When “Pinocchio” was released in 1940, audience members hoping to watch the eponymous puppet hero interact with an impeccably rendered, photorealistic pile of horse manure would have left the theater disappointed. But 82 years and countless technological advances later, a new remake offers Disney fans the chance to do exactly that. When Pinocchio first leaves Geppetto’s workshop and ventures out into the real world, he encounters a massive pile of dung (complete with CGI flies buzzing around it) and crouches down to take a sniff.
While the film’s direct-to-streaming release will prevent cinephiles from witnessing that moment on the big screen, it is nevertheless a shot that immediately burns itself into your memory. And it’s perhaps an inadvertent metaphor for what Disney’s shameless IP regurgitation has turned into, as the image of the beloved character poking at literal horseshit raises an interesting question: “Who on Earth was asking for this?”
Of the many sins that Robert Zemeckis’ “Pinocchio” commits, the hardest one to forgive is its complete inability to settle on a reason for existing. Its strongest moments come when recreating the film that inspired it, but its attempts to expand that source material lead it into some truly dire terrain. If you enjoyed the original “Pinocchio” but thought the cats weren’t mangy enough, the Chris Pine references were lacking, and Jiminy Cricket didn’t make enough jokes about Geppetto’s inability to get laid, you’ll be thrilled to see those wrongs righted in Zemeckis’ new film. Everyone else would be better off simply rewatching the original.
The story should be familiar to even the most casual Disney fan. An old clockmaker (Tom Hanks) builds a puppet because he wants a real son, then the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) grants his wish and brings the wooden boy to life. Armed with a cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) for a conscience, Pinocchio soon begins disobeying his father, staying out past his curfew to visit a puppet show that kidnaps him before eventually ending up at Pleasure Island, a hedonistic amusement park that turns badly behaved boys into donkeys.
Zemeckis’ remake doesn’t stray far from the original plot, offering thinner and flatter versions of many of the most iconic story beats. The biggest difference is the heavy-handed emphasis on fame, with the villainous fox Honest John (Keegan Michael Key) droning on about the importance of having lots of followers. If it wasn’t clear that he was doing a “these damn kids spend too much time on Instagram” schtick, he turns his fingers into a cell phone and pretends to take a selfie to drive the point home.
Casting Hanks as Geppetto is one of those creative decisions that makes perfect sense on paper, but his performance is just another addition to his recent cold streak. The actor gives what is essentially a kid-friendly version of his “Elvis” performance, playing a puppet master with an unconvincing European accent. It’s not good, by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s also hard to blame Hanks when he was given so little to work with. The vast majority of his scenes take place alone, and much of his dialogue amounts to him spewing exposition to his clocks and his cats. Without a scene partner (or even a compelling reason to open his mouth in the first place), his character inevitably devolves into something closer to Doc from “Fraggle Rock” than the original Gepetto.
For all of its flaws, “Pinocchio” does boast its share of Disney magic. “When You Wish Upon a Star” is still a banger, and the film wisely saturates the soundtrack with references to it. And much of the production design is excellent, particularly Geppetto’s workshop. All of his antique clocks contain references to other Disney movies, and the craftsmanship on many of them is quite impressive. Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an excellent Jiminy Cricket, even if his antennae are a little too cockroach-like, and the scenes of the animated cricket exploring the workshop are some of the film’s most cinematic moments.
Taken purely at face value, “Pinocchio” offers some harmless entertainment for young children and can probably hold its own against the kind of fare that would have once been relegated to the direct-to-DVD section of the Disney store at your favorite mall. But it’s impossible to take a direct remake of a classic film, one that clings so closely to the original character design and story beats, at face value. Especially when the remake is already being released on a streaming service that includes the original. Zemeckis’ most important job was to give Disney+ users a reason to watch his “Pinocchio” instead of simply streaming the first one, and he came up short. When your competition is the real thing, you have to bring more than CGI feces to the table.
While the original story remains undeniably excellent, “Pinocchio” fails at re-telling it because it ignores its own advice. Each failed attempt to modernize its beautiful message serves as a reminder of how little it needed updating in the first place. A story about the superficial opinions of your peers being less important than your true character didn’t need a CGI fox pantomiming a cell phone camera to feel relevant. If Disney truly believed that timeless virtue and character were more important than having a shiny new exterior, this remake would never have been made.
“Pinocchio” begins streaming on Disney+ on Friday, September 8.
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