One of the most impressive shots in animation history comes at the beginning of Walt Disney’s 1940 masterpiece Pinocchio. Guided by Jiminy Cricket’s narration, we’re introduced to this magical and deceptively macabre world through the vessel of a single “camera” as it dollies down a cobblestone street towards Geppetto’s window outside, revealing the inside of his home more and more as it gets closer. Not only is this bit of filmmaking unbelievably lifelike considering when it was achieved, essentially the third full-length animated feature ever created, but it would have been spectacular for any film prior to the dawn of computer-generated imagery.
For Disney’s newest addition in their rapidly growing oeuvre of live-action remakes, the studio’s tapped Robert Zemeckis to direct and co-write (along with Chris Weitz) a “new” Pinocchio. It’s important to note this is the filmmaker partially credited with helping spur the Disney Renaissance in the late ‘80s with the generation-defining and outside-the-box Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Here, Zemeckis heads to somebody else’s well altogether for something tonally bizarre and narratively derivative, even considering the context.
It remains unclear why the filmmaker chose not to recreate the parts of the 1940 classic that made it a classic to begin with – notably the aforementioned opening dolly sequence (instead, we just arrive at Geppetto’s front door unceremoniously, albeit still guided by Jiminy Cricket voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). The focus here is on world-building and a surface-level plot; the camera seems to be completely utilitarian. Whereas, for Disney and his team of directors, what the camera did was just as important as the tale that was being told.
Zemeckis takes a lot from the original Pinocchio, not the least of which is the titular puppet’s exact visage. Likewise, the story mostly plays out like a scene-for-scene (notice I didn’t say “shot-for-shot”) remake, to the point it reverts to mechanical filmmaking and obligatory story beats. Like many older movies, the original Pinocchio leaves a lot of room to open up the plot, with the episodic storyboard feeling fluid, yet unembellished. That’s why it’s strange how the minor new details thrown into this remake feel inconsequential and jarring, particularly the cursory glimpse of a disenfranchised young puppeteer that Pinocchio befriends in Stromboli’s Circus, the additional musical numbers, and the inverted ending.
On the other hand, certain details from the original have been rendered meaningless, such as the constructs by which the troubled boys turn into donkeys on Pleasure Island. Likewise, Jiminy Cricket serves no point here as Pinocchio’s conscience. The titular puppet always makes the right decisions without his pal even needing to be there. Zemeckis and company try to ‘fix’ issues from the original but in turn end up creating more of them. The would-be-fluid episodic plot now feels piecemeal and stochastic.
Zemeckis and Weitz also give Geppetto (Tom Hanks) a backstory, informing us that he indeed had a wife and child long ago. We’re given the impression that Pinocchio is, in fact, his son reincarnated. But since this is so, he now suddenly has too much to lose, thus making his natural brevity in the film all the more head-scratching. The story is about a bright-eyed, naïve Pinocchio learning about the cold world around him. And yet, we’ve suddenly become way too invested in a man who gets a second chance with his deceased son – a man who only has 10 minutes of screentime.
Tom Hanks as Geppetto sounds good on paper but feels like fan casting from an online forum, which only adds to the unintentional self-parody that develops insidiously throughout the film, like Hanks is well aware of the silliness of his insertion into any and every old-man role for Disney (including Disney himself). In actuality, however, he’s the wrong choice for the job.
As a beloved A-list actor, it’s only natural that you’re always inclined to draw attention to yourself on screen, a requisite of the innate ego you’ve been groomed to have. It’s especially hard to remain subtle in a sequence when you’re the only real-life human in front of the camera. As such, Hanks brings too much gravity to his scenes. He gives Geppetto zeal and an abundance of facial articulation, but the character doesn’t need any of that. He plays Geppetto as a caricature, which, paired with the beat-by-beat storyboard and sappy tone, makes this all feel like a mockery; like it’s making fun of Pinocchio.
Robert Zemeckis has always had quite the grasp on the technical aspects that go into filmmaking. In fact, those skills are what helped make him arguably the most talented filmmaker in Hollywood at one time. However, he’s seemed to become disenchanted by the magic that went into those mechanics, to the point that it all just feels like a math equation for him to solve. There is, however, some light that shines through, such as the sequence on Paradise Island and the believable way in which Pinocchio’s face moves, but these are few and way too far between.
There’s a world where this new Pinocchio will become a cult favorite if not for the oddity that it provides us with and the enigma behind its existence in the first place. It’s still a head-scratcher why Disney keeps giving these live-action remakes to either unknown filmmakers or those who (who appear) eons past their primes. It’s as though the studio has as little faith in these projects as we do.