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Pinocchio (2022) review: Disney pips Del Toro to the post

Robert Zemeckis directs an uninspired, 'murky' remake of the 1940 animated classic, which hopes to gain numbers before Guillermo Del Toro has a crack at the IP.

A remake done well is a marvellous balance of the timeless and the timely. Ocean’s Eleven; The Thing; Ever After; The Mummy: a good remake can temper iron into steel. A fearless creative team strips an outdated story down to its best qualities, introducing new themes, technologies, and characters to make a story better than ever.

Done poorly, a remake plays as little more than an intellectual-property grab, mixing a few hollow shout-outs with current fads. It’s tired and trendy at the same time. Unfortunately, that’s Robert Zemeckis’ 2022 remake of Pinocchio, which dropped without fanfare on Disney+ last week.

Animation innovation

The original Pinocchio was risky. Disney was a minor studio in the 1930s, rushing to produce a second feature that lived up to the groundbreaking Snow White. Writers cobbled together loose details from an Italian storybook to conduct experiments in craftsmanship: the animated smoke, water, and complex machinery were revolutionary at the time. Pinocchio innovated with stop-motion maquettes (sculpted models) and rotoscoping (animating over live footage), using techniques that form a similar basis to how 3D software brings the imaginary to life.

Although the final product is remembered as a masterpiece of 2D animation, in its soul Pinocchio was made of puppetry. The story itself was clunky, and the characters either twee or unnerving. There’s as much to delight a child as there is to terrify one. Will a child prefer the aesthetically and thematically dulled-down remake? If not, Disney’s algorithm has the alternative queued up for you now.

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What endures about Pinocchio is Disney’s melodic trademark of When You Wish Upon A Star; and perhaps as well the dream that if you believe with all your heart in a cheap imitation of life, it will become meaningful and real. If Zemeckis believed with all his heart in this film, it might have become something more than a cheap imitation. The film is faithful to a flaw, except the drive for for technical innovation. Like most recent Disney remakes, the visuals are murky and mismatched.

Tom Hanks’ Gepetto regards his creation. Image: Disney

Visiting the uncanny valley

Zemeckis and Tom Hanks are reunited for the first time since their infamous The Polar Express in 2004. Remembered as a disaster in animation, The Polar Express was upheld as exemplary of ‘the uncanny valley’: a term for animation which looks eerily similar to reality, but not close enough. We don’t have this problem with The Incredibles or Who Framed Roger Rabbit: those are clearly stylised and visually coherent, on the far side of the ‘valley.’ It’s when something tries to look real and fails in ways you can’t quite put your finger on.

In hindsight, The Polar Express doesn’t look that bad. There are certainly more egregiously creepy examples in Disney’s recent productions, from the reanimated actors in new Star Wars instalments to Simba’s algorithmically-perfect follicles in the Lion King. Those feel like puppetry in ways we might not enjoy: twitching models that don’t quite follow the laws of gravity.We’ve lived in the uncanny valley for years now. It might feel a bit weird and empty sometimes, but in some ways it’s a relief to watch a protagonist that’s meant to look wooden.

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Still, if we don’t travel through the valley, we’ll never make it to the other side. The Polar Express and the original Pinocchio shot for the moon, and landed (with a few broken pieces) among the stars. It’s risky to make something new, and Disney could afford to take risks. The remake is painfully conservative: if you must watch it, you’ll find it falls into the same aesthetic traps as the last dozen copyright-renewing ‘live action’ (ish) echoes of the classics.

Will the real wooden boy please stand up?

This isn’t to say the new Pinocchio is entirely without charm: Keegan-Michael Key is delightful as the mischievous fox. Kyanne Lamaya plays a new character who brings an interesting disabled allegories to the original, although her storyline ultimately fizzles out. Tom Hanks never gives a bad performance, but this film defies any actor’s ability to look authentically wet when surrounded by virtual water.

The truly masterful use of newfangled technology of Disney’s 2022 Pinocchio is search engine optimisation. Despite Disney’s stranglehold on American copyright law, the original book is public domain. Guillermo del Toro will direct his own Pinocchio in December. Del Toro is widely adored for his love of complex visual effects and stories about misfits who find their true selves through love: a perfect fit. All Pinocchio 2022 needed to be was Google-able. As Key’s fox asks: “Why be real, when you can be famous?”

Robert Zemeckis directs this live-action adaptation of Disney’s animated classic Pinocchio. Stars Tom Hanks, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Luke Evans, Keegan-Michael Key and Cynthia Erivo. Pinocchio is available to stream now on Disney+.