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‘We’re making disobedience a virtue’ – Guillermo del Toro on Pinocchio

Guillermo del Toro grew up with the Disney version of Pinocchio – and its insistence on conformity. He saw something more radical in the tale.

There is, according to Guillermo del Toro, a big difference between remaking a film and crafting a transformative version of a familiar story. The former can feel tired, while the latter can cast everything we thought we knew in a new light. The Mexican director’s new film Pinocchio, co-directed with Mark Gustafson – best known as the animation director of Fantastic Mr Fox – takes a tale we all know inside out and subverts its expected beats, turning it into a whole different beast. 

“The same questions that were pertinent at one time are pertinent now,” del Toro explains. This Pinocchio is unlike anything we have seen before. By setting the action in Mussolini’s Italy, the film overturns the original tale’s insistence on obedience and the moral lessons of conformity that run through previous versions. 

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (Pictured) Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022
Pinocchio is voiced by Gregory Mann. Picture: Netflix © 2022

“We are making disobedience a virtue,” del Toro explains happily. “[It is] of a piece with TheDevil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. One of the salient [themes] in all three stories is disobedience”.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, to give it its full name, is an anti-fascist fairy tale, mutating the classic story of the puppet that longs to become a real boy into a strident investigation of the limits of control – across governments, societies and families – and the radical potential of defiance. 

Rendered through stunning, handmade stopmotion, this version of the classic Italian story sees Geppetto as a difficult, belligerent old man who is crumbling under the weight of grief, after losing his beloved son during the bombings of the Great War. In the midst of a drunken fury, he carves himself a new child from a well-loved tree in his garden. The result is a strange, living puppet who moves with the jerky, cheerful kind of body horror that marks him out as a del Toro project. 

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“It came from how I reacted to the story as a kid,” del Toro explains, “the kinds of Pinocchio that I was exposed to as a child [were] the [Carlo] Collodi and the Disney versions. They were very scary for me because they had a moral weight that was beyond the notion of ethics. I understood that I had to do what I was told, and I didn’t like it.”

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Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio revels in the freedom of disobedience as virtue, becoming a meditation on the ways in which innocence and disobedience – despite what the old fairy tales might tell us – are tightly intertwined. 

“He is an innocent character,” Gustafson says of their wild, wooden lead. “He also behaves in ways that are appalling. But that’s how we learn. If you can’t misbehave then I don’t think you can ever truly discover who you are”.

The inherent disobedience of the monster is a theme that runs throughout del Toro’s oeuvre. Within their flagrant, hybrid forms and unnatural appetites, his monsters embody an at times thrilling, at times frightening code of divergence. It’s something that this sweet, oblivious Pinocchio does too, spinning his head like The Exorcist and accidentally burning his own legs off. 

Yet, rather than Pinocchio vowing to bring these urges under control, his disruptiveness begins to transform those around him, from the initially strict and controlling Geppetto to the creeping uniformity of the fascist state.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio - (L-R) Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Cr: Netflix © 2022
Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz) and Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann). Picture: Netflix © 2022

“The worst version of paternal figures lies in fascism,” del Toro explains. “It’s a story about the different versions – the almost kaleidoscopic mirror hall – of fathers and sons. The best incarnation is Geppetto, who learns from [Pinocchio]. But the worst is that macro view of fascism”. 

In one scene, Geppetto and Pinocchio pass by a wall bearing the fascist slogan “Credere Obbedire Combattre” (to believe, to obey, to fight). It is a reminder of the slippery slope from the stories we tell our children to the obedience we demand.

It is apt, then, that in the making of this ode to stubbornness, both del Toro and Gustafson broke so many of the rules of contemporary cinema. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is a masterclass in what is fast becoming an outdated craft, creating animation out of handmade, tactile puppetry and effects. 

“I think you feel it when you’re watching the film. It’s like: ‘oh, human hands touched this,’” Gustafson explains.

“One of the things that I guaranteed [to my cast and crew] was that we will not respond to a single note from anyone but ourselves,” del Toro adds proudly. “And I was able to deliver that. I said we will not get any notes and we will not have to listen. It had to be a disobedient production about a disobedient puppet”.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is in select cinemas from November 25 and on Netflix from December 9

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