Disney’s live-action adaptations of the studio’s classic, animated features have generally been hit-or-miss affairs. While some have managed to breathe new life into familiar stories, others have fallen flat, delivering cold cash grabs that never quite channel the magic of the films that inspired them.
Arriving on the Disney+ streaming service on September 8, the live-action Pinocchio falls into the latter category, and it really is a shame, because the Robert Zemeckis-directed film has plenty of potential to go along with its impressive cast.
Directed and co-written by Zemeckis with Chris Weitz (About A Boy), Pinocchio re-imagines Disney’s 1940 animated feature about a wooden puppet brought to life by a fairy, and who becomes caught up in various adventures while attempting to become a “real boy.” (The original, animated film was based on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 story The Adventures of Pinocchio.) It’s a story about learning right from wrong, the nature of family, and what it means to be human, among other lessons, that culminates with Pinocchio realizing his self-worth and the value of Geppetto’s unconditional love for his adopted son, regardless of whether he’s made of painted wood or flesh and bone.
The film casts Tom Hanks as Geppetto, the kind, lonely woodcarver whose wish is granted when Pinocchio comes to life. The Haunting of Bly Manor actor Benjamin Evan Ainsworth provides the voice of Pinocchio, while Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices Jiminy Cricket, the anthropomorphic insect who serves as the puppet’s conscience.
For the most part, the 2022 version of Pinocchio is a faithful translation of Disney’s 1940 film — perhaps too faithful.
With the exception of a fine performance from the ever-reliable Hanks, Pinocchio does little to differentiate itself from the film that inspired it. It dutifully copies the narrative path laid out by its predecessor, mimicking all the same emotional and tonal points of the 1940 feature, and rarely diverges into any territory that feels fresh or innovative. The live-action element of this Pinocchio is essentially a photo filter applied to the original film, and once the luster of seeing the puppet come to life with modern visual effects wears off, the film never manages to make much of a case for itself alongside the animated feature.
That desire to replicate the original film even extends to the music in Pinocchio, which attempts to channel the wonder and magic of the 1940 classic. That’s no small feat, given that the original film’s music won a pair of Academy Awards, making it the first animated feature to do so in any major category. The new film is ambitious, but never gets close to the same high mark, even with a fine rendition of When You Wish Upon A Star by Grammy and Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo, who portrays the Blue Fairy. The music of the modern Pinocchio feels more obligatory than sincere, in keeping with the adaptation’s by-the-numbers translation.
Fortunately, there are some bright spots in Pinocchio. Along with Erivo’s performance of the film’s iconic song, Hanks provides much of the film’s humanity and heart in his portrayal of Geppetto. Sweet, sentimental, and amusing, he’s easily the film’s standout character.
The CG in Pinocchio is also impressive, with the titular puppet and many of the characters he meets along the way — including a grifter fox voiced by Keegan-Michael Key — look believable even when acting alongside live-action characters. By nature, Pinocchio has a limited range of motion and expression, but the CG used for the character wrings as much emotion as possible out of the story’s stiff marionette.
As a re-imagined classic, Pinocchio falls short of investing enough imagination into its version of the source material to make it feel special. And rather than offering something new in its exploration of the story’s themes, this Pinocchio is content just to rewrite the lessons of an 80-year-old film in a new font. In the end, anyone familiar with the 1940 film will likely find themselves wondering why the live-action movie is necessary, while audiences coming into the tale of Pinocchio new will hopefully discover they’re better off watching the original film if they want to understand why Pinocchio’s story is held in such high regard.
Disney’s live-action Pinocchio will premiere September 8 on the Disney+ streaming service.
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