You know, it’s really tough to witness someone you love and respect go down the wrong path. I could equate that statement to people in my personal life, but in this case I’m talking about Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis. He’s made a number of movies that I love, but for the last few years, I’ve really started to wonder if he’s okay. Because the movies he’s been cranking out certainly haven’t been.
Zemeckis has made some all-timers. Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Forrest Gump (hold your pitchforks), Cast Away. I absolutely love (and maybe I’m alone) Death Becomes Her, and in the last 10 years he’s still managed to crank out expertly crafted films like Flight (which featured an incredible, Oscar nominated Denzel Washington performance) and his visually dazzling retelling of Man on Wire, The Walk. But with his last three movies, it’s like the wheels have come off. Welcome to Marwen is one of the more spectacular failures of the last five years; a movie in which just about every choice was misguided and false, and made me so uncomfortable, I nearly walked out of the theatre. The Witches, his HBO Max remake of the Nicholas Roeg film, which was just unpleasant and effortless (the original was creepy, but at least had personality and terrific make-up). Which now brings us to his Disney+ remake of Pinocchio, which is admittedly better than both of those, but is the rare case of a movie getting worse as it goes along.
Considering his last two, I feared for this film. While it’s not completely what I feared, I am also not sure why this film needed to be. Was this something Zemeckis wanted to make, or did he just make it because he could? Because, maybe not dissimilar to the recent The Lion King or something, this often feels like the original animated movie. This one, unlike that one, has humans in it. Yet it’s also so similar to the 1940 Disney classic, in terms of look and story, that I really just can’t put my finger on why Zemeckis wanted to tell this story. We know he’s capable of telling it, but he hasn’t really done anything new or interesting with it, so why bother?
For whatever reason, I guess this story is a hot commodity right now. Later this year, Guillermo Del Toro is bringing out a stop-motion animated rendition of this that looks incredible. Just two years ago, there was an Italian version of Pinocchio, which was admittedly nightmare fuel but at least they did something new with it. Zemeckis’ Pinocchio hits many of the same beats as the Disney version, including the songs, which, I was always thrown off when people started singing in this movie because the movie forgets it’s a musical at times. It also LOOKS just about identical to it, including the titular character. It’s a movie that didn’t cause me great pain to sit through, and there are occasionally visual strokes that Zemeckis is a master at. The movie just lacks an identity, and the deeper you get into it, the sloppier it looks.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt does the voice of Jiminy Cricket, and if someone could please provide footage of Gordon-Levitt in the recording booth, I’d be forever in your debt. Because, how did this voice come out of his mouth, and how did he deliver these lines? As for the voicework, he might be divisive, but because I love him, I enjoyed listening to him, even if it was truly unusual. He wanders into the workshop of Geppetto (Tom Hanks, doing his second wonky accent this year) who is polishing off his work on a puppet that resembles his son. Maybe had the movie dove a little deeper into Geppetto’s grief, we might’ve had at least some depth. But… nah. Anyways, Gep decides to name the puppet boy Pinocchio. And… I have mixed feelings on the look of this puppet. Because Pinocchio feels like something out of a Pixar animated feature, but he’s in a real setting and looks way too similar to the original. He’s also kind of creepy if you stare into his eyes long enough.
To Zemeckis’ credit though, there are majestic strokes during the early portion of this film, with some of the production design looking beautiful and immaculate. Anyways, in the middle of the night, The Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo, who has the voice of an angel) appears in the middle of the night, brings Pinocchio to life, and casts Jiminy as Pinocchio’s temporary conscience until he develops one. Gep wakes up the next day, sees Pinocchio is a living being, and is of course thrilled. I’d personally s**t a brick, but that’s just me. And Gep decides to send Pinocchio to school, which is a grave mistake for many reasons. The guy clearly didn’t think this through: how are children going to respond to a human puppet? He. Is. A. Toy! You’d think that Sherriff Woody himself would have an understanding of this, smh.
Pinocchio is on the way to school when he’s eventually abducted by a roadshow act. He befriends a weird girl and her creepy puppet. He eventually hitches a ride with some kids who are on the way to Pleasure Town, which… look, even someone without a dirty mind could poke fun in that name. Let alone, make reference to the Will Ferrell masterpiece Anchorman. And basically Pinocchio goes from one location to another as Jiminy tries to stand by his side and Gep goes searching for him. Maybe Gep should’ve thought about that before he sent a human puppet that is literally spending his first day on earth and has no moral compass or conscience to school. Idiot.
So I should mention that this is set in Italy, if the names weren’t an indicator. I mention this because I’m not sure if everyone understood the assignment, because there are some nutty accents on display here, particularly in the bizarre detour involving Luke Evans. I like the guy a lot, but at first he looks like Scoot McNairy, and then eventually he just has this smile on his face that is pedophiliac. It’s also with this detour where suddenly the look of the movie starts to crumble, and that was really what it had going for it. Like if you’re not going to do anything to spice up the material, at least deliver visually. Unfortunately, Zemeckis can’t, and I don’t know if it’s because this is a straight to Disney+ release and the actual budget ran out at about the 40 minute mark. But take the Pleasure Town sequence. Everything about the design of this place looks awesome, but as a visual effect it looks unbelievably sloppy. It’s like Zemeckis used one of his locales from The Polar Express, but inserted people into it, and it just looks like s**t.
And just wait until the final act, which is also a frustrating mix of beauty and slop. The movie just doesn’t work. It’s not a movie I loathed, but because Zemeckis is such a master and a visionary, we can’t help but expect something way better than what he’s given us here. Normally, three strikes means you’re out. This is Zemeckis’ third strike in a row, and yet I’ll still give him the benefit of the doubt because of what he is capable of. Scrolling through his IMDb yesterday, I came across an upcoming movie of his titled Here, which sounds like a small-scale drama starring Tom Hanks and Robin Wright. This is what he needs. After doing those creepy stop-motion movies for the bulk of the 2000’s, when he returned, it was with Flight. So I’m assuming that’s the direction he’ll go next, and after three straight misses in a row, culminating in Pinocchio, I am craving small scale Zemeckis. Please.
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