Just because you >can< render an animated classic into a live-action CGI extravaganza doesn’t mean that you should. Case in point, PINOCCHIO. It’s not an awful film but bringing the animated characters into the real world doesn’t add anything to the story of a little wooden puppet who dreams of being a real boy. Rather, it points up what is most charming about animation’s ability to suspend belief. Take Geppetto, the woodcarver who created the puppet from pine, and whose wish brought Pinocchio to life. As a cartoon accompanied by his loyal cat, Figaro, and schlepping his equally faithful goldfish, Cleo, out into a dark and stormy night to search for Pinocchio when he goes missing is poignant and funny with water almost cascading from the bowl, goldfish aloft like a champion surfer. Tom Hanks doing it, no matter how skillful the CGI involved in that sloshing goldfish bowl, isn’t. It’s just odd. Not to detract from Mr. Hanks’ performance as a lonely old man mourning his lost son. He is a virtuoso in playing our heartstrings with his branded tear-and-a-smile courage in the face of catastrophic loss. And that’s a testament to the problem. If Hanks can’t sell it, it probably shouldn’t be on offer.
This is, however, a triumph for the CGI itself. It’s epic. Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) is a near perfect facsimile of his hand-drawn incarnation, complete with gears that creak just a little when he moves. (He would be perfect if they had imagined a better way to depict him with his eyes closed, when nose to hairline goes completely blank.) From Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy warbling “When You Wish Upon A Star” wreathed in sinuously roiling gossamer wings, to smoke monsters with glowing eyes dispatching children-turned-donkeys on Pleasure Island, to the sea monster that swallows our heroes, it is eye-filling as well as eye-popping. Pleasure Island itself is a gaudy light show of immense proportions and imagination. It is also a hotbed of extended violence. Blue Fairy aside, Pinocchio is very dark and very scary. One frets about the effect on the smaller tykes, who are the target for this story, which is sweet when not being terrifying, but not sophisticated or particularly witty. Questioning whether it’s better to be real or famous, or a crack by Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in full cornpone mode) about charcuterie, notwithstanding.
Pinocchio still has to prove his worthiness to the Blue Fairy in order to become a real boy. He still has a penchant for innocently getting into very big trouble. Jiminy Cricket is still his conscience. But there has been a conscious effort to update the story with a few new songs that are catchy, and the cast is refreshingly multicultural, giving Pinocchio being booted out of school on his first day for not being human a resonance of prejudice not necessarily present in the original. The addition of a screechy-voiced seagull character, Sophia (Lorraine Bracco) does no harm. I’m relieved to note that some of the best bits are retained despite the temptations that CGI affords. Pinocchio’s nose still grows the same way when he lies, and a shadow is used to show the final metamorphosis from boy to donkey. That last was Val Lewton before Val Lewton and it’s still got the right eeriness for adults and kids.
PINOCCHIO has great energy surrounding it, and a perfectly wonderful voice performance by Ainsworth, who is Hanks’ equal when projecting stalwartly non-ironic sincerity. Most remarkably, dare one say bravely?, it has a twist that the original didn’t, and maybe couldn’t have had. You will probably see it coming, but I think that was intended. It places this iteration of the story squarely in and of our time. Whether it’s an improvement (or a cynical ploy for sequels) is up to you.