In Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pinocchio,’ new lessons are learned

Guillermo del Toro grew up in Guadalajara and had two Sunday rituals – church and a movie. The day began with Mass at 8, where Del Toro learned about creeds and saints and the strict rules that dictated order and obedience. After breakfast, Del Toro’s parents dropped him off at a small theater three blocks from home, where he absorbed a morally ambiguous world filled with vampires and monsters and an ape-man rocking through the jungle every Sunday.

“Parents didn’t want to stay, which was very promising for ‘Tarzan and his Companion,'” says Del Toro of the 1934 film, which starred Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan, in what was considered a revealing loincloth at the time . “All the kids around the age of 12 loved this film. My mom used to say, ‘You really like Tarzan!’” Del Toro laughs at the memory. “Yes mom, me love Tarzan!”

Del Toro usually went to the movies with his older brother, but there was one movie he saw with his mother, a movie that bonded the two for the rest of their lives — a re-release of Walt Disney’s 1940 animated classic, Pinocchio. ” Young Del Toro watched the tale of a wooden doll longing to become a real boy and lost himself in a tale that included tricksters and villains, wild children turning into donkeys, and a desperate hero , who tried to save his father from the entrails of a whale.

Puppets perform on stage in stop motion "Pinocchio by Guillermo del Toro."

In this “Pinocchio” the wooden boy joins a circus and performs on the stage.


“It was the defining movie of my childhood because it captured how scary the world is when you’re a kid,” says Del Toro. “Prime stories like this help children to decipher the world in all its complexity. The worst lie you can tell a child is that the world is black and white. I heard that in church, but not in Pinocchio.

“For me, Pinocchio and the Frankenstein monster are two sides of the same coin,” continues Del Toro. “They are both creations of an indifferent father who was released into the world without much help to find out. One is an ethical fable because the monster needs to build a deeper spiritual system. Traditionally, Pinocchio is a more moral journey, where the do’s and don’ts relate to what one must do to be loved. It’s more of a fable about domestication.”

Which, to be honest, always annoyed the Oscar winner. And as he thought about “Pinocchio” over the years — and he thought a lot about it — he wondered why Pinocchio couldn’t be loved on his own terms. Forget turning into a real boy. He’s a living piece of wood with a heart the size of a forest! Shouldn’t that be enough? Forget all the talk of obedience. Despite conformity, virtue should be revered.

Given this lifetime of rumination, it’s no surprise that Guillermo del Toros Pinocchio, currently showing in select theaters before landing on Netflix December 9, may be darker, weirder, and in many ways more wonderful than the Disney film, that you remember as a child. (Don’t confuse it with Robert Zemeckis’ live-action version, which was reviled by critics when it premiered on Disney+ in September.) Del Toro directed this stop-motion animated version, starring veteran of the cast, Mark Gustafson ( animation director of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox) and wrote it with Patrick McHale, a creative force on Cartoon Network’s popular animated series Adventure Time.

Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson stand in front of a blue wall whose shadows form a grid of lines.

Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson.

(Irvin Rivera_@graphicsmetropolis/For The Times)

The film approaches the more grotesque elements found in Carlo Collodi’s 19th-century folk tales while adding his own eccentric ideas about parenthood, mortality and authority. Even Pinocchio’s raw and unfinished appearance, inspired by artist Gris Grimly’s illustrations, provides an amazing contrast to the adorable doll boy from the Disney film.

“I said to Gris, ‘Why does he look like that?'” Del Toro recalls speaking to the artist as he began development on the film in 2008. “And he said, ‘I think Geppetto was drunk.’ And I thought, ‘Done! That’s it!'”

In the film, Geppetto’s night of intoxication is fueled by grief. He misses his beloved son Carlo, who was tragically killed years earlier. When Geppetto discovers the next morning that his wooden creation has improbably come to life, he’s understandably confused – and a little scared. Though he learns to love Pinocchio, Geppetto cannot fully accept him and compares Pinocchio to the romanticized memory of his deceased son, an attitude that Del Toro says illustrates a fundamental question about the nature of parenthood.

“Kids are a Scrabble poem piece of who we are as parents,” says the director, “as if you wrote a poem and then shook it like a Scrabble board. And the words you want aren’t in the order you think they should be. That’s why you don’t recognize them. I learned that as a parent. And that’s what I learned as a son. My father couldn’t see the shadow he cast over me.”

Gustafson adds, “The thing about Geppetto is that he’s older and you get to a certain point in your life where you just want comfort. He wants order and in that order comes this anarchic thing that creates nothing but chaos.”

Gustafson and Del Toro first saw the film with an audience when it premiered at the London Film Festival last month. Gustafson says he knew the moment people laughed about the cricket being crushed — yes, this “Pinocchio” has a cricket sidekick, too — that the challenges of blending the material’s dark themes with lighter moments had been managed.

“People cried at the end of the movie,” says Gustafson. “I like to make people cry. You can quote me.”

Del Toro was also emotional, but for different reasons. His mother, Guadalupe Gómez, the woman who introduced him to Pinocchio, died the day before the premiere. During the 14 years he’d been trying to achieve his dream of making the film, Gomez sent him carved Pinocchio figures — partly as motivation, mostly because she knew they would bring him joy. She kept telling her son, “This is the movie I want to see.” Del Toro was able to show her some scenes and the trailer before she died.

Reflecting on the loss, Del Toro says, “The idea I have of death is really not fatalistic, it’s vitalistic. It’s easy for a Mexican to pronounce and understand. There’s a poem by Jaime Sabines that says, “All my life I’ve heard a voice whispering softly in my ear, ‘Live, live, live.’ It was death.” I understand that mine mother lived for many, many years and only died once. And I really think that this “Pinocchio” represents our whole life together. I don’t want to define her by being gone. I like to think that this “Pinocchio” symbolizes the fact that she was here. There is something very stimulating about that.”

“You know,” he continues, “in Mexican culture it’s like, ‘Is there anyone here who isn’t going to die? Raise your hand.’” Del Toro laughs. “No one raises their hand” In Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pinocchio,’ new lessons are learned

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