Legacy is immortal, neither provoked nor challenged by the passage of time. When a film captures the hearts of its audience the same way first nighters back in the day, one could attest to its benefaction, its next-generation impact. Knowing it had to follow in the heeled footsteps of a groundbreaking masterpiece, Walt Disney just looked to sustain the potential for deep literary icons in a flexible animation style. Pinocchio did accomplish something for the animator and his studio. Not profitable returns, more the idea of making a trend out of signature adaptations. Over eighty-plus years, the Mouse House would keep its flag cemented, embracing the upbeat, cautionary spirit of Carlo Collodi’s original story. No other adaptation has come close, and the furthest apart may now be trapped under the foot of its closest familiar.
With this reboot of the Pinocchio most circulated by audiences, co-writer/Director Robert Zemeckis reassumes his familiar beats in hyper-realistic fantasy, though not far away from his recent 2010s slump. Both Welcome to Marwen and The Witches proved he could still be live with his live-action, utilizing digital trickery in a supporting role. Neither could fulfill any sort of enticing whimsy in the story department, the same way Flight and The Walk accomplished with bombastic, near dizzying visual stoicism. Zemeckis, with assisting scribe Chris Weitz (Operation Finale), looks to reignite that magical blending of living and animated, eliminating the line between. Regrettably, it’s less Roger Rabbit and more sophisticated headset fodder
So much of it does look real, albeit glossed over in an augmented reality sheen to replace the natural, hand-drawn 2D depth of its predecessor. The marionette’s indistinguishable painted face should be a clear tell of the odd limitations in its design, inconsistent but not lost on its storybook charm. A landscape by which the naive pine-based kid (Benjamin Evan Ailsworth) looks to discover life. There’s not much difference from preexisting basics: the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) grants woodcarver Geppetto’s (Tom Hanks) wishes for his newest creation, a marionette resembling his late son, to be authentic.
From there, accompanied by the moral compass of Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Pinocchio encounters the rough-and-tumble of fame, ostracization, smart decision-making, and especially liberation. The last of which emerges in an expansion of Stromboli’s (Giuseppe Battiston) puppets, the wooden boy making friends with a healing ballet dancer (Kyanne Lamaya) and her string-aided equal Sabina (Jaquite Ta’le). And yes, of course, the Coachman (Luke Evans) and the agent Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) both pop up when expected, as does a random seagull named Sofia (a boastful Lorraine Bracco).
With what subtle (and not-as-such) alterations Zemeckis and Weitz shoehorn in, reigniting their more comedic side at times, the illusion, or the emotion is still frustratingly diluted. To match the apparent “game engine” aesthetic reminiscent of the director’s performance capture phase (i.e., Beowulf). Judging from how expansive and eye-catching every location is – in particular, Pleasure Island going all in on the “nightmarish theme park” concept – I could sense the makings of playable activity on a major console. Not so much a traditional feature film, which this certainly isn’t. A welcome change of pace for DP Don Burgess, ratcheting up the candor to compose every frame.
Optimism remains resolute, just not the deeper soulfulness or moral dread. There’s no sense of cautionary terror to be found, merely challenges stacked atop one another. To make the viewer jump these hoops with the characters on-screen, versus observing them, can’t quite help this adaptation’s case. Nor does its use of music, inconsistent between Alan Silvestri’s enlivening score and Glen Ballard’s out-of-place lyrics to four original numbers. The mood of its animated counterpart could afford a smattering of songs to elevate its strata. This attempt to blend old and new might only appear head-scratching at best.
Pinocchio’s approach to music does not entirely fail the material, keeping a capable cast well on their toes. The only regret would be the absence of “Give a Little Whistle” which Gordon-Levitt surely would’ve excelled in while channeling his inner Cliff Edwards. Key going extra on “Hi Diddle Dee Dee” left me spellbound, and Ailsworth’s spin on “I’ve Got No Strings” only serves to amp his exuberance and commitment to the lead. That is when the script doesn’t skew to schmaltz. Hearing Hanks as Geppetto while spinning a soliloquy does manage to eclipse the oversentimental, making up for opportunities lost. His presence, however, still wobbles to hearten that necessary parental energy, settling to nudge the momentum forward, while his creation runs chipperly amok. Comparable results abound for both Evans and Erivo, neither surpassing the impact of their cartoon parallels.
Knowing Zemeckis’ mindset as well as most audiences would, nothing has dramatically changed over four decades. Each film of his sees an opportunity to toy with genre formula, and more often experiment with mediums. This version of Pinocchio does show off his tinkering with both, coupled with a painful struggle to mirror a far superior animated classic. The attempts wind up near-absent in subtlety and charm beyond its unwavering cast, and devoid of a consistent visual palette that would make sense on film. Its standouts, such as a campily terrifying spin on Monstro, outweigh its otherwise neutral game-like atmosphere. The fact it’s going right to Disney+ instead of theaters (a blessing, all told) further lessens the distance between legitimate film and interactive art. As the former, it’s nowhere near flattering to its hand-crafted origins. The latter, a feature-length wild card worth witnessing at least once, left wishing on that figurative star for something far more truthful. (C-; 2.5/5 Horns Up!)
Pinocchio streams on Disney+ September 8; rated PG for peril/scary moments, rude material and some language; 102 minutes.