We’ve gotten an inexplicable surge of Pinocchio adaptations in the past couple of years. Roberto Benigni recently starred in his second version, this time playing Geppetto. Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson have a stop-motion version coming out later this year. And let’s not forget the cinematic masterpiece, Pinocchio: A True Story, starring acting heavyweights Pauly Shore and Jon Heder. Disney’s live-action Pinocchio remake not only has to compete with those films, but also the 1940 animated classic, which will always be the gold standard. Over 30 years after featuring the puppet in Roger Rabbit, Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio is awkward, unnecessary, and wooden compared to the original. It’s also disappointing, as there are instances where we see the potential for a worthy successor.
The film has two genuinely good performances working to its advantage. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an unrecognizable voiceover performance as Jiminy Cricket. He captures the character’s spirit without simply doing a Cliff Edwards impression. While his more realistic redesign might prove divisive, it still encompasses much of the charm that Ward Kimball brought to the character. The real surprise is Tom Hanks as Geppetto. Yeah, his mustache and wig are Spirit of Halloween quality. Yeah, his Italian accent is about as consistent as his Goldmember impression in Elvis. Yet, Hanks gives a sincere performance as a man who’s lost his family, channeling his grief into carving a wooden puppet. Hanks’ first scene hit me in ways I honestly didn’t anticipate.
If this film was told from Geppetto’s perspective, maybe this could’ve been a new classic. It wouldn’t be Disney’s first Geppetto picture either. Anyone remember the Drew Carrey TV movie from the 2000s? Unfortunately, Zemeckis’ film is about Pinocchio and it brings virtually nothing new to the titular character. Even his design is an almost exact copy of his animated counterpart. It’s mildly amusing seeing this design in a live-action/CG environment. If you’re not even going to change the main character’s design, though, why are you doing a remake? So you can have Keegan-Michael Key’s Honest John spout modern references that already feel dated!
While Benjamin Evan Ainsworth gives a likable voiceover performance, Pinocchio is a bit too likable here. In the animated film, Pinocchio was good-hearted, but he could be easily tempted, rebellious, and selfish like any kid. Here, Pinocchio is mostly a victim of peer pressure, rarely making a conscious decision to be bad. This makes for a less complex character, conforming to the notion that all Disney protagonists need to be perfect. Although Pinocchio himself is watered down, at least Zemeckis doesn’t shy away from the story’s darker elements, including what happens at Pleasure Island. Granted, the beer is substituted for root beer (which is said several times to appease angry parents). Zemeckis sure makes it look like alcohol, though!
Like most Disney remakes, Pinocchio is too comfortable repeating its predecessor. Occasionally, we get a nice addition. Kyanne Lamaya is a delight as a former ballerina turned puppeteer who aids Pinocchio, but she’s underutilized. The same goes for Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy, who’s downgraded to a glorified cameo. The only significant addition comes towards the end, which leaves us on a more ambiguous note than anticipated. In a film that took more chances, this would be welcome – even inspired. In a film that’s otherwise by the numbers, it feels rushed and as lifeless as… well, a puppet. This version may have more live-action, but the animated film is Disney’s real boy.