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Retro Puppet Mastered
File the latest bit of Mouse House IP re-jigger-jabber under “Of Interest,” if only because old hand Robert Zemeckis knows his way ’round too-big-to-fail superproductions. Though I suspect Pinocchio 2022 being unceremoniously dropped on Disney+ has less to do with recoupable monetary prospects (not lookin’ good!) and more the prickly subtext Zemeckis brings to the proceedings. From frame one, this is quite apparently a film in argument, if not outright war, with itself, as two versions of Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) schizophrenically bicker about voiceover narration (a meta-micro concern) and the outcome of a future that one of them knows but the other doesn’t. How’s that for existential unease? The anxieties of a tale already told, but not yet lived.
And it only gets weirder from there, at least in the early going. I can assure you I wasn’t expecting the first part of Pinocchio 2022 to be a near-thirty-minute one-act set entirely in the workshop of grieving woodcarver Geppetto (Tom Hanks) — a locale that Zemeckis, his frequent cinematographer Don Burgess, and production designers Doug Chiang and Stefan Dechant conceive as a mental-projection madhouse. Here is a very real Hanks (in full mutter-to-thyself mode) interacting with digi-pets Cleo and Figaro against a backdrop of time-synced cuckoo clocks that all feature figurines from Disney productions past. (Toy Story’s Woody; the witch and Snow White; Maleficent and Sleeping Beauty; Jessica and Roger Rabbit, among the many.) That Hanks once played Papa Walt brings the cannibalizing self-referentiality to levels of migraine that might make one long for an old-school trepanning.
But the longer this sequence lasts — during which Geppetto creates the wooden puppet (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) eventually brought to life by the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) and imbued, so it is implied, with the spirit of the toymaker’s dead son — the more Zemeckis’s oddly acidic artistry reveals itself. Geppetto’s workshop becomes its own eccentric landscape, a memorial to days gone by that also acts as a literal and figurative prison for those (characters and viewers alike) who don’t wish to move beyond their own blinkered states of body and soul. It is additionally a sandbox in which Zemeckis can satiate his idiosyncratic, often wizardly technical appetites. At certain points (when the CG-augmented shadowplay really hits) it feels like Manoel de Oliveira dropped in from the beyond to ghost-direct. (Cue Jonathan Rosenbaum scolding in 3…2….)
Anyways, as the film finally tilts toward spectacle it becomes…not conventional, exactly, but defanged. Strange since Zemeckis is usually in his element with setpieces, though the only one here that really clicks is the first part of the Pleasure Island sequence, with the no-adults-but-plenty-of-asses theme park visualized as a sick-inducing replica of the Magic Kingdom. Think of this Pinocchio, at its best, as Zemeckis’s conglomerate-backed cultural critique, a nauseated state of the artistic union typified by a scene in which our little timber-carved innocent quizzically contemplates a steaming pile of horse dung.
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