You know that garish sequence in Disney’s original Pinocchio from 1940, where the title character and a group of wayward youth go to Pleasure Island, smoke cigars, drink alcohol and transform into donkeys? There’s a scene like that in Robert Zemeckis’ 2022 remake of Pinocchio, which isn’t a surprise since the movie is faithful to its source material to a fault. The scene in this one, though, is less of a tonal contrast from the rest of the movie, and represents a fatal deficiency of self-awareness by the Mouse House. For starters, the Pleasure Island sequence reminds one too much of the appearance of the rest of the movie. More damningly, with its blinking lights and water rides, it reminds one too much of Disneyland.


That the experience of the Walt Disney corporation has come to resemble a theme park – both its best parts and worst parts – is a theory put forward years ago by more astute cultural observers than I. The 2022 Pinocchio, though, encapsulates this truth more than almost any film in the long and illustrious history of the company. Robert Zemeckis is the type of early adopter of new technology that Disney loves, to bring its classic IP into the 21st century. He’s also a man who has been accused of employing digital effects in soulless ways. Pinocchio is both soulless and corny in its execution, its mindset stunted in 1940, its appearance a wet sandwich of unpleasant imagery.

The driving factor in hiring Zemeckis was certainly to depict a wooden puppet that comes to life in a way that would awaken our awe of the power of movies. So the design of the lead character is the first of many disappointments – displeasures, if you will – to follow. Pinocchio has no sense of weight in his environment, a two-dimensional slide operating in front of the three-dimensional backgrounds around him. Rendering him with even less dimension is the vocal performance of Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, who is directed by Zemeckis to read his lines as an earnest, plucky impersonation of the original character, created at a time when nuance was not a thing. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is doing the same as Jiminy Cricket. Irony, snark and pop culture references may be the enemy of modern children’s movies, but in Pinocchio, their opposite is even worse.

The story has always been goofy. It’s a narrative grab bag of unrelated episodes that resembles another Disney movie from the same era, Peter Pan, which is similarly lacking in a logical sequence from one vignette to the next. After being wished to life by Geppetto (Tom Hanks), with the help of some magic from the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), Pinocchio famously strives to become a “real boy,” but he’s booted from the schoolhouse for being made of wood. This puts him in the path of the talking fox Honest John (voice of Keegan-Michael Key), who convinces him to perform a stringless puppet act for the nefarious showman Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston). Which leads to his travels to Pleasure Island and ultimately being swallowed by a whale along with Geppetto, who is out in search of him. Then of course there is exactly one scene of his nose growing upon telling furphies, perhaps the most famous thing about Pinocchio that actually has as little to do with the story as anything else.

In picking apart what doesn’t work about Pinocchio – which, really, is almost all of it – we can’t absolve the beloved Tom Hanks. This is one of the hammiest performances Hanks has given in ages, and that’s in a year where he also chipped in a widely derided turn in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis. Fully half of his dialogue is calling out “Pi-NOOO-cchi-OOO!” in search of his missing wooden boy, and it doesn’t get any better with umpteen repetitions. He’s all moustache and bug eyes. He was better off as one of the uncanny valley creations in Zemeckis’ The Polar Express nearly 20 years ago.


It’s hard to overstate what a failure this is, especially considering how closely it follows the rhythms of the original film. The changes we do get are all ill-conceived. When searching for Geppetto – who took his cat Figaro and goldfish Cleo out into the middle of the ocean on a rickety little boat, with no seafaring experience whatsoever – Pinocchio gets there by barefoot waterskiing, pulled by a seagull named Sofia (voice of Lorraine Bracco). As he approaches the forlorn Geppetto, the two have a full conversation about what Pinocchio has been doing since he last saw his “father,” most of which takes place from several hundred meters away. If you were hoping for a rewarding depiction of the whale Monstro, you should just watch the 2022 Netflix animated film The Sea Beast instead. Throughout all that happens, the goldfish Cleo – who was a highly improbable participant in this adventure in the first place – loses nary a drop of water from her bowl.

Figaro and Cleo are also part of the problem. Naturally, Zemeckis wanted these animal characters to be digital so he didn’t have to train a real cat to react to an imaginary wooden boy. Simply put, they don’t look good enough for where we are with this technology today. Even worse is the talking fox and his silent sidekick Gideon, who looks a bit like Bill the Cat from the comic strip Bloom County. These are supposed to be icky characters, but does it have to be so icky to look at them?


Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Pinocchio is the place this IP holds in the Disney catalogue. This is, in some ways, the company’s flagship product. The song “When You Wish Upon a Star” is the music that accompanies the logo before every movie Disney releases, as we are reminded when Jiminy sings the song while using his umbrella to parachute into the frame next to the logo. That Disney would fail so stupendously in recreating this core part of its mythology is a real snapshot of where the company is today, if you are inclined toward pessimism. It’s the instinct for the feel of magic that’s missing. In one sense, everything is as it should be, as it would be, as you would expect it to be. In a far more dominant sense, everything is off.


Pinocchio is currently streaming on Disney+.

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