Guillermo del Toro is hoping to stand out amongst the – checks notes – three different versions of Pinocchio that are being released this year, for several reasons. One is that the most famous stories about puppets is being made with puppets – and with painstaking stop-motion animation. Another factor that sets it apart is its setting, amongst the rise of fascism in Italy before World War Two.
Coincidentally (or not), the classic Disney animated version of the story was released in 1940, not long after World War Two started. Speaking to Vanity Fair about the film, del Toro says that “the wooden boy happens to come to life in an environment in which citizens behave with obedient, almost puppet-like faithfulness.”
“Many times the fable has seemed, to me, in favour of obedience and domestication of the soul,” del Toro adds. “Blind obedience is not a virtue. The virtue Pinocchio has is to disobey. At a time when everybody else behaves as a puppet—he doesn’t. Those are the interesting things, for me. I don’t want to retell the same story. I want to tell it my way and in the way I understand the world.”
There is no Pleasure Island in this story. Instead of being transformed into a donkey after living too large (one of the scariest parts of the classic Disney movie), Pinocchio is targeted by the government officials who hear tell of the boy made of wood and believe he might have other applications. “He is recruited into the village military camp, because the fascist official in town thinks if this puppet cannot die, it would make the perfect soldier,” del Toro says.
This certainly sounds like a dark take on the story, but no darker than Laika movies (eg. Coraline, Kubo & the Two Strings) or the stop-motion versions of Roald Dahl stories such as James & the Giant Peach or Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s also not the first time that del Toro has set a fantastical story against the backdrop of a fascist European country just before or during World War Two, as Pan’s Labyrinth was set in Spain in 1944.
If you like your fairytales to be more wholesome and child-friendly, check out our guide to the best Disney movies.