There’s a lot to appreciate about shortcuts and expedited paths. But with the wisdom of age and experience, there’s a reckoning. One that comes along with cherishing the value of the extended process of a craft, and then the rewards that come with investing in the minutiae that builds towards a whole. In the world of film, there’s no better example than the art of stop-motion animation.
A pursuit for the patient and ambitious, the medium is all about making meticulous progressions of movement, captured at 24 individual frames per second, to replicate what happens in the blink of our everyday eyes. Always a niche pursuit in the animation milieu, those who have embraced and revered it have kept it going, handing the proverbial baton to the next generation willing to subsume their creative selves into the technique. Today, studios like Aardman Animation and Laika are the predominant keepers of the flame, with directors like Nick Park, Henry Selick and Phil Tippett synonymous with continuing to produce theatrical works in the medium that push the form into new directions.
And then there are the admirers who have thrown themselves into the pool to keep the niche art alive, like director Dean Fleischer-Camp, adapting his and Jenny Slate’s live-action/stop-motion shorts to the big screen with Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. Or those whose Hollywood clout has been used to ensure financing is found for these projects, like Jordan Peele co-writing Wendell & Wild with Selick for Netflix, and Guillermo del Toro joining veteran Mark Gustafson to co-direct their vision of Pinocchio. Each is a testament to the enduring, active admiration it requires to keep this medium alive, just in 2022 alone, while also being love letters to the art and practice of intricate precision and boundless cinematic vision.
In particular, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a stunning collision of reverential cinematic tribute, the pure distillation of del Toro’s visual aesthetics, and an opportunity for this medium to reinvigorate Carlo Collodi’s classic story in a way that only it can truly honor the magic of a wooden puppet who comes to life.
There’s no shortage of Pinocchio adaptations to choose from, with three new versions appearing just this year. Most still point to Walt Disney’s 1940 animated Pinocchio as the pinnacle adaptation, but del Toro’s take is now most definitely in the running for “best in show,” because of how it elevates Collodi’s original story and character beats, and then smartly goes its own way emotionally and creatively, using the handcrafted nature of stop animation to make Pinocchio and Geppetto’s arcs more profound.
For one, there’s no better marriage of story and medium than telling Pinocchio’s story in stop-motion. The craft itself creates a wholly unique, tactile connection between Geppetto’s (David Bradley) wood-carving gifts and what he imbues into his wooden son (Gregory Mann). There’s also an undeniable knowledge that in each and every frame, hundreds of artisans not only built the father and son characters from scratch, but also every button, prop, fresco and plant around them, which brings a particular weight to how this story is imparted and how each moment lands. There’s an intent that permeates every frame that makes a 139-year-old story feel contemporary in a way it rarely does in other interpretations.
It’s also clear that del Toro and Gustafson are ardent about marrying everything that’s advanced technologically in the craft of stop-motion with the beating heart of their emotional storytelling. Together, they honor the painstaking work of the animators and production and set designers by giving them a story worth telling in such a fastidious way. Making the choice to have Geppetto be a broken, flawed father who doesn’t see the joy in getting a second chance with Pinocchio until it’s almost too late—making his journey just as vital as his son’s. Or, changing the conscience cricket Sebastian (Ewan McGregor) into a bon vivant who thinks he knows everything about life until he’s humbled by a puppet who values his own uniqueness—making that character much less didactic and imbuing him with unforeseen agency. Even placing the story during the throes of Mussolini’s fascist regime, turning Pleasure Island into a Youth Army camp, opens the opportunity for the choice to be kind and the complexities of wanting fatherly approval.
Visually, all those choices are backed by thrilling production and character design that folds in del Toro’s familiar themes: The pure hearts of vulnerable children; fantastical creatures representing death and decay; the villainy of ego, corruption, and religion’s unrelenting judgment and lack of compassion. In truth, stop-motion may be the seminal playground that welcomes, and requires, del Toro’s signature reckless abandon into the pure pleasure of hyper-detailed aesthetics. The more his intricate and purposeful vision becomes real, so too does this entirely crafted world move one step closer to authentic existence. And when perfect parity is achieved, as it does in this film, it’s alchemy. We stop seeing the individual elements of the medium and are swept into the belief that Geppetto, Sebastian and Pinocchio are not mere carved creations staged on a handcrafted set, but living characters who make us believe, weep and feel for them as we would anyone. To take a story from long past, join it to an analog craft and make it feel vital and contemporary not only makes Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio a masterful film, but one that breathes another generation’s worth of life into a animation technique that deserves to last as long as our imaginations exist.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the upcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen.