A wooden marionette is given new life in a film reimagining fairy tale classic Pinocchio. The new movie is a stop-motion fantasy directed by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson with a screenplay written by del Toro and Patrick McHale (Adventure Time). The film is based on Gris Grimly’s design from his 2002 edition of the 1883 Italian novel The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Working on the adaptation since 2008, del Toro has had trouble finding financial backing, but the wait is finally over and the movie is set to release on Netflix tomorrow, December 9.
The movie boasts an array of recognizable names, such as the voices of Ewan McGregor (Cricket, i series), David Bradley (Geppetto, Harry Potter series), Gregory Mann (Pinocchio/Carlo, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society), Burn Gorman (Priest, The Dark Night Rises), John Turturro (Dottore, Forty Winks), Ron Perlman (Podesta, Hellboy), Finn Wolfhard (Candlewick, Stranger Things), Cate Blanchett (Spazzatura, The School for Good and Evil), Tim Blake Nelson (Black Rabbits, Watchmen), Christoph Waltz (Count Volpe, Most Dangerous Game), and Tilda Swinton (Wood Sprite/Death, The Eternal Daughter). Co-producers were Melanie Coombs, Gris Grimly, and Blanca Lista; the film was executive produced by Jason Lust. Further connecting the worlds of children’s books and film, Caldecott Honoree Vera Brosgol (Leave Me Alone!) served as head of story.
In contrast with the animated Pinocchio that came out from Disney earlier this year, this latest incarnation is set in Mussolini’s Italy during the rise of fascism, between the two world wars. Carpenter Geppetto (Bradley) is steeped in grief over the loss of his 10-year-old son, Carlo, until he finds comfort in carving a puppet he names Pinocchio (Mann), which a wood spirit (Swinton) unexpectedly brings to life. Pinocchio is unconditionally loved by Geppetto, even after the puppet becomes reckless when he discovers he has the gift of eternal life. Despite the advice of Cricket (McGregor), Pinocchio is increasingly swayed by deceitful characters.
A tale beloved by many, what piqued Brosgol’s interest in the project was the team and being “a big fan” of Guillermo Del Toro, Guy Davis, and Pat McHale. “I’d worked with much of the crew before, including co-director Mark Gustafson [on Joy Is More Joyful with Friends], co-production designer Curt Enderle [on Box Trolls and ParaNorman], and head of puppets Georgina Hayns [also on Box Trolls and ParaNorman],” Brosgol told PW. “I knew it would be a really special production, and I was right.” The focus on love and loss offers a different spin on the familiar tale, and the new take is what Brosgol found interesting. “Pinocchio loves Geppetto for exactly who he is, and his father must overcome his grief and learn to do the same,” Brosgol said. “Guillermo’s addition of the rise of fascism as a backdrop was really inspired—everyone becomes a puppet except for the independent, free-spirited Pinocchio. It adds a new and timely layer to a well-explored story.”
As the head of story on the film, Brosgol was responsible for setting up and managing the storyboard department, putting things together in the editorial department, and recruiting artists from all over the world to ensure “the directors’ visions were translated into storyboards that the rest of the crew could follow as a template,” she said. “I even got to draw a little bit!”
She added that working with the crew was “a treat,” having been added to the team during the early stages of production “when the crew is very small and the ideas can be very big.” The extra bonus of the movie being made in Brosgol’s hometown of Portland, Ore., made it even more special, simultaneously giving her Chihuahua, Omar, a chance to be part of the team as well. “It was lovely watching the amazing and talented story department grow, and seeing the world take shape as the other departments grew as well,” Brosgol said. “Stop-motion is fantastically tactile, and it was great going down to the sets and seeing what was new, and how our boards got translated into reality.”
In addition to being part of Pinocchio, Brosgol has several creative accomplishments under her belt as a writer and illustrator. The recipient of an Eisner Award for Best Publication for Young Adults and a Harvey Award for Best Original Graphic Publication for Younger Readers, she has created the graphic novels Anya’s Ghost (2011), and Be Prepared (2018), to name a few. The differences between working on screen and paper were stark. “With graphic novels you are the director, writer, cinematographer, actor, IT person… everything all in one,” Brosgol explained. “There’s a wonderful sense of control and creative freedom to that, but it’s also really lonely compared to being part of a film crew. And you’re limited by your own abilities, whereas at an animation studio there are people who are geniuses at a whole range of disciplines, and they’re all working together to create something bigger than the sum of its parts. It’s really surprising, energizing, and magical.”
Brosgol is excited for audiences to see the movie, but in particular the scenes set in the afterlife. “Not to ruin anything, but the scenes in the afterlife are super cool. They were shot in a satellite studio in Guadalajara, Mexico, with puppets built in England and Portland. Truly an international collaboration.”
Brosgol has been busy since the wrapping of Pinocchio in 2020, publishing picture books (Memory Jars and A Spoonful of Frogs), finishing a graphic novel, Plain Jane and the Mermaid, which will be out in spring of 2024 from First Second, and working on “exciting new territory”: writing a middle-grade prose novel. “I’m sure I’ll be back in animation at some point as well. It’s too fun not to,” she said.