We’ve finally come to a time when a live-action adaptation of Disney’s classic icon – helmed by Robert Zemeckis and spearheaded by Tom Hanks – gets a straight-to-streaming release. The year is 2022 and the classic work in question is Pinocchio.
In more than one way, Pinocchio (1940), the second animated feature film produced by Walt Disney, belongs to the rank of the studio’s most significant assets. Just listen to the opening tunes of each and every single Disney production in recent years. Those tunes are taken directly from the film’s outstanding soundtrack, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” That alone makes the irony echoes harder. Why, on earth, does this live-action adaptation not deserve a theatrical release?
There might be a simple answer to that: the pandemic. Also, there might also be a more elaborated but simple answer nonetheless: fear that the disappointment over the Dumbo remake (2019) might repeat itself. Some believed that the flying elephant live-action wasn’t up to the expected number due to the fact that it was a 78-year-old property. Pinocchio, on the other hand, is 82 years by the time of its second coming. The drawback of the property age answer is Pinocchio’s popularity as a character – even without Disney’s brand attached to it.
Zemeckis‘ Pinocchio is more than just a visually faithful adaptation of Disney’s classic. Super-smooth CGI works blend seamlessly with Don Burgess‘ vibrant cinematography in creating a magically livable, sun-soaked Italian village where the story sets. It all sets for lush broad daylight spectacles (and somber night dreamscapes) in which the wooden boy would tap-dance, play truant, or escape from a sea monster in order to find his conscience. Yet, the magic of Pinocchio means much more than spectacles.
Beyond the misadventures, Pinocchio is truly a coming-of-age quest for identity. The wooden boy (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) would learn about humanity through tasks given by Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) and guidance provided by Jiminy Crickett’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Along the way, he would also learn about paternal love through his relationship with Gepetto (Hanks). Lost and found is a common theme in this story as if it’s the parable of prodigal son.
The wooden boy design is quirky at best. Zemeckis strips down realism and opts for a doll-sized boy to wander around the Italian neighborhood – isolating him from the rest of the society. This would make a faithful throwback to the classic animation, as the plot often reproduces the source material in verbatim precision. Compared to similar Disney’s live-actions, Pinocchio feels more like a story so detached from the reality that it can only exist in a dreamlike world – which exactly explains the decision to make a literal Pleasure Island.
The Pleasure Island sequences are wild and worth the spectacle. Zemeckis crafts a lawless children utopia that feels like a life-lesson gone wrong; Luke Evans has a surprising moments here, which unfortunately feels a little distant. However, the best spectacles often happen upon broad daylight – the capture of Jiminy Crickett and the chase of sea monster are CGI masterworks. That might be the best this adaptation has to offer.
Plot-wise, Pinocchio feels soulless. The wooden boy will get kicked out of the school, conned by Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), trapped by a vicious puppet-master, dragged into Pleasure Island, and much more – all in a day’s work. What’s been missing from his life-changing voyage is apparently the most important point of the story: paternal love. Believe it or not, Gepetto feels like a background character in this story – even when co-writer Chris Weitz adds a backstory to why he’s making Pinocchio in the first place.
Zemeckis‘ Pinocchio is a lush production, but never really captures the magic that the 1940 animation emanates nor the magic that the original story embraces. Hanks’ limited and unaspiring performance is the epitome of this whole venture.