The Pinocchio Movie We Need From Ron Howard and Robert Downey Jr.

By  · Published on February 18th, 2016

United Artists

Robert Downey Jr.’s live-action Pinocchio has found a new director. Last fall, it was revealed Paul Thomas Anderson would not be helming the adaptation, which is set up at Warner Bros. (no, this isn’t one of Disney’s live-action remakes of its animated features), as had been previously presumed. Instead, it looks like Ron Howard is taking on the gig. And obviously Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s book is a good fit for the guy who directed a modern reimagining of the “Little Mermaid” fairy tale (Splash) and, just recently, a movie involving a giant whale (In the Heart of the Sea).

Howard, whose attachment was reported by the Tracking Board, also has a particular background that, paired with Downey’s, could inform a very interesting take on the story of a wooden puppet who dreams of being a real boy. Unfortunately, there’s no way the director and actor, who are collaborating together for the first time on this movie, would actually make this perfect version. And not just because the intention is already well in place (it’s been a passion project of Downey’s for years) to do a traditional rendition of “The Adventures of Pinocchio.” So, let us just imagine the (my) brilliant idea.

Both Howard and Downey were born into showbiz families and started their careers on screen at early, single-digit ages. Howard wound up very successfully transitioning from child star to major Hollywood player without a hitch – though his brother, Clint, followed the more cliche path and became an alcoholic. Downey, meanwhile, became hooked on drugs and alcohol around the same time he started acting, as young as six. However, his problems stemmed more from having an addict father who shared marijuana and more with the boy than just the usual negative effects of childhood fame (unlike Howard, Downey wasn’t exactly “famous” as a kid, anyway). They both started out focused on being fictitious boys and had to overcome that to become more real.

Pinocchio was carved out of wood by his artistic parent, Geppetto, and as a puppet he was similarly drawn to being a performer of sorts from the beginning. While the acting angle is not played up too much in the book, it’s a big part of Disney’s iconic animated film. There’s a whole song about the lure of an actor’s life and being a celebrity, and then there’s another about performing freely with no strings attached. The relevant metaphors abound, and then of course the little hero is taken to a wonderful land of independent youths, smoking and drinking and doing as they please, until they’ve completely ruined their lives. You could say Downey was visiting his own Pleasure Island while heading toward rock bottom in the 1990s.

Downey, who is also producing Pinocchio, has expressed interest in playing both the fatherly carpenter role and the puppet child, the latter likely in some sort of computer-animated or CGI-supported manner. And I want him to play the former part darker than we’re used to, which would mean veering away from faithful adaptation. What if Geppetto, like Robert Downey Sr., was depicted as being a huge factor in his son’s temporary downfall, and then both characters have to turn themselves around by the end? And then Pinocchio goes off and stars in a superhero movie mega-franchise. Okay, just kidding about the last part.

Downey isn’t one to dwell too much on his past, though, at least not with every reporter who tries to get him to talk about it, and such a reflexive project would certainly bring out that sort of unwanted coverage. Yet he’s also allowed that history to inform his work before. His portrayal of Marvel Cinematic Universe anchor Tony Stark/Iron Man, a character traditionally written as a recovering alcoholic in the comics, is partly informed by his own fight with similar demons. Howard, meanwhile, has poked plenty of fun at the world of famous kids, most notably on the show Arrested Development.

Next: How To Make a ‘Pinocchio’ Movie That Doesn’t Suck

Even if Howard and Downey go for a more literal adaptation, that doesn’t mean we can’t still consider the context of their lives and how it relates to the story, while watching what they do give us. It just won’t be so direct in its link between Pinocchio and child stars the way Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence blatantly shows itself to be a sci-fi redo of Collodi using a robot boy instead of a string-less marionette or the way the Downey-led Avengers: Age of Ultron made us again see a link between android and puppet. And then someone else will have to do the serious and certain version of Pinocchio as child star idea.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.