Rated PG. On Disney+.
Academy Award winners Tom Hanks and director Robert Zemeckis, whose first collaboration was the 1994 smash hit “Forrest Gump,” reunite for the fourth time with “Pinocchio,” Disney’s latest live-action remake of one of its animated classics, in this case the studio’s ground-breaking 1940 film. The results, mixing CGI and live-action, are a mixed bag of boyish fear and yearning, sentiment, frightening action, tedious exposition and middling music by Zemeckis regular Alan Silvestri.
Based on the much-adapted tale by Italian author Carlo Collodi (We have an edgier “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” headed our way soon and enjoyed Matteo Garrone’s 2019 live-action dark fantasy “Pinocchio.”), this new “Pinocchio” uses the 1940 film as its template to a fault. Pinocchio the puppet, voiced in a grating, high pitch by English lad Benjamin Evan Ainsworth (“The Haunting of Bly Manor”), looks the patented way he does in the animated film. The difference is that Geppetto is a real man, instead of an animated figure voiced by an actor (Austrian-born Christian Rub in the 1940 film). Speaking with some inexplicable accent, Joseph Gordon-Levitt voices the beloved Jiminy Cricket, the talking humanoid insect that becomes Pinocchio’s friend and “conscience.” Like Pinocchio, Jiminy Cricket, who was memorably voiced by Cliff Edwards in the 1940 film, is a dead ringer for his 1940 self. A 19th century Italian village is once again the setting. Singer-actor Cynthia Erivo ably plays the Blue Fairy in this version. That’s Lorraine Bracco aka Dr. Jennifer Melfi of “The Sopranos” as Sofia the friendly Seagull.
As an animated character, Geppetto is a very sentimental figure, something that is oddly amplified in the human version, ironically making Hanks seem even more caricature-like. Unlike Roberto Benigni, who plays the role in the revisionist Garrone version, Hanks is stuck with following the lead of the Disney film. This is the second time Hanks has been saddled with a flawed character in a Zemeckis film if you count the dead-eyed conductor in “The Polar Express” (2004). Geppetto once again has voiceless pets, a black-and-white kitten named Figaro and a weirdly made-up goldfish named Cleo.
The Blue Fairy informs Pinocchio, who wants to be a “real boy,” that he will have to “pass an ordeal.” So do we. Like many contemporary films, the dialogue serves mostly to explain the plot to the audience. One agonizing lyric rhymes “Pinocchio” with “Holy Smoke-ee-oh.” Generations of children have been traumatized by the sea monster Monstro sequence and the scenes of children being transformed into donkeys. Today’s kids are probably not as easily frightened.
The standouts in the voice cast are Keegan-Michael Key as the scheming fox Honest John, Giuseppe Battiston as the sadistic, traveling puppet show impresario Stromboli and Luke Evans as a coachman who speaks with a Cockney (Is this “Mary Poppins”?) accent and transports children to Pleasure Island, where they misbehave before being transformed into donkeys and are sent to “salt mines.”
The smoking, gambling and getting drunk on Pleasure Island scenes from 1940 are, of course, gone, although the children still commit acts of vandalism. We hear snippets of the Academy Award winning “When You Wish Upon Star.” Screenwriters Zemeckis and Chris Weitz slip in the word “influencer” and a painful reference to Chris Pine to make “Pinocchio” seem more hip, presumably. As the puppet master of a puppet ballerina, Jaquito Ta’le lends Pinocchio a warm, compassionate ear. This new “Pinocchio” parts ways with the 1940 film in its ending, leaving the door open for a sequel. Please, don’t.
“Pinocchio” contains rude humor, frightening action scenes and off-color language.