairy appoints him Pinocchio's "counselor in moments of temptation and guide along the straight and narrow."

Per Grammarist, the idiom "the straight and narrow" originates from Matthew 7:13-14. Small wonder, then, that when Honest John tempts Pinocchio down "the easy road to success," away from the straight and narrow, he passes off an apple he's munching in a scene right out of the Garden of Eden.

The actor's life, it turns out, is a life of servitude, at the end of which Pinocchio can expect to become firewood for Stromboli (Charles Judels again). It and Pleasure Island, where Pinocchio later throws a brick through a church-like stained glass window, put him in bondage to vice. On stage, he dances freely and sings, "I've Got No Strings," but afterwards, Stromboli throws him in a cage and bellows, "This will be your home!"

The idea of a puppet created without strings could also be seen as a metaphor for humans with free will. At the end, Pinocchio gets swallowed by a whale like the wayward biblical prophet Jonah.

The puppetry of institutional forces

Thirty years ago, del Toro began his filmography with "Cronos," a vampire movie that, as we said last year, "reimagines forever as a gold invention." "Invention" is the key word there, as it applies to the concept of eternity. For del Toro, a lapsed Catholic who self-identified as an atheist while promoting "Cronos," the "Pinocchio" story shows a different set of concerns, fixed on earth more than heaven.

While discussing "The Shape of Water" in 2017, del Toro told NPR, "I don't believe in life after death." There's probably no love lost between him and the church, as he shows small-minded religious folk persecuting Pinocchio as a "diablo" and abomination, despite (as Pinocchio points out) their own propensity for venerating a wooden crucifix. Cross-reference Michael Shannon's villain in "The Shape of Water," with all his talk of Samson and the Lord.

In "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio," the church is but one manipulative institution that threatens the freethinker. There's also the military, school, and showbiz. Del Toro's Pinocchio is actually more excited about going to church than a real kid ever would be, whereas the military forces school on him and he'd rather skip it so he can become famous.

Instead of the Spanish Civil War, the movie plays out against the backdrop of Italy during World War II. On stage, Pinocchio performs fascist salutes and propaganda shows for Benito Mussolini himself (voiced by SpongeBob Squarepants himself, Tom Kenny). Gone are the jackass perils of Pleasure Island; instead, what's to be feared is boys training to become soldiers in gas masks.

Today, they shoot paint guns and lob confetti grenades; tomorrow, they'll take orders to shoot people. As a spiritual sequel to "Pan's Labyrinth," however, "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" shows a gentler outlook in its ending than that movie did.

Puppets with different perspectives

"Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" and Disney's original "Pinocchio" movie are two sides of the same animated coin. For del Toro's Pinocchio, the danger is not disobedience but rather blind obedience to authority. This gives the film a strong counterpoint, as if we're hearing the opposing side of the argument Walt Disney made over eight decades later.

Leaving aside live-action, the real question, at the end of all our comparative Pinocchio studies, is: which is the better story in animation? In "Life of Pi," that same question (minus the animation part) held a deeper meaning. It probed the very nature of the viewer's belief system. Perhaps the same is true of Disney and del Toro's animated "Pinocchio" films.

Disney tells the viewer, "Anything your heart desires will come to you." It awakens one's inner child, taking us back to when we were kids learning the difference between right and wrong. At the same time, it shows how it's necessary for one to have agency and take the initiative to meet goals. To save Geppetto, Pinocchio '40 proactively goes looking for Monstro underwater.

Del Toro's Pinocchio sacrifices himself at the end, too, but after he reanimates again, we see his loved ones die so that he's left to walk the earth alone. Even seagulls, like the one voiced by Lorraine Bracco in Disney's live-action "Pinocchio," fare poorly in del Toro's version, as one lands on a naval mine, blowing itself to smithereens.

Disney's "Pinocchio" contains a more comforting message, though parts of it may be corny by today's standards. Make a wish upon a star, and it will come true. No ask is too big, but "always let your conscience be your guide." That works for some people, but the truth is often sadder, even within Disney history.

The pain of Pleasure Island

Sadly, reading up on Jiminy Cricket's original voice, Cliff Edwards, it almost sounds like he and Buster Keaton had their own troubled Pleasure Island going in Hollywood back in the 1930s. Too much of the good life landed Edwards in a convalescent hospital, where he reportedly died broke while the Walt Disney Company supported him.

That's what's happening outside the margins of the Happiest Place on Earth. It's like "The Florida Project": a harsh reality behind the bright lie. Observe how, when the live-action Pinocchio gets to Pleasure Island with its free-flowing root beer, the place is lit up gold. It looks like a Disney theme park at night.

Disney World once had a real nightclub district called Pleasure Island, and you have to wonder if the company's executives don't view guests and moviegoers the way the Coachman views the kids he corrals. It may not have a CG candy mountain you can sled down, but when you see Disney World serving foot-long hot dogs topped with bacon and macaroni and cheese, for instance, the place looks just as decadent.

It's unsurprising that del Toro would jettison the gambling, spitting, drinking, and cigar-smoking of the animated Pleasure Island, since it amounts to Walt Disney saying in a literalistic fashion, "Boys who behave like jackasses will become jackasses before they're sold into the salt mines." By recontextualizing "Pinocchio" as a story about human mortality, del Toro's version of the tale rings more bittersweet, but if you stay through the closing credits, there is hope for an afterlife—for talking crickets and other enchanted creatures, at least. Even as Geppetto goes the way of all flesh, Pinocchio lives on as a walking work of art and a tribute to Geppetto's life. Some dark fairytales still have happy endings.