The Hero’s Journey in “Pinocchio”


There is something rich and strange and generous in Matteo Garrone’s new live-action version of the Pinocchio story, for which the director and his co-screenwriter Massimo Ceccherini have gone back to the original 1883 children’s tale by Carlo Collodi. They have given us a story which combines sentimentality and grotesqueness in a very startling way. It often looks like a horror film.

Walt Disney, for example, never had Pinocchio being brutally hanged from a tree by two swindlers who wanted to rob him. But one of the interesting things about this drama is that Pinocchio – the magical wooden puppet who yearns to be a “real boy” – gains this authentic humanness by being exploited, by suffering and finally getting re-born with skin and hair … in a stable, as it happens.

Pinocchio himself is played here with a woodified face by child actor Federico Ielapi, and his father-creator Geppetto is played by Roberto Benigni – who himself directed a Pinocchio film in 2002 and played the lead. As the ageing and sad Geppetto he is under control and there is something touching about his hyperactive comic persona being subdued.

In the end, perhaps Pinocchio is a parable of parenthood: when we have a child, there is something uncanny and strange about him or her, like a doll brought to life. In our hearts, perhaps, we can’t quite believe that this is a human being like us, who will come to have thoughts and feelings independently of us – become “real”, in fact.

Though it features one of the world’s most-beloved characters (or so we’re always told), “Pinocchio” is at its heart a morality fable in which a child insensible to personal attachments repeatedly flouts the wisdom of those who care about him and suffers accordingly in a world full of traps laid by bunglers, bullies, braggarts, and blackguards. He’s all id and no superego, easily distracted and in need of constant gratification.

The excuse of course is that he’s just been created and doesn’t know any better, the wooden equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster formed not by an obsessed scientist but a simple, lonely craftsman. Benigni’s ingenuous yet earthy take on Geppetto goes a long way toward ensuring viewers feel the unadulterated love of a father for his child — the star’s reputation for buffoonery tends to disguise just what a sensitive actor he can be, as here, deeply attuned to words and the bigger pictures they embody. His freewheeling shouts to fellow villagers of “I’m a father!” upon discovering that his newly-carved wooden puppet is alive provides a genuine moment of joy that transcends fairy-tale emotions.

Now that Geppetto has a son, christened Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi), he needs to do the fatherly thing and send him to school, even if it means selling the coat off his back to buy an exercise book. However, the world outside Geppetto’s dark peasant house proves too enticing for Pinocchio, intrigued by an itinerant marionette theater run by Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti).

Narrowly escaping being turned into kindling, Pinocchio wins over Mangiafuoco and even gets some gold coins to take home to Geppetto, but then he encounters the Cat (Rocco Papaleo) and the Fox (Massimo Ceccherini, also co-writer with Garrone), who easily prey on the puppet’s naïveté. Not for the first time, the conniving pair gets the better of Pinocchio, who is subsequently captured by a band of assassins and hanged from a tree until rescued by a mysterious coachman and brought to a large house where the young Fairy with Turquoise Hair (Alida Baldari Calabria) and her governess the Snail (Maria Pia Timo) nurse the injured puppet. The Fairy is quick to recognize Pinocchio’s streak of wilfulness as well as his penchant for exaggeration, leading to the famous nose-growing moment, which Garrone uses just this once.

After a few more adventures, Pinocchio meets the Fairy again, now grown to womanhood (Marine Vacth), who tells him that if he’s good and goes to school, one day he’ll become a real boy. But the wooden puppet hasn’t yet learned to control his need for immediate gratification, and he’s off with a friend to a promised land of nonstop fun until all the boys magically turn into donkeys, and only the Fairy is able to recognize Pinocchio in the animal’s sad eyes.

Once back to his old self after being almost drowned in the sea, he’s swallowed by a whale where he finally reunites with Geppetto, perfectly happy to remain inside the giant creature’s belly now that he’s together again with his son. This time though it’s Pinocchio who gets up enough gumption to rescue them both, befriending a charismatic talking Tuna (Maurizio Lombardi) along the way.

Burned, hanged, sold into bondage, tied to a boulder, and tossed into the sea, swallowed alive: the list of cruelties heaped upon the wooden puppet are Grimm-like in their pitiless savagery. This being a kids’ movie though, few of these torments leave even a hint of uneasiness once the next scene begins; Disney’s brilliant envisioning of the whale scene, for example, is far more terrifying than Garrone’s curiously unexciting rendition. Other scenes and characters are more successful, such as the ape Judge (Teco Celio, marvellous in his simian noises and gestures) who rewards Pinocchio for his foolishness. The Cricket (Davide Marotta) is barely a secondary character, returned to his role as Collodi’s doomsaying Cassandra rather than Disney’s conscientious Jiminy Cricket.

A significant change of emphasis between the new film and its famous animated predecessor (leaving aside the scores of adaptations in-between) is how Garrone downplays Pinocchio’s desire to be a real boy. In the Disney film, this driving ambition formed a running thread that helped to connect disparate adventures; its near absence returns the narrative to a series of largely self-contained short stories.

The moment when Pinocchio’s nose grows because he is lying is still fascinating – a parable which has taught generations of little Disney fans never to fib.