"It was the first movie where I felt that somebody captured how scary childhood felt," del Toro recalls.
Now, as a father himself, the two-time Oscar-winning filmmaker has created his own strange and stirring take on the beloved fable with "Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio" (now in theaters and streaming Friday on Netflix). The stop-motion animated film transports the familiar story of Geppetto (David Bradley) and his wooden boy (Gregory Mann) to 1930s fascist Italy and explores themes of grief, loss, war and selflessness.
The movie is "about things that hurt as a child and as a parent," del Toro says. "It's an emotional cleansing of both roles for me."
"Pinocchio" has been retold countless times on the big and small screen, most recently in September with a critically lambasted Disney+ film starring Tom Hanks. Here's what's new in del Toro's version, which he co-directed with Mark Gustafson:
'Pinocchio' on Disney+: What's changed, what's the same in Tom Hanks' live-action remake
Geppetto creates Pinocchio to cope with his son's death
The movie begins with an extended prologue with Geppetto and his genial young son, Carlo, living happily together before Carlo is killed in an air raid. Overcome by grief, Geppetto haphazardly makes a wooden boy, who is then brought to life by a wise, magical creature known as the Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton).
Geppetto attempts to mold the unruly Pinocchio to act more like Carlo and encourages him to go to both church and school. But unlike past versions of the story, the ultimate goal isn't that Pinocchio will one day become "a real boy."
"Loss is one of the great illuminators of life. Life is so brief and we are here for such a short time that we (should) forgive each others' imperfections," del Toro says. "The important theme in our 'Pinocchio' is he doesn't have to transform. He is loved as he is."
Pinocchio's endearingly awkward design is the result of 'drunkenness'
One of the most inspiring touches of the new movie is that Geppetto carves Pinocchio in his woodshop while he's extremely drunk one night. As a result, the unpainted marionette has an almost crude, makeshift appearance: a large, pointy nose with gangly legs and stems protruding from his head, thighs and back.
The design came from artist Gris Grimly: "Most children are created out of drunkenness," Gustafson quips. When kids are still growing, their legs often seem longer than their torsos, and they stumble around as they learn to walk.
"In the beginning, Pinocchio talks and moves like a 6-year-old. He barely controls his limbs and goes into tantrums," del Toro says. "It was also important that Pinocchio was unfinished because he goes through the movie as an unfinished character. He's a blank slate."
The director was similarly inspired by his own religious upbringing in Mexico, and "the parallels with Catholic imagery and wood and rebirth and reincarnation. I thought it had a more elemental power to leave the wood raw."
Guillermo del Toro brings fascism, Benito Mussolini into the fold
"Pinocchio" features many touchstones that date back to Carlo Collodi's original 1883 novel, including the giant fish that swallows Geppetto and the talking cricket (Ewan McGregor) who serves as Pinocchio's sidekick. But fans of the Disney movie may be surprised that there are no donkeys and no Pleasure Island in this version.
Instead, there's a subplot about fascism. When Pinocchio runs off to join a traveling circus, he is forced to perform propaganda songs supporting Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. After mocking Mussolini on stage one night, Pinocchio is drafted as a soldier.
"I thought the perfect background for disobedience is fascism, and disobedience as a virtue is only a virtue if you have a whole structure against it," del Toro says. "And the glamour of show business is very much part of the attractive pageantry of fascism: the buildings, the uniforms, the regalia. And the fact that fascism is the darkest sort of father figure you can think of, and this whole movie is constructed around the stories of fathers and sons."
The songs are nothing like the Disney version
The music in "Pinocchio" serves "a very different purpose" than it does in the Disney movie, del Toro says. Unlike showstoppers "When You Wish Upon a Star" or "I've Got No Strings," these new tunes are smaller and more focused on moving the story along. In addition to propaganda songs, there is also the whimsical "Everything Is New to Me," which is sung by Pinocchio when he first comes to life, and the heart-rending "Ciao Papa," which Pinocchio sings as he leaves home.
The cricket, named Sebastian, also tries several times to perform a Broadway-style number about his life, but always gets crushed by a large object within a few seconds.
The first time it happens, "you're immediately subverting (the) audience's expectations," Gustafson says. "They think, 'Oh, this is a musical. We're already going into another song.' And we're like, 'Nope, not gonna happen. This cricket is not going to be doling out wisdom – we're not going there.' "
The movie is not as 'dark' as you might expect from del Toro
Del Toro, 58, is best known for the haunting fairy tales "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006) and best picture Oscar winner "The Shape of Water" (2017), which gorgeously blend elements of horror, sci-fi and fantasy. "Pinocchio" is equally stylistic, but incredibly funny and emotional, too.
"It's easy for people, when they hear my name on the title, to imagine that we go dark," del Toro says. "But what is really unexpectedly beautiful is how suffused with light this movie is."
The film is a tribute of sorts to his mom, Guadalupe Gómez, who died earlier this year, as well as a "culmination" of everything he's been working toward in his career.
"Funny enough, my journey has mirrored 'Pinocchio' and the characters in this movie in many ways," del Toro says. "When you start as a young director, you want to dictate a lot. And when you are aging, you want to listen a lot. It changed and it healed a lot of things that I had in me as a father and a son. That thing about art being a catharsis – sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But it certainly has become that."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Pinocchio': Guillermo del Toro talks 'catharsis' of his Netflix movie