Dir: Matteo Garrone. Starring: Federico Ielapi, Roberto Benigni, Marine Vacth, Rocco Papaleo and Massimo Ceccherini. PG cert, 124 mins.
Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio is rated PG, which implies that children won’t be permanently scarred by its nightmarish visions. But it’s PG in the way that Nicolas Roeg’s The Witches was PG – a film deemed suitable for children because it’s based on a children’s novel and is about magic and childhood – but not because it’s at all cute or whimsical.
This is a difficult and unpleasant watch, an adaptation that fully exploits the grotesque and the baroque in Carlo Collodi’s source material. It’s also often breathtaking; Garrone carries over the imagination and visual panache of his 2015 fantasy film Tale of Tales and transports it into a kind of dark fairytale.
As Geppetto, a lonely carpenter who builds a son out of wood, Life is Beautiful’s Roberto Benigni gives a characteristically warm and melancholic performance. The remarkable Federico Ielapi, aged just 10, is our hero, who is propelled into increasingly surreal adventures after he ventures far away from home.
Garrone is resolutely faithful to Collodi’s book, in the process exposing how many of us grew up with far more sanitised versions of the Pinocchio story via Disney animation. In truth, Collodi’s work is a brutal piece of children’s fiction, one that sweeps readers up in magic but is also uncomfortably realistic about human cruelty and poverty, and how often the naive are exploited and taken advantage of. This is, after all, a story in which a tiny puppet-child is hanged from a tree by tricksters he believes to be looking out for his best interests – a scene Garrone uncompromisingly dramatises here.
All the notable characters from Collodi’s novel are here, too. Rocco Papaleo and Massimo Ceccherini are an unseemly Cat and Fox, shovelling food into their mouths while pig noises play on the soundtrack. The Talking Cricket has the nasal squeakiness of Jimmy Krankie covered in green paint, while Pinocchio is tended over by an enormous snail woman who leaves behind an appropriately enormous slick of slime wherever she goes.
The effects, many of them practical, are also spectacular. Pinocchio moves like a real boy, but sounds like a creaky chair. There are seamless transitions between wooden props and CGI as his nose elongates, the puppet tapping it onto a kitchen table and using it to slide dishes and bowls onto the floor in a bratty act of defiance.
It results in a film that is moving, tender and sumptuous, but bears a sticky queasiness that some may find unbearable. You can already picture the scene: a bunch of tipsy 20-somethings in 2034 or so, all of them remembering with a mix of fondness and horror the Pinocchio adaptation that gave them sleepless nights and was unfavourably burnt into their subconscious. But doesn’t every generation deserve a movie like that?