Monday 17 August 2020

Woodentops: "Pinocchio"

One tenuous strength of Matteo Garrone's new live-action version of Pinocchio, shot in Italy under the generally judicious eye of international super-producer Jeremy Thomas: it's a family film that hasn't entirely had its sharp edges and splinters sanded off, an acknowledgement that the author Carlo Collodi bequeathed us a far weirder fairytale than Disney, childproofing it with songs and Mouse House magic, gave credit for back in 1940. While operating broadly within the limits of a PG certificate, Garrone insists on preserving that source material that probably wouldn't find its way into any modern live-action remake of that earlier animation. The Garrone version unfolds in dirt-poor rural Italy, in a fiefdom not so far removed from those of this director's previous Tale of Tales, and its puppet boy is played by a real, flesh-and-blood boy (Federico Ielapi) whose features have been woodenised to fit. Not long after this Pinocchio is crafted by a desperate, impecunious Geppetto (Roberto Benigni), he can be observed accidentally torching his legs in a fireplace, reducing them to stumps; his travelling companion is a performer with dwarfism and a mollusc's antennae (Davide Marotta); the nose stretches as per the norm, but sparrows land on the enlarged proboscis and start pecking it to pieces. In the course of events, our young hero will be dispatched to prison, hanged, and - while in donkey form - tethered to a boulder and tossed into the ocean. Our tentatively reopening multiplexes have been keen to court the family audience, doubtless in the hope of selling two or three times the number of Ice Blasts; the shaded content on offer in this Pinocchio means accompanying adults will have to be careful indeed in deciding which of their kids they actually take.

The film's weakness was there in the source, and one even golden-era Disney couldn't quite correct. This remains a clunking quest narrative, one that probably works best as a bedtime story, with nightly pauses for lights-out, than it does a sustained two-hour sit, where the filler is obvious, and characters come and go without leaving much trace. The experience of watching this Pinocchio is that of witnessing one lavish piece of production design after another - a vast tree in a cave, a fortress extending out to sea, the belly of the whale; as with recent Jean-Pierre Jeunet films - a measure of how the director of 2008's grittily compelling Gomorrah has been seduced by spectacle - it remains bound to its preliminary conceptual art, resembling almost a slideshow of same. The human aspect barely materialises: it doesn't help anybody's cause that young Ielapi gives the same performance as almost all Italian child stars have since the year dot, shamelessly blinking his eyes while gabbling his lines at the loudest possible volume. Benigni is better, rediscovered on chastened, understated form, even quietly funny when inspecting the local inn's fixtures in an effort to drum up carpentry work. It makes sense to cast this performer as a man down on his luck, given the career momentum he squandered with his own expensive, Weinstein-backed Pinocchio of 2002, yet the rueful heart he lends the new version is sidelined the minute Garrone gets the designers in. That whale swallows a whole lot more than talking sealife. Next up (next year): a stopmotion Pinocchio, overseen by a newly Oscar-minted Guillermo del Toro. I get why this tale has attracted the childlike fantasists appointed to make our movies nowadays. It's about creation, how those creations get away from their creators, and how creativity can separate a father from his children for long stretches; the manboy bonus is that those creatives get to identify with both Geppetto and Pinocchio simultaneously. For all the money blown, however, I'm still not convinced the movies have yet worked out what exactly is in this tale to satisfy the rest of us.

Pinocchio is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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