Disney remaking its classics has been a completely mixed bag thus far. Sure they make billions. But they’re incredibly hit and miss. And it’s so appropriate that I’m kicking off the review for the latest Disney remake, Pinocchio (2022), with such a statement, because it is a completely mixed bag. And a weird one at that.
For my money, the title for best Disney live-action (or photoreal) adaptation belongs to Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book (2016). That was a gorgeous looking film, that took the best things about the original, and brought them to life stunningly, while deviating from the material enough to stand alone as its own movie, and correcting the lesser received aspects of the classic animated film. That’s the example all remakes should follow. On the other side of that spectrum is Favreau’s own remake of The Lion King. While I originally awarded the film a B- back in 2019, time hasn’t been kind to what I now consider to be an incredibly lifeless remake with nothing but flashy special effects to cover hollow emulations of a true classic. Unlike that film, Pinocchio (2022) at least tries to insert some new material into the classic. But does it pay off? Not really. The result, much like Robert Zemeckis’ previous directorial effort, The Witches, feels incredibly weird.
This version of Pinocchio is a direct adaptation of the original 1940 Disney animated adaptation of the Carlo Collodi classic book. You have Geppetto, Figaro the cat, Cleo the fish, Honest John the fox, and of course dear old Jiminy Cricket. You know the story by now. Old guy creates puppet. Puppet comes to life. Wants to be a real boy. Bad things happen. If it’s in the public domain, no need for me to sum it up.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The voice acting is terrific in this adaptation. Benjamin Evan Ainsworth plays Pinocchio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Jiminy, and Keegan-Michael Key plays Honest John. And they knock it out of the park. Ainsworth and Gordon-Levitt sound remarkably like their animated counterparts, and I wouldn’t mind if they continued to voice the characters in future animated portrayals down the line. Key also pays homage to the original Honest John voice actor, Walter Catlett, with a spot-on impression, but brings a lot more relevant energy to the role that leads to some terrific laughs. You couldn’t ask for better portrayals to take over the vocal roles of these characters than these three individuals.
In addition to their spot on impersonations, they also help elevate the film’s often funny script, courtesy of Zemeckis and Chris Weitz (2015’s live-action Cinderella). The gags in this movie often land. There’s a joke about changing Pinocchio’s name to that of a relevant actor that lands great, and a few hilarious call-outs to the absurdity of his adventures that’s super funny. And there’s a lot of Easter Eggs for Disney fans that will make them smile, from Gepetto’s wooden clock carvings to sounds and sights you may see from the Disney Parks. They all contribute to the lighthearted comedy in the film, and all of that is enough to put a semblance of a smile on one’s face.
One of the best portions of the original that was also adapted pretty well was the Pleasure Island adventure. Zemeckis made the scene super creepy, and somewhat funny at the same time. The imagery and the absolute moral decay present in the scene, along with the addition of some creepy shadow monsters incite feelings of discomfort and chills in the viewer. But the presence of a randomly appearing Luke Evans as The Coachman, tempting Pinocchio and Lampwick into imbibing in a forbidden root beer and destroying property is actually pretty spontaneous and hilarious. In fact, Evans, as he did with the mediocre 2017 Beauty and the Beast remake, elevates the material he’s given with charisma, comedic timing, and his natural singing abilities. He is, hands down, the highlight of the live action actors.
Unfortunately, in a movie that is headlined by two-time Oscar Winner Tom Hanks, that’s not a good thing. Hanks’ collaborations with Zemeckis have always been considered classics, from Forrest Gump to The Polar Express. However, he’s absolutely phoning it in with a broad performance that showcases his inability to interact with CG characters that aren’t present. It’s glaringly obvious whenever he has to act surprised around the computer animated Pinocchio, Jiminy, Figaro, and Cleo. His accent also sloppily goes in and out from “old soft-spoken Gepetto-soundalike” to “Tom Hanks” several times throughout the film. It’s messy work, and given his clout, you’d expect much more from him. But, frankly, for most of the film, he simply seems like he’s as equally apathetic about the role as much as it is miscast for him.
The rest of the live action cast is also either playing it super broadly or is wasted, from Giuseppe Battiston’s way too over the top Stromboli, to Cynthia Erivo’s sudden disappearance after two bars of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” It’s as if Zemeckis spent so much time doing mo-cap work like Polar Express or A Christmas Carol (2009), that he’s completely forgotten how to work with real live actors, or has no desire to at all.
In addition to the actors, however, the aforementioned changes they made to the film are incredibly bizarre. The music, for instance, from the original film is a classic. And for the most part, Zemeckis has decided to partner with the legendary conductor Alan Silvestri to jettison all but two of the original songs, in favor of some really terrible ones. So say “so long” to “Little Wooden Boy” and “Give a Little Whistle,” and “hello” to a random pop/R&B song in the middle of the movie, which completely doesn’t fit, and some bad rhyming by Hanks. All of these songs are forgettable, and while I understand Zemeckis’ desire to do something new, it begs the question: if you’re not going to make a song better than any of the classic songs, why is it necessary to replace those at all?
The other thing they changed completely was Monstro the Whale. In the original film, Monstro is just a massive, over-aggressive Herculean whale that swallows up our protagonists whole. Here it’s a kaiju. I’m not kidding. Why? Who knows. Maybe they want to be sensitive to animal rights activists, and ensure they aren’t condoning whale hunting? But it really does look supremely odd.
Now they did add a few new characters to the movie, including a seagull named Sophia (Lorraine Bracco), and a crippled ballerina named Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), that aren’t bad. They add a nice feminine presence to a movie with a single female character in it. And the backstory and sympathetic nature of Lamaya’s character are pleasant enough (she’s admittedly also a heck of a singer). But it does feel superfluous.
And then, there’s the ending. This will by far be the most controversial element of the film, that I think many people will be angered or disappointed by.
HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD.
The point of the story of Pinocchio is that he becomes a real boy. Apparently Zemeckis didn’t want to tell that story, so here he stays a puppet. And he replaces scenes of that transformation into a spoken epilogue by Jiminy Cricket saying the wooden toy “was a real boy the whole time.” Huh? More than anything, this invokes severe questions into what version of the story Zemeckis heard as a kid. Because if this doesn’t happen, what was the point of everything we just watched? From an execution standpoint, as well, having Jiminy just tell us what happens is as lazy an ending as you can get.
Say you don’t want the puppet to turn into a real boy. It’s crazy, but fine, that becomes your intent. At least show us that this was the right choice, rather than have Jiminy just sum it up. It’s as if someone had to give a book report on a story and ended with “and a bunch of stuff happened. The End.” What a horrible and apathetic way to end any movie.
At the end of the day I admire that Zemeckis was trying to shake things up a bit. And if you can shake things up and pull it off well, then the shake ups are worth it. But he doesn’t pull it off. And while the voice cast and Luke Evans shine, and the humor and Pleasure Island scene land, after all that, with some seriously bizarre choices and a lackluster conclusion, I can’t help but just be confused about what it was I just watched, when I should be way more charmed.
Overall Score: C