Let’s talk facts: Pinocchio has always been a little bit scary. Sure, he’s an innocent puppet searching for his place in the world as he adventures to become a real boy. But that doesn’t help the fact that he’s still a freakin’ living puppet.
Yes, some children dream of their toys coming to life and playing with them, but for most sensible kids the idea of a toy coming to life is pure nightmare fuel. That’s why in past versions of Pinocchio, the uncanny valley-esque disconnect between human and puppet has generally aired more on the side of creepy than heartwarming. Who didn’t love Jonathan Taylor Thomas in the ’90s? Anyone who saw his Pinocchio adaptation.
Even in the beloved Disney film when our titular puppet makes his way to Pleasure Island and his pals morph into donkeys, it’s every five-year-olds introduction to “body horror.” My personal favorite, Kevin S. Tenney’s 1996 straight to video Pinocchio’s Revenge, takes the horror concept head-on, making the living doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer. It’s fabulous.
Really, the only way to properly tell the story, and dispel any of the eerier plot devices, is for the film to be animated. That’s why almost 80 years later the Disney film is still an undying classic while Roberto Benigni’s 2002 live-action adaptation is, well, still freaking out kids everywhere. But leave it to Guillermo del Toro to inherently understand what Pinocchio needs. Because he’s been wanting to tell this story his entire life.
Variety reports that del Toro will direct his debut animated film, a stop-motion adaptation of Carlo Collodi’s classic 1883 tale for Netflix. The recent Oscar winner had this to say in a statement:
“No art form has influenced my life and my work more than animation, and no single character in history has had as deep of a personal connection to me as Pinocchio. In our story, Pinocchio is an innocent soul with an uncaring father who gets lost in a world he cannot comprehend. He embarks on an extraordinary journey that leaves him with a deep understanding of his father and the real world.”
And while we know del Toro loves his dark fairy tales, that doesn’t mean this story is going to be strictly a children’s film. The setting for his Pinocchio is 1930s Italy during the time of Benito Mussolini. Setting the story in this era makes sense for del Toro if you consider the influence of Francoist Spain before and after the Spanish Civil War on his films The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. He layers in historical events to not only texture his stories but to give each a real beating heart. These aren’t just characters triumphing over a fictional power, but rather stories connecting to very real struggles.
Struggles that unfortunately we are still seeing today. Mussolini, much like Francisco Franco, was a fascist dictator, and a major tenet of fascism is the idea of Ultranationalism, a political ideology meant to uphold and protect one group of people. In Mussolini’s Italy, it was to protect the ruling elite over the Slavic people. In Nazi Germany, it was the Aryan Race. In the modern United States, it’s neo-Nazis, the Alt-Right, and the Ku Klux Klan. Setting Pinocchio in an era of political turmoil will only help color the story in a prescient light helping the audience connect it to our modern socio-political crises.
Guillermo del Toro will be collaborating not only with the Jim Henson Company and ShadowMachine (creators of Bojack Horseman, the most emotionally intelligent animated show on TV), but Pinocchio’s script will be co-written by Patrick McHale of the impeccable Over The Garden Wall, and Mark Gustafson of Fantastic Mr. Fox fame will co-direct. The cherry on top is the puppets will be created by Mackinnon & Saunders, best remembered for their work on Corpse Bride and Isle of Dogs but beloved by millennials for their work on the ’90s cult kids show Bump in the Night.
Del Toro has had a long journey of trying to bring his vision of Pinocchio to the screen. Way back in 2008 we reported that he had begun working on the script for a stop-motion adaptation with Gus Grimly, who also served as the illustrator on a 2002 version of the story. Just last year, del Toro was saying that the project was “not happening.” But thanks to Netflix, all that has changed. I mean, just look at what the man himself just tweeted out:
— Guillermo del Toro (@RealGDT) October 22, 2018
From its inception, del Toro was adamant on not telling the same rose-tinted glasses version of Collodi’s story. And by using the context of Italy on the brink of war, del Toro will not only be able to comment on the past but our present global anxieties all through the visage of a wooden puppet looking for a better life. And in 2018, that’s something we can all deeply relate to.