Director Robert Zemeckis re-teams with Disney and Tom Hanks with their latest live-action remake that's light on magic but will charm its young audience.
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Whether or not we want them, Disney’s live-action remakes are here to stay. And there are some noticeable titles of our favorite animations getting the treatment soon, including “Peter Pan & Wendy,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Lion King” prequel we were all expecting, right? While we’re waiting to see how they turn out, Academy Award-winning director Robert Zemeckis takes it upon himself to helm the House of Mouse's long-awaited remake of one of its most beloved classics, "Pinocchio," which is currently streaming only on Disney+.
In an Italian village, there lives a kindhearted man named Geppetto (Tom Hanks), a woodcarver and toy maker living with his cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo who builds a wooden puppet he named Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). One night, he takes it upon himself to wish upon a star and wishes for Pinocchio to be a real boy. It comes true when the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) brings the wooden puppet to life as a living boy. But in order to become a real boy, Pinocchio must prove himself to be brave, truthful, and unselfish with the green and tiny Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) serving as his conscious, going on an unforgettable adventure.
In 1940, Disney released an adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s Italian book, the second full-length animated feature produced by the studio after "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." It is still regarded as one of the best-animated films ever made more than 80 years later. It was hard not to appreciate it with its endearing characters and exquisite animation at the time. It also scored two Oscar wins, including the iconic tune “When You Wish Upon a Star” for Best Original Song. Many adaptations have been less than memorable in pop culture, especially the 2002 Roberto Benigni version we never mention.
And it’s a strange year to release not two but three movies centering on the wood character. We already got "Pinocchio: A True Story" with Pauly Shore to constantly make fun of, but we’re later getting a stop-motion adventure co-directed by Guillermo del Toro. After seeing the most current trailer, my excitement wasn't wholly high.
I've been waiting for a remake to match the caliber of "The Jungle Book" from 2016. And as much as Zemeckis is responsible for some cinematic classics ("Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump"), we’re still dealing with a few slumps under his belt. But with those low expectations of fearing for the worst, it wasn’t great for a movie I knew wouldn’t be as good. And though I think it’s possibly one of the more tolerable remakes from Disney over the past few years, it’s the definition of fine.
You'll see this as a true retelling of the animation, almost shot for shot, that makes for a good introduction for kids who may not be familiar with the story on a small scale. About halfway through, I couldn’t tell this came from Zemeckis, but I could tell he loved the story so much he was the one who could make this come alive. Does it always work? Similar to the less incredible remakes, you can sense this was missing the magic that made us love what came before, except I can see where it’ll be liked more for younger viewers. Sometimes, that lack of wonderment left me wanting more of what the director used to bring. Also, any resemblance of an emotional moment for caring for the characters doesn't ignite that spark of being realistic to make a cohesive piece come together.
With Zemeckis taking charge and writing the script with Chris Weitz (“Cinderella”), his magic gets lost in the shuffle. However, it makes this version, not just lighthearted and even dark, but attempting to be full of wonder and larger than life, believing we are watching a wooden boy wanting to be real.
Hanks, his fourth collaboration with the director, is the one actor I had in mind for Geppetto, and it wasn't as creepy as I thought he would be. Surprisingly, he doesn’t have much time on screen, so you can never have enough Hanks in my book. But out of the cast, I was very impressed with Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s vocal performance as the clever Jiminy Cricket. JGL is my guy, and just from the opening of him talking to the audience, he sounds so much like Cliff Edwards that he sounded unrecognizable throughout.
The rest of the cast had more minor roles than their animated counterparts; thus, they weren't given anything to do. For example, Cynthia Erivo as the Blue Fairy only has one scene. At the same time, an unrecognizable Luke Evans as the evil The Coachman comes in abruptly to take children to the unsupervised Pleasure Island. Honestly, I’d take more of his take on Gaston from “Beauty and the Beast” than The Coachman.
New characters also were added that fueled the story but are forgettable by the end: Lorraine Bracco as the seagull Sofia and Kyanne Lamaya as Fabiana who loves ballet and has a marionette named Sabina whom Pinocchio meets at Stromboli's carnival puppet show.
Zemeckis’ films tend to have many films blending live-action and visual effects, and the CGI here was hit-or-miss. Most of the misses just came from the non-human characters. I couldn’t get used to Pinocchio’s design because it’s too similar to the cartoon, and it’s often creepy looking from my perspective. But just when you thought the donkey transformation freaked kids out before, even I wasn’t prepared to fear “Honest” John (voiced by Keegan Michael Key), a CGI red fox, along with the silent cat Giddy, who doesn’t belong in the real world. I unintentionally laughed at this character's brief screen time because it was unnatural.
Since I haven’t watched the original cartoon since I was little, I took it upon myself to watch it just to compare and contrast it to the new one. And I noticed some changes that would be accessible for younger viewers. The most different change comes in the entire adult-free Pleasure Island sequence. You won’t find anybody smoking cigars or drinking alcohol (what was with Disney movies back then?). Now, it’s drinking root beer in a candy-coated amusement park. And even the last half doesn’t follow the same beats you would've expected them to follow. I was unsure how I felt after it was over, but I got what they were getting at.
It took me a while to think about it all. But overall, “Pinocchio” isn’t a movie to rush out to watch. Forgettable? Sure. Like most live-action remakes, it’s unnecessary, lacking the magic and charm of the original. But Zemeckis keeps the faithfulness of the timeless classic intact enough to consider this a decent experience for some. Kids of this generation will get the most out of it, but I'll say it's easier to recommend they watch the original instead.