We examine how far Robert Zemeckis’ Pinocchio gets from the original 1940 Disney movie.
When you wish upon a star, it doesn’t matter how original you are. That’s certainly Disney’s hope at the beginning of the new, Robert Zemeckis-directed Pinocchio. The film marks the latest “live-action” remake of a classic from the Walt Disney Animation Studios catalog. And in this case, it’s pulling from one of the oldest.
Walt Disney’s original Pinocchio was only the second feature-length film made by his animation house after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs from three years earlier. Pinocchio is also where the Walt Disney Company got its unofficial theme song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” To this day, you usually hear an orchestral version of the tune every time you see a new Disney movie that gets the banner logo title card at the beginning. But in the case of Zemeckis’ Pinocchio, the traditional fanfare is interrupted when a digitally animated Jiminy Cricket descends above Sleeping Beauty’s castle in all his three-dimensional glory.
Now voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, ol’ Jiminy sings a few bars of that fabled ditty. This in itself is a nod to how the original Pinocchio began with the classic two-dimensional Jiminy (voiced by Cliff Edwards) singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” However, just by the way Gordon-Levitt’s Jiminy breaks the fourth wall during the title cards to begin talking to the audience, you should know that this is the same and different—and if we’re being honest, inferior.
Whereas the 1940 film starts off in an animated drawing room in which a treasured copy of Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio children’s story is just waiting to be read, and then gradually introduces Jiminy as a classic children’s storyteller who’ll sing a whole song before beginning his tale, the 2022 movie opens with Jiminy making a self-aware nod and wink at how the tune has become as synonymous with Disney as Mickey Mouse. It is inviting parents to smirk and children to giggle. But right down to the garishness of Jiminy’s awkward three-dimensional rendering, you can tell something is off.
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This prologue plays like a promise for the differences that are to come between the two Pinocchio movies…
A good place to continue underscoring those differences is with Jiminy himself. As voiced by Gordon-Levitt, Jiminy is still the vaguely trampish vagabond cricket who wanders into the home of toymaker Geppetto (Tom Hanks). However, there are distinct differences between this Jiminy and the one Cliff Edwards’ voice made iconic in the original 1940 film.
In addition to Gordon-Levitt not being as natural of a singer as Edwards, the younger actor also plays up Edwards’ authentic Southern accent, which can only faintly be heard in the 1940 film. In the new movie, Jiminy sounds like he spent his whole life in Missoura’ before moving to Italy. The effect is pretty similar to Gordon-Levitt’s outrageous French accent in his and Zemeckis’ last live-action collaboration, The Walk (2015). That is when Jiminy isn’t making actual cricket noises on occasion to make this feel more like it’s “live-action.”
There are also more subtle differences that speak to how perceptions about parenting have changed since 1940. While in both versions Jiminy agrees to be Pinocchio’s conscience, the original Jiminy often takes a hands-off approach when Pinocchio disobeys his advice. “Go on and make a fool of yourself,” he chides when Pinocchio first performs the “No Strings Attached” song for the wicked puppeteer Stromboli. He also repeatedly steps back from helping Pinocchio after the lad makes his own decisions.
Conversely, the new Jiminy is much more hands on in helping guide and nurturing Pinocchio’s conscience. He is frantic when the untrustworthy fox they call Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) seduces Pinocchio into show business. He also is far more patient with Pinocchio when the little wooden boy begins spinning tall tales and growing his nose out.
This approach is in-keeping with developing what is ostensibly supposed to be a more loving home according to modern sensibilities. But if these changes feel somewhat subtle in regard to Jiminy, they’re significant for Pinocchio’s father…
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A Tragic Geppetto
The fairytale logic of the original Pinocchio film from 1940 resembles that of, well, a children’s fairytale. Geppetto wishes upon a star for Pinocchio to be a real boy because it is “a lovely idea,” as our narrator Jiminy states. And Geppetto’s wish is granted by the Blue Fairy (more on her later) because he’s brought so much joy to countless children.
… That is not how Hanks’ Geppetto is presented. Reteaming with his Forrest Gump and Castaway director for the first time since The Polar Express, Hanks’ Geppetto is given a lot more backstory and tragedy. Presumably this is done to give Hanks a worthier part for his talents, but we can’t help but suspect Disney wanted to emphasize to modern eyes a clearly benevolent reason for wishing to have a son.
Yet the change gives the beginning of Pinocchio ‘22 an overwhelming sense of melancholy for a children’s film. This Geppetto is introduced as grieving the death of his son in a black and white photograph, and presumably of the boy’s mother as well. His wishing upon a star is not just a sweet fanciful daydream, but a desperate lament for a parent who has suffered the most unfathomable of horrors.
Personally, we think it casts a pall over the whole film. But it is also in-keeping with the desire to flesh out Geppetto’s motivations and actions throughout the film. For instance, rather than sending Pinocchio to school the day after the wooden doll comes to life—a la the 1940 film—there is a montage of Gepetto teaching Pinocchio the basics of living, dancing, exercising, and learning right from wrong. He even teaches Pinocchio not to talk to strangers (if only the lad had listened harder before meeting Honest John).
Still, it gives Hanks a little more to do before the third act after his son goes missing.
Pinocchio and the Animation
Of course the heart of the movie is Pinocchio himself, a CGI recreation of the 1940 animated character, right down to his little yellow hat. As voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Pinocchio remains a sweet and charmingly naive protagonist for young children to see themselves in as he wanders about the world.
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One might also argue that it is the picture perfect recreation of Pinocchio—and to a few of the other digital characters like Honest John and Gideon the Cat—which catches Zemeckis’ Pinocchio in the same trap as many previous live-action Disney remakes. Is this a slavish recreation of the movie you already saw or something that goes its own way? And if it tries to be its own movie, will that harm the lucrative nostalgia the project is meant to evoke in the first place?
When it comes to a character as iconic as Pinocchio, Disney and its animators opted to recreate the recognizable iconography associated with the intellectual property in exacting detail. Strangely, they did not do the same for Jiminy Cricket, which is all the odder since the design they came up with for Jiminy is demonstrably worse in live-action than probably just recreating what Walt’s team did in 1940. Either way, it clashes with a visual aesthetic that also attempts to get away from just replicating the 1940 film.
Some of this is by necessity. For example, Geppetto’s cat, Figaro, cannot be nearly so cartoonish on-screen when interacting with Tom Hanks. If they did that, it would look like one of Zemeckis’ early triumphs, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And the whole point of this live-action remake exercise is to use the animation to give a false sense of “live-action.” This also explains why Jiminy periodically chirps and jumps like a cricket.
So to keep some of the anthropomorphic charm of the original Figaro from 1940, Zemeckis and Disney still opt to use a CGI creature for the cat as opposed to a real feline with tuxedo markings. But now the animal is some weird uncanny valley, neither as authentically live as a living cat, and nowhere near as beguiling as the original 1940 animated character. The version the 2022 movie settles on lacks the spark of personality or life. This goes double for Geppetto’s pet fish.
That uneven balance between “live-action” and nostalgic animation occurs throughout the film, with much of 2022’s Pinocchio occurring on sets and vistas meant to suggest a heightened but recognizable version of 19th century Italy. That is jarring though when juxtaposed with Pinocchio’s antiquated design that was originally intended for a different medium of cinematic storytelling.
The Tone of Pinocchio’s Adventures
It is perhaps because of the visual imbalance of the project that Zemeckis attempts to imbue his Pinocchio with a lot more meta-humor that consistently breaks the fourth wall. The most glaring example of this is when it’s revealed that Geppetto’s cuckoo clocks are all designed around exact replicas of famous Disney IP. If a few of them merely hinted at the director and Hanks’ previous triumphs at Disney, such as Roger Rabbit and Toy Story, respectively, it might’ve worked. However, we get a one-to-one perfect recreation of Woody and his trusty steed Bullseye from Toy Story 2 out of the first cuckoo clock we see—and then we get the same “joke” again with Roger Rabbit, The Lion King, Dumbo, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White.
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The obvious intent is to make audiences chuckle in recognition, particularly parents, yet it feels incongruent in a movie that so desperately wishes to recreate the earnestness of the 1940 Pinocchio. While Disney has never been above inserting a joke only parents can fully appreciate—such as Jiminy Cricket musing “why would an actor need a conscience?” in the original movie—pop culture references and self-congratulatory “easter eggs” are a product of more modern family films. It arguably began with Disney’s Aladdin, but really it was DreamWorks Animation and Shrek in the 21st century that turned this into family movie pro forma boilerplate. And it really reaches diminishing results when Keegan-Michael Key’s Honest John suggests Pinocchio should consider being called “Chris Pine.”
Generally though, this seems a piece with the movie’s desire to smooth out the very dark edges of the original Italian story and 1940 movie (read more under the “Pleasure Island” subsection) and put it in line with modern, innocuous family content. So if the goal was to make it blander, then mission accomplished.
Blue Fairy’s One Big Scene
Still, not all the differences run against the 2022 movie’s favor. For instance, letting Cynthia Erivo sing “Wish Upon a Star” is an inspired choice. This occurs because the Tony-winner was cast as the Blue Fairy. This will probably ruffle some feathers since the original Blue Fairy was drawn to be white, but if you have a problem with the complexion of a magical fairy who descends from the heavens to grant wishes—well, trust us, you have bigger issues to worry about.
Erivo and her angelic voice are perfectly cast as a singing Blue Fairy, although the choice to make her more perplexed about why Geppetto’s wooden doll has come to life, as opposed to aware of the wish she is granting, is an odd one. It feels, again, like an attempt at self-aware humor by Zemeckis and Chris Weitz’s screenplay, with the Blue Fairy questioning the very concept of Pinocchio existing in the first place.
Another major departure from the original Blue Fairy is that she only appears in one scene. This feels like it’s partially done to change the message of the ending (more on that below), but it also makes Pinocchio and Jiminy much more proactive.
In the 1940 version of this story, the Blue Fairy appears time and again to bail Pinocchio out of jams and to gently chastise him when he lies to her. But in the new film, it’s Jiminy who teaches Pinocchio that lying is as obvious as the nose on his face when he is imprisoned by Stromboli, and it is Pinocchio who saves himself at the end of the story.
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In the end, it makes the Blue Fairy little more than a walk-on cameo where Erivo banters with a CGI cricket (who is notably not crushing on her like his 1940 counterpart) and sings a song.
Pinocchio Gets a Love Interest
Erivo isn’t the only one who gets a song though. In the new version of Disney’s Pinocchio, there are entire new 21st century songs and characters, including Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya). Fabiana is a former ballerina who has fallen in with Stromboli as a marionette artist. She—or just her marionette? (it’s weird)—also develops something of a crush on Pinocchio that I think the wooden boy reciprocates. This is first teased when she puts on a private “ballet” show with a new song for Pinocchio. But even after the performance, Fabiana only communicates with Pinocchio and other human characters through her own little wooden marionette—even as the puppets flirt?
… Moving on!
Narratively one of the biggest areas the 2022 movie departs from the 1940 film is on “Pleasure Island,” the ghastly amusement park site where an evil coachman turns misbehaving boys who just want to play all night into donkeys doomed to work in the salt mines!
It’s pretty horrifying stuff in the ’40 movie. And there are quite sinister implications as the animated Coachman asks Honest John and Gideon to help him round up little boys. The Coachman’s face then turns into a literal devil as he says the boys will never leave Pleasure Island as boys. (Shudders.) Which is probably why the scene is excised entirely from the 2022 movie. In fact, we never see Honest John again after he sells Pinocchio off to Stromboli in the movie.
Instead the new movie’s pacing moves much faster with Pinocchio running into the Coachman (Luke Evans) already en route to Pleasure Island with a coach full of children—now boys and girls because he’s more egalitarian. Evans also gets a new, fairly forgettable song and some muddled digital subordinates. Indeed, whereas the 1940 Coachman’s face looks briefly demonic in one specific moment to underscore how evil he is through animated shorthand, he and his minions turn into literal black shadows reminiscent of the demons in the 1990 movie Ghost during Pinocchio ‘22.
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They’re less terrifying than the single evil Coachman in the original movie, and we never see them threaten a donkey crying with a child’s voice like in that picture. Instead the Coachman is mostly seen smiling as he encourages Pinocchio and his new naughty friend Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd) to drink a “tall one” of root beer—and there is special emphasis on the root of the beer here, whereas it was more ambiguous what kind of brew the lads were drinking in the ’40 film (back when they also smoked cigars!).
All in all, Pleasure Island is slightly less menacing with its added splendor of gondolas and mountains made of candy, but we suspect it’s still pretty scary to the film’s youngest target audience when Lampwick turns into a donkey before Pinocchio’s eyes.
A Whale of a Tale’s Ending
The biggest area where Pinocchio (2022) differs from Pinocchio (1940) is the ending. Like the original 19th century book, the story concludes with Pinocchio helping Geppetto escape from the belly of a whale. But the changes begin with Pinocchio being there when Geppetto is swallowed, with the wooden boy and his father reuniting on the sea and (again) breaking the fourth wall by having a laugh about how Pinocchio’s previous adventures all happened “in one night?!?!”
But once swallowed by the whale, the two immediately begin plotting their escape, as opposed to Geppetto being resigned to raising his kid while fishing inside the giant mammal’s gullet. Also unlike the 1940 film, Pinocchio is directly responsible for their salvation. Not only does he figure out how to make the whale sneeze, but then uses his wooden legs as a proverbial motorboat, propelling his father and cat to safety.
We suspect this acts as a metaphor for Zemeckis’ most drastic change to the story’s narrative and themes: You shouldn’t be ashamed of who you are or wish to change yourself.
At the end of the 1940 movie, like the original story, Pinocchio’s good deeds prove he has the heart (and conscience) of a true boy—and he magically becomes one. In the 2022 movie, Geppetto realizes Pinocchio is a real son after the wooden lad almost dies saving him. He tells Pinocchio he is a real boy and they go home, happy and reunited with Pinocchio accepting himself for who he is.
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In terms of refashioning the story as a metaphor for how Pinocchio was “born this way,” it works. Even so, it loses something of that Disney magic in the original. Perhaps that’s why the movie then hedges its bets with our narrating cricket saying he’s heard some say Pinocchio might have later become a real boy if rumors are to be believed. But they could just be misinterpreting Geppetto’s message of acceptance.
It’s up to you to choose whatever makes you happiest! But for us, the answer is the 1940 movie.