“Live-action remake” feels like an increasingly inaccurate term to describe Disney’s updated versions of animated classics. Certainly some of these films contain casts of real, live performers, like Aladdin or Mulan. But many of them feature little to no discernible human presence. In the tradition of The Jungle Book and The Lion King’s “live-action remakes” comes the new Pinocchio from director Robert Zemeckis, which stars a flesh-and-blood Tom Hanks as Geppetto, surrounded by a menagerie of CGI creatures: Fake cats, fake fish, fake crickets, fake donkeys, fake whales — not to mention a lot of fake-looking green-screen environments for them to shuffle through. One watches in desperate hope that Pinocchio’s wish to be a real boy will come true, if only to bring some some recognizable humanity to this collection of barren computer images.
Hanks’ Geppetto lives a humble existence working in his shop full of toys and gadgets. His wall of cuckoo clocks comes straight out of 1940’s Pinocchio, but they — along with his frazzled hair, odd fixation on hanging around young people, and highly eccentric behavior — make him strongly resemble another classic Zemeckis hero, Doctor Emmet Brown from Back to the Future. Rather than invent a time machine, Geppetto carves an adorable marionette of a boy out of pine.
Although the details are left vague, at some point in the past, Geppetto lost his real son, and so he creates Pinocchio in his image. Settling in for bed that night, Geppetto sees a star out his window and wishes for Pinocchio to become a real boy. As he sleeps, the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) arrives to grant his wish, bouncing a beam of cerulean light off the picture of Geppetto’s dead child and onto his new puppet. Great Scott!
From there, you know what happens; the guileless Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) has got no strings to hold him down, and when Geppetto sends him off to school the next morning he’s easily led astray by a variety of sinister adults and anthropomorphic animals. There’s Honest John (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key), who cons little Pinocchio into becoming a part of a traveling performance troupe led by the wicked Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston). When he’s not performing; Stromboli locks Pinocchio up in a birdcage, where he meets one of this film’s new characters, a dancer (Kyanne Lamaya) with an artificial leg who performs in Stromboli’s show puppeteering a ballerina doll named Sabina, who becomes one of the few people (or puppets) that Pinocchio trusts. Later, the Coachman (Luke Evans) brings Pinocchio to Pleasure Island, that infamously hedonistic land where an unsettling fate awaits any jackass kid who thinks they can act like a delinquent without repercussions.
Pinocchio’s protector through all these misadventures is his fairy-appointed conscience, Jiminy Cricket, voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a high-pitched, vaguely Southern accent. Jiminy serves as Pinocchio’s adviser in the ways of the world since, as a former blockhead, good ol’ “Pinoke” is hopelessly naive when it comes to society’s cynical ways. But this version of the title character is so saintly he gets in trouble almost entirely by accident. Even on Pleasure Island, where kids delight in smashing windows and playing pool (but not smoking, a hallmark of the original sequence that’s missing here), Pinocchio remains fastidiously dedicated to angelic behavior. He hardly needs a conscience, although a manager might help protect him from all the sleazy show business types who want to exploit him.
On a technical level, the CGI puppet of Pinocchio looks pretty good. His bright yellow felt hat, complete with blue band and red feather, all look tactile and real, like you could reach out and touch them. And yet when Geppetto tries to do just that, the illusion of this living doll shatters; Hanks and Pinocchio never seem to be sharing the same physical space. (Just look at the way Hanks “holds” Pinocchio with awkward, wide open hands, and you’ll see what I mean.) Robert Zemeckis is the guy who made Who Framed Roger Rabbit, one of the most convincing blends of live-action and animation in history. That came out 35 years ago and was made for a fraction of Pinocchio’s budget. Why do the interactions between human and cartoon look significantly worse here?
With all these artificial characters and environs swirling around Hanks, there could have been an opportunity to turn his living puppet son into a metaphor for cinema in the age of soulless visual effects. But the movie never brings any kind of meta-commentary to the story — or much of any other message or theme either. 2022’s Pinocchio is basically just a dutiful update of the animated Pinocchio with computer effects and the some of the edgier aspects of the original— like the aforementioned cigars on Pleasure Island — removed to make the material more “appropriate” for a modern audience.
In these days where almost every major Hollywood production is designed from the ground up to work as an “event movies,” 2022’s Pinocchio feels like a non-event movie. Through the years, the original Pinocchio’s reputation grew and grew until it’s now largely considered one of the two or three best animated movies that Walt Disney ever produced. Typically, with these sorts of remakes, I go back and watch the original before the remake — or I’ve watched it recently with my kids and it’s fresh in my mind. But the old Pinocchio, with its disturbing visions of kids transformed into donkeys and the massive Monstro the whale, always seemed a little too intense for my children, so I’ve kept them away from it so far.
So all I have to measure Zemeckis’ Pinocchio against are my fuzzy recollections of some of specific sequences; the wonderful songs, Pinocchio lying his way into a gigantic nose. Measured against those memories, the new film falls awfully short. Despite all the fairies and waving of wands, there’s just not much magic here. There’s no chance this version reaches the sort of canonical status that 1940’s Pinocchio holds. It doesn’t even measure up against the rest of the hit-or-miss “live-action” remakes of this current era.
Pinocchio is now streaming on Disney+.
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