The story of Pinocchio is pretty strange if you think about it: Wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, has conversations with a morally superior cricket – as one does, apparently – and discovers in a terrifying fashion that his nose grows when he lies. (That bit has been carried through generations of fibbing kids by their moms and dads.)
This is all to say that’s the sort of thing made for Oscar-winning filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose wheelhouse (which includes the likes of "Hellboy" and "Pan's Labyrinth") is built of weirdness.
His wonderful new take (★★★½ out of four; rated PG; in theaters and streaming on Netflix) on the classic tale is the most essential adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s novel since Walt Disney’s 1940 cartoon masterpiece, with a practically perfect mix of tragedy, comedy, adventure, parental worries, societal expectations, childhood precociousness and antiwar leanings.
And if that’s not enough for you to go all in on “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” this should do the trick: Pinocchio dances with a piece of wooden puppet poo while making fun of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, to his face.
Del Toro, who directs and co-writes a revamp that puts the recent Disney+ Tom Hanks version to shame, uses gorgeous stop-motion animation and a major “Frankenstein” vibe to craft a version that begins in an Italian village during World War I. Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) is a popular woodcarver who’s worked long and hard on an intricate crucifix at the local church with his beloved son Carlo (Gregory Mann) when bombs are recklessly dropped by overhead aircraft. The explosion takes out the building and kills Carlo, leading to years of grieving for Geppetto.
One night, he drunkenly cuts down a pine tree that he'd planted near the grave – where a chatty traveling insect named Sebastian J. Cricket (Ewan McGregor) was living – and builds a puppet who’s subsequently turned into a walking, talking miracle by a magical Wood Sprite (Tilda Swinton). Pinocchio (also Mann) is a wild and spunky sort, and the exact opposite of Carlo, which exasperates Geppetto and his increasingly irked fellow residents.
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The puppet’s antics also put him on the radar of a couple of unseemly fellows. Podesta (Ron Perlman) is a government official who wants to make a soldier out of Pinocchio and send him to a fascist youth camp, while ringmaster Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz) signs Pinocchio to be a headliner for his circus, leading to a series of entertaining episodes including a show for “Il Duce” himself.
Del Toro’s passion for the monstrous and bizarre serves “Pinocchio” well, giving it an interestingly dark flavor – one plot point finds our wooden hero repeatedly dying and visiting the afterlife, where a gonzo bunch of Black Rabbits (maniacally voiced by Tim Blake Nelson) and the Wood Sprite’s twin sister Death (also Swinton) reside. That love for the off-kilter also plays well with the real-life history of fascist 1930s Italy that del Toro uses as his setting, giving the film more heft and timeliness.
Still, “Pinocchio” – the filmmaker’s best outing since winning best picture for 2017's “The Shape of Water” – captures the whimsical, crowd-pleasing nature of the story that made it a cultural touchstone for nearly a century. Del Toro’s also rounded up a top-notch voice cast including Cate Blanchett as Volpe’s simian assistant Spazzatura and Finn Wolfhard as Podesta’s bullying son Candlewick. McGregor’s the low-key highlight as Sebastian, who narrates the film and is a many-legged spin on the actor’s bohemian “Moulin Rouge!” character, a persnickety good guy trying hard to keep Pinocchio on the right path.
That’s del Toro’s job, too, and courtesy of eye-popping visuals, fun musical numbers, colorful flair and a resonating narrative, he’s made “Pinocchio” a real cultural force again.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Pinocchio' review: Guillermo del Toro delivers splendid Netflix redo