Film review: Matteo Garrone's 'Pinocchio' is a dark but tender retelling of the classic

The film is a fresh but faithful take of the original 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi

Federico Ielapi and Roberto Benigni in a scene from ‘Pinocchio’. Front Row Entertainment 
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Matteo Garrone's Pinocchio is not your opulent Disney cash-grab of a remake.

It does not ruin a charming story with hyperglycaemic rewriting. It does not try to dazzle you with soaring production values. Garrone's film should not even be called a remake. The Italian film is, rather, a fresh but faithful take of the 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi. And it is a story retold with love.

Few stories have been told on film as frequently as The Adventures of Pinocchio. First, there was the 1911 Italian live-action silent film by Giulio Antamoro. Two adaptations later came the 1940 Disney animation, which – even after 80 years – reigns as the most popular take of the story.

'Pinocchio' is a fresh take on the original 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi. Front Row Entertainment 

Since then, filmmakers have rushed to retell and reimagine the story in all kinds of far-fetched, whimsical and horrific ways, including the 1976 Soviet musical The Adventures of Buratino, the 1996 slasher Pinocchio's Revenge, the 2002 Roberto Benigni fantasy and the 2004 computer-animation Pinocchio 3000 that reimagines the boy-puppet as a robot.

More recently, Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis was reportedly at the helm of a Disney remake whereas Guillermo del Toro is working on a stop-motion version for Netflix.

However, with this film, Garrone has set a standard that will be hard for future adaptations to meet. The film’s prowess is clear even within its first few minutes, when Geppetto (Benigni), an elderly, poverty-stricken woodcarver, walks into an inn, looking for something to fix in exchange for a meal. The dialogue is sharp and funny. The acting theatrical, but not over the top.

Garrone trusts the story and his passion for it is evident. His retelling of it is caring and compassionate, and though the film is full of fun, it does not shy away from showing the darker aspects of the story. If anything, it dives headfirst into them.

With muted dimly-lit aesthetics, 'Pinocchio' gracefully swerves along the borders of fantasy and nightmare, Front Row Entertainment 

Our wooden protagonist is subjected to all kinds of horrific and uncomfortable situations. He is hung by the neck from a tree, claustrophobically mobbed by other puppets, and is cajoled into kissing a puppeteer on the nose a handful of times. Perhaps the most spine-chilling moment is when Pinocchio turns into a donkey in the Land of Toys. His limbs stretch and disjoint, fur grows from his body as his horrified cries transform into braying. So if you are planning on watching this with your children, be advised.

While the film is aimed at adults and children alike, it is not your vibrantly coloured Disney serving. With muted, dimly lit aesthetics, the film gracefully swerves along the borders of fantasy and nightmare.

Still, Pinocchio is replete with tender moments, especially the scenes that feature Geppetto.

Roberto Benigni excels in his role as the elderly woodcarver Geppetto. Front Row Entertainment 

Benigni wrote and directed his 2002 adaptation of Pinocchio, starring in the titular role even though he was almost 50 at the time. The film was a visual treat, boasting a superb set and costume design, but Benigni's decision to play the wooden puppet himself – scampering around the scene yelling like a four-year-old – capsized the whole production.

However, he excels in the role as the elderly woodcarver. With this film, the Italian actor – who won the 1999 Best Actor Oscar for his role in La Vita e Bella (Life is Beautiful) – has found his place in the story of Pinocchio.

The casting, overall, is impeccable, such as Marine Vacth's soft-hearted depiction of Fata Turchina (the fairy with turquoise hair) and Massimo Ceccherini's wonderfully greasy performance as Volpe.

Federico Ielapi does a stellar job in the role of Pinocchio. His is, perhaps, the most persuasive depiction of the boy-puppet on screen yet. Front Row Entertainment 

Ten-year-old Federico Ielapi does a stellar job taking on the role of Pinocchio. It is, perhaps, the most persuasive depiction of the boy-puppet on screen yet. And as commendable as Ielapi’s performance is, an equal measure of credit should go to prosthetic make-up artist Mark Coulier, who has made our protagonist look like he is really carved out of a block of firewood. The sound design ensures the depiction is carried home as well, with Pinocchio’s limbs creaking like old floorboards as he giddily laughs.

The film, at times, does feel like its barrelling forward from scene to scene, from misadventure to misadventure. This is largely because of the episodic nature of the story itself, which was initially written as serialised magazine submissions. So Pinocchio's journey seems to jolt forward. Still, overall the film manages to deliver an endearing retelling of a timeless classic.

Pinocchio will be in cinemas across the UAE from Thursday, September 17