Death is a thief, cruel and greedy. Not content with taking who we love, it takes pieces of ourselves in the process: our joys, our hopes, our will. It can leave us as mere husks; a shroud of flesh covering the hollow void inside. The death of a loved one can leave us dead, too.
Not the stuff of your typical children’s story? True. But Pinocchio—in the hands of Guillermo del Toro—is hardly typical.
Death robbed Geppetto of everything when it took his little boy. The woodcarver and son Carlo had been in the local church, with Geppetto putting the finishing touches on his greatest work: the giant crucifix hanging above the altar. But Italy was at war, and even Geppetto’s tiny village was not spared. A stray bomb struck the church, ripping apart its stone and sinews and snuffing out the life of the son.
The father was extinguished for a time, too. Geppetto’s heart kept beating, his lungs kept breathing, but that was all. The woodcarver set aside his tools and picked up a bottle, spending his hours and days by Carlo’s grave.
And then one day, his brain pickled in alcohol and grief, Geppetto lashes out.
“Why won’t you listen to my prayers?” Geppetto shouts to the heavens. “Why?!” And then, in a fury, he takes an axe and hacks down the tree by Carlo’s grave—the tree Geppetto himself planted. “I’ll make Carlo again out of this accursed pine!”
It’s a harrowing evening for one Sebastian J. Cricket, who had just settled down in a hollow in the pine tree to set down his memoirs. In a Frankensteinian frenzy (and much to Sebastian’s alarm), Geppetto builds a boy—chopping, carving, breaking, snapping, filing, sanding—until Carlo’s doppelganger lies on the table. “I will finish you tomorrow,” Geppetto growls, then passes out.
But in the night’s blackness, a creature appears. When Sebastian demands an introduction, she answers, “On earth? I care for the little things. The forgotten things. The lost ones.” And as she prepares a work of unimaginable magic, she asks a favor of the cricket.
“Perhaps you can help me,” she says. “To watch over him. Guide him to be good.”
“I am not a governess, madam!” Sebastian says. “I am a novelist!” But when the being promises a wish in return for a job well done, he agrees. And with a touch, the puppet—Pinocchio—comes to life.
Death takes so much from us. But not everything. Something remains. Out of our misery, a twinkle. Out of our darkness, a spark.
As you can imagine, Geppetto comes to a very literal rude awakening the next morning. He’s terrified of his little creation; and Pinocchio’s, um, enthusiasm for life doesn’t help. He comes into the world without an inkling of how to behave.
But with Sebastian’s help, Pinocchio quickly cobbles together a rudimentary sense of morality and decency. He loves his Papa, and he wants Geppetto to be proud of him. Indeed, much of the trouble he gets into later stems from that desire to help his father.
We see that sense of goodness grow and grow in Pinocchio as he pushes into his adventures. When he works for a duplicitous puppeteer for a time (Count Volpe), he stands up to the abusive boss in defense of his coworker(s). He tries to help a friend of his, a real boy, deal with his real (and very difficult) father. And when he and Geppetto must deal with a very large and very ugly fish, Pinocchio shows he’s willing to make the greatest sacrifice imaginable for his beloved Papa.
Pinocchio’s not the only one to move from a place of selfishness to selflessness. Remember, Geppetto originally carved Pinocchio out of his own grief and need—to fill a hole inside his own heart. Pinocchio, though, isn’t the perfect boy that Geppetto hoped for. And so he must deal with all the exasperations that fathers (and mothers) around the world are familiar with. Still, Geppetto grows to love this odd wooden boy, love him with all his heart. And he, too, is willing to sacrifice a great deal.
And let’s not forget Sebastian J. Cricket. He waltzes into the story consumed with his own story (and writing it down). But when he begins to write again, it’s not “about my own life, for a chance, but about imperfect fathers, and imperfect sons.” He begins to focus on these two people more than his own self-centered plans.
Soon after Pinocchio pops into existence, Geppetto gets back to work on the now-broken crucifix in the half-shattered church. He brings Pinocchio along, and the wooden puppet is fascinated by this wooden depiction of Christ.
“Everybody likes Him,” Pinocchio says, rather wistfully. “They were all singing to Him. He’s made of wood, too. Why do they like him and not me?”
It’s a telling interaction, given that ultimately Pinocchio himself becomes—intentionally, I believe—a Christ-like figure.
A handful of biblical allusions underscore this point. When the puppeteer Count Volpe tries to lure Pinocchio into joining his carnival, Volpe leads the puppet to a balcony to show him the expanse of Italy below. “You shall see all the nations of the earth as they bow at your feet,” Volpe tells him—a clear echo of Satan’s tempting of Jesus in the wilderness. (Pinocchio is eventually lured into the carnival, but by hot chocolate, not power.) Later, Pinocchio loses an arm, just as Geppetto’s crucifix carving of Jesus also lost one in a bombing raid. Pinocchio even finds himself tied to a cross at one point, about to be killed.
But Pinocchio’s Christian elements are also muddied by del Toro’s cynicism and love of pre-Christian fairy tales (Catholic and pagan elements are frequent bedfellows in the agnostic’s work). Remember, Pinocchio’s body was the product of Geppetto cursing God in a drunken rage. And the animating power here is no Disney-like blue fairy, but a wood sprite—a being that coalesces in a gathering of floating eyeballs. It should be noted that this sprite looks an awful lot like the descriptions of seraphim we read about in the Bible—appearing to have four to eight wings, some of which sometimes cover the creature’s feet and sometimes cover its eyes. (The wings themselves, though, are pocked with blinking eyes, again an echo of Scripture.)
We also encounter an afterlife of sorts, headed by the sprite’s “sister” who manifests as a sort of chimera (a monstrous creature from Greek mythology composed of parts from several different animals). She’s helped in her duties by a bevy of black, partly skeletonized bunnies who like playing poker. While most folks end up in this gloomy afterlife, Pinocchio, not being a “real boy,” can’t really die. He visits on occasion but ultimately returns to the mortal world.
Geppetto’s church (obviously Catholic in this Catholic country) has an uneasy relationship with Pinocchio at first. Geppetto tries to lock his new (and extremely headstrong) creation in a closet as he goes to church himself, but Pinocchio breaks free, enters the sanctuary, sees the unfinished crucifix and immediately mimics how it hangs. When the priest and parishioners notice this thing in their midst, the parishioners believe it’s a “demon,” an “abomination” and the product of witchcraft.
“This is a house of God!” the priest thunders from the pulpit. “You carve this unholy thing when our blessed Christ goes unfinished all these years?”
The priest eventually softens toward Pinocchio. “The community was startled,” he sheepishly says. And while the priest seems rather ineffectual throughout the rest of the film, he’s not an antagonist. Indeed, Geppetto never seems to lose his faith. He eventually finishes the crucifix, and the church itself is repaired. And a cross always hangs above Geppetto’s bed.
Early on, we witness Geppetto and his “first” son, Carlo, pray at the dinner table. When Pinocchio first returns from an apparent death, some present call it a “miracle.” One of Count Volpe’s puppets is a devil, which Pinocchio calls Mr. Diablo.
The movie takes place during World War II, and viewers are exposed to a surprising amount of violence here. And while we rarely see anything too graphic, there are exceptions.
The first bombing raid we see is the one that kills Carlo, Geppetto’s son. We’re told that the bombers weren’t even targeting Geppetto’s village: They simply were lightening their payloads on the way back to base. In any case, the bomb hits the church, and the fiery blast knocks Geppetto backward. We know that Carlo died in the explosion, and the church (as well as Geppetto’s crucifix) is severely damaged.
Pinocchio finds himself in a fascist military camp for youth; he and dozens of other boys participate in war games. They shoot each other with paint guns. But when Pinocchio and another boy from an opposing team capture a tower together—declaring the game a “tie”—the commandant hands the boy a real gun to shoot Pinocchio. This difficult confrontation is interrupted by a real bombing raid. The camp is bombed, and some people die.
Mussolini, leader of fascist Italy, tells his soldiers to shoot and burn. Count Volpe, to curry favor with Mussolini, creates a patriotic puppet show number featuring tanks and guns. Mines float in the ocean and sometimes explode, killing creatures. Count Volpe is abusive to some of his workers. He also beats a monkey in his charge severely.
A man falls to his death from a cliff, crunching on the rocks below. A gigantic fish swallows critters whole. Pinocchio “dies” several times: He’s hit by a truck, for instance, and perishes during a blast. Someone drowns. As a spiteful joke, the son of the fascist overseer of Geppetto’s town encourages Pinocchio to warm his feet in the fire. Pinocchio does, and his feet burn right off. (When Geppetto douses Pinocchio in water, he says, “You ruined the nice light on my feet.”)
Both Pinocchio and Geppetto are subjected to moments of slapstick humor (with Geppetto, for instance, sliding down a stepladder and hitting his chin on every step). But the most abused character is unquestionably Sebastian, who is smashed and squished and knocked around with some regularity. (“Life is such hideous pain,” he laments at one point.)
We hear one exclamation of “oh my God.” An aggravated undead bunny says “frigging.” Some names are called.
As mentioned, Geppetto carves Pinocchio while drunk. We see the bottle that he’s consuming nearly empty by the time the puppet is almost completed. The next morning, he reaches for the bottle again, only to find that it’s broken.
A sea captain stamps out a cigarette butt with his peg leg.
Pinocchio starts off as a headstrong and disobedient little boy, ignoring both Geppetto and Sebastian. When Sebastian tells Pinocchio that he needs to obey his Papa, Pinocchio shouts, “But I don’t want to obey!” then promptly smashes Sebastian behind a door. (Pinocchio later says that he will obey if he gets hot chocolate, and it’s only later that the puppet understand why he should obey.)
Obviously, any story with Pinocchio in it will involve some lying and, of course, a growing nose. It’s a good learning moment for Pinocchio at one juncture. But later in the story, Pinocchio lies in order to rescue his loved ones. “Just this once, lie, my boy!” Geppetto encourages. And while certainly the lies seem justified in this one particular case, some parents might nevertheless insist that lying should never be condoned—even to escape the stomach of a giant fish.
Pinocchio concocts a plan with a coworker to embarrass Count Volpe in front of Mussolini. That plan involves a feces marionette and plenty of musical references to flatulence and defecation. When Pinocchio first comes alive, he discovers a chamber pot and wears it on his head.
Count Volpe cheats Pinocchio in two ways: getting him to sign an unfair contract and then by failing to give Pinocchio his share of the profits.
Pinocchio, the little wooden boy, temporarily loses his legs in this Netflix movie. But Pinocchio, the story itself, has some. (Legs, that is.)
The story was first authored in 1883 by Carlo Collodi, and it’s been made and remade dozens of times since. The year 2022 gave us two versions of the story—the first rolling out on Disney+ late that summer, followed by this Netflix version.
It’s perhaps no surprise that both Disney+ and Netflix iterations of this story share many of the same themes. Pinocchio was a product of grief in both stories—a substitute son for the one Geppetto had lost. Pinocchio feels the weight of expectations in both. And in both new tellings of this story, Geppetto comes to realize that he loves Pinocchio deeply—flaws and all.
But in the Disney+ version, those messages felt both hollow and shallow—a 21st-century statement on uncritical acceptance and self-love. We’re all just fine, just the way we are.
But that’s not true. And this Pinocchio knows it.
Here, in Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro’s hands, Pinocchio returns to that same adventure of self-discovery that we all go on—and perhaps, go on ’til the end of our days. The wooden boy learns that what he wants isn’t nearly as important as what other people need. That giving is truly more blessed than getting. That life sometimes involves hard choices. But Pinocchio also learns they are choices we gladly make for the ones we love.
When the wood sprite revisits Geppetto at the end of the movie, she tells him that she only wanted to give the woodcarver joy.
“You did bring me joy,” Geppetto says. “Such terrible, terrible joy.” What parent can’t relate to that?
Which brings up an important point. Despite its kid-friendly hero and PG rating, Pinocchio isn’t truly for kids.
Oh, children can enjoy this bit of movie magic, and perhaps even learn some things, too. Pinocchio hurts like a child does when he feels as though he’s a burden. Pinocchio strives like a child does to make his father happy. But parents are people, too—filled with sadnesses and insecurities and blind spots. They can hurt their children in ways they never realize ’til years later. This film encourages children to show their parents a measure of grace, just as it encourages parents to show that same grace.
Given all of that, the content here is rougher than in your typical PG movie, and the themes deeper and more difficult. The spiritual elements are worth consideration and discussion, and the movie’s violence and bathroom humor should not be taken lightly.
But overall, Pinocchio works, and works well. Del Toro, master of the R-rated macabre, crafts a first-rate fairy tale.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.