Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio Could Have Taken on a Darker Theme!


To be honest, this year's Oscar-winning Best Animated Feature left me somewhat disappointed. Compared to Steven Spielberg's rebellious adaptation of Pinocchio (refer to my previous article), Guillermo del Toro's version is somewhat conservative in its thematic expression.

In 19th-century Italy, where Carlo Collodi, the author of The Adventures of Pinocchio, lived, children's literature was commonly educational and emphasized the adoption of moral norms and cultivation of discipline. The Adventures of Pinocchio is no exception, but it is innovative because it abandons the narrative convention of making children with positive images as protagonists and instead shapes the character of a flawed wooden puppet to educate readers through his growth and transformation.

On the one hand, del Toro's Pinocchio inherits the cautionary and preaching characteristics of the original work that demand honesty, kindness, and well behavior in children. On the other hand, it also incorporates new concepts of parent-child relationships in this era, which advocate that parents should respect their children's personalities and embrace their imperfections. Overall, this film is neither commendable nor condemnable in its thematic expression.

However, this also means that it is a mediocre movie, and mediocrity can easily slip into banality.

A heartwarming fairy tale obviously does not suit del Toro.

Anyway, as his fan - God knows how much I love Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water - I am still committed to finding the "dark" elements and styles within Pinocchio that he included in his past productions.

Fairy to Devil

Although the original Pinocchio does not provide a specific description of the Blue Fairy's appearance, various picture books and film adaptations from past centuries have portrayed her as a gentle, beautiful woman with pretty wings.

However, del Toro does not follow this convention. As an art designer-turned-director, he has always had a strong obsession with Cthulhu's looks. In his design, the Blue Fairy becomes two devil sisters. One has a fish tail and two pair of wings, while the other has a lion's body and a human face, obviously inspired by the Sphinx from ancient Greek mythology.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Despite the changes in their appearances, they remain harmless characters who guide and protect people, which I find a bit disappointing. Take Pan in Pan's Labyrinth as an example, once Ofelia disobeys him and eats forbidden food, Pan will carry out the real punishment of abandoning her. As such, Ofelia will never have a chance to enter the fantasy kingdom again. This is the worst horror for children.

Mischievous to Wicked

Del Toro makes further changes to Pinocchio's initial personality, transforming him from a mischievous and playful boy to someone who is intimidatingly wicked. From the moment he was born, he has been causing all sorts of trouble and disasters. He casually destroys all kinds of furniture belonging to the old craftsman, Gepetto, and even smashes the photo frame that holds the picture of the deceased Carlo. He signs an exorbitant contract with the circus owner out of mischief, causing innocent Gepetto to shoulder a huge debt.

But that is not all. Del Toro even combines the mischievous nature and naivety of children with "the banality of evil" - a term coined by Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt. It refers to the thoughtless act of committing crimes without being held responsible in an ideological state apparatus; it is the sinful act of eliminating all inner thoughts, unconditionally obeying orders, and abandoning personal values, judgments and rights. This is simply an incredible combination!

The film is set during World War II, in the era when fascism dominated Italy. Tempted by capitalism (as represented by the circus owner), Pinocchio was once included in the evil system of fascism and became a perpetrator of violence (as he held consecutive tour performances that lauded fascism).

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Pinocchio eventually manages to switch from praising fascism to ridiculing it by ruining his shows. In a sense, he has successfully retaliated against the forces of fascism. Interestingly, he behaves as such not because he is awakened but because he is simply taking revenge against the greedy circus owner.

Del Toro's portrayal of children always goes against the norm, and he does not conceal the dark side of children's nature. He also does not hesitate to give child characters a harsh ending. In Pan's Labyrinth, for example, young Ophelia dies after getting shot by her fascist stepfather.

However, in Pinocchio, Toro clearly has no intention of exploring the evilness of children, which is I was expecting.

Busting the Myth of Kinship

You would have noticed how terrifying the scene is when Geppetto creates Pinocchio. Lightning strikes as Geppetto reveals a look of resentment. He resents the fact that the war has taken his biological son, Carlo, away from him and hates the capriciousness of fate.

This chillingly eerie scene inevitably reminds people of a fact: many parents have children to satisfy their own desires - to maintain a troubled marriage, to get their children to accomplish goals that they cannot fulfill in their lifetime, or simply to place their hopes on new lives because they just cannot find their own meaning in existence.

Geppetto is actually crafting Carlo’s character. Therefore, Pinocchio becomes his substitute. The "puppet turns human" setting is removed in the original work and is instead changed to "Pinocchio wants to become Carlo". This is especially evident when Pinocchio asks the cricket confusedly who Carlo is while Geppetto is asleep. He must have vaguely realized that he is a product of grief and indignation.

At some moments in the movie, del Toro busts the myth of great kinship in traditional stories about parent-and-child relationships, making us realize that there is not always love between kin. However, it is a fleeting revelation because soon, del Toro returns to Collodi's narrative conventions and makes Pinocchio Geppetto’s biological son.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

In short, while del Toro incorporates some dark elements in Pinocchio, he does not fully explore them. For instance, the proposition that Pinocchio’s nose grows when he lies raises the question of how lies are defined and to what extent they are considered lies. However, del Toro ignores these issues and simply makes Pinocchio’s nose grow when the latter speaks his "true" thoughts ("I'm real!").

This small example may not be adequately convincing, but it suggests that del Toro may have lost his keen intuition for unconventional and unreasonable things that he demonstrated in the past. In Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro leaves an ambiguous ending, where Ophelia's fantasy may be just an illusion or the reality. But Pinocchio removes this ambiguity and presents a clichéd theme: the love between a father and son, and human lives are valuable because humans will eventually die.

If del Toro focuses on this dark movie theme, he may achieve greater success. However, if he wants to balance it with some bright and joyous themes, he may lose his unique style. Therefore, del Toro may be more suited for producing original films or borrowing some conceptual legends rather than adapting a very specific and detailed story, which may limit him.

However, given that the Oscars have become more mainstream and are increasingly emphasizing political correctness, an extremely dark-themed Pinocchio may not win an award.

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