It’s been a strange year for cinema and Guillermo del Toro. Aside from falling into debates around the filmic merits of both Avatar and Martin Scorsese and becoming a veritable spokesperson against the invasion of AI art into cinema — there’s still something stranger.
Somehow, someway, his newest production has become the third this year to retell Italian author Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.
Already Tom Hanks and, of all people, Pauly Shore have starred in their own remakes — making Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio trail behind both the simply-titled Pinocchio and Pinocchio: A True Story in terms of release date.
But beyond the title and source material, that’s about where the similarities end. While both the Hanks and Shore versions were light, critically panned and intentionally geared towards children, del Toro’s is none of those things.
Instead, the infamously dark director set the story in Europe’s interwar period, smack dab in the middle of fascist Italy. His Gepetto, a desperate man stuck in political turmoil who is “completely drunk when he carves Pinocchio,” del Toro told CBC, does so because “his fatherhood is an act of desperation.”
Why did he look at the story that way?
“All my movies are melancholic,” he said, only slightly laughing. “All of them.”
And really, it’s just one of the throughlines del Toro used to link the story, which he says took 15 years to make, to his own life. Fatherhood, which plays a central role in many of his films, is eked from his own somewhat estranged relationship with his own father. (“My dad was a mystery, he said. “Is still a mystery, to some degree.”)
The lesson of his Pinocchio is an inverted interpretation of the original, where del Toro contrasts Collodi’s aspirations to be a priest with his own rebellion against the Catholic education he received. (“All the impulses Collodi had, I identify with,” he said, “the lessons are very different. I’m in favour of disobedience; he’s in favour of obedience. He says [Pinocchio] should change, and I say he should not change — it’s Gepetto who should change.”)
And really, the handling of Pinocchio goes deeper into del Toro’s own childhood than any of his previous projects — though, instead of following the events of his life, it interprets how he saw the world.
Pinocchio, who looks more like a sad hunk of wood than the classical depiction of an adorable young boy with only the long wooden nose to indicate his inhumanity, continually disobeys his father and the regime, only to be sent to Pleasure Island. Except, unlike the converted amusement park in the original Disney version, del Toro’s Pleasure Island is a re-education camp where children play at war.
That darker version comes from the message he took away from the movie as a child.
“The first time I saw the Disney movie, I thought, ‘This is how scary it is to be a kid,’” he said.
“It stuck in my throat that I didn’t like the idea of changing to become a good boy. Because I was already getting that from the church, and the Sunday service, and my grandma and everybody was pressuring you — to shape you. And I think my idea is that all these forces crack you when you’re a kid, and then you spend the rest of your life figuring out how to mend.”
It was that unique relationship to both his life and cinema that guided his career’s trajectory — with everything from The Devil’s Backbone to Pan’s Labyrinth (which del Toro said, along with Pinocchio, make a thematic trilogy: “three movies that talk to each other” about death and parenting) and The Shape of Water meditating on the darkness and difficulties of his youth.
But even with that experience, he says there was something unique to him that caused him to interpret things that way. Looking at his older brother, who “grew up happy-go-lucky” despite encountering many of the same things he did, del Toro said there was something in him that always trended to the morose.
“If you imagine that you’re a crystal glass and certain notes of a soprano affect one quality of glass but not others, it’s not about how hard your life is objectively — It’s about how hard it is subjectively, as a kid,” he said.
“And I was made of a certain glass that resonated with monsters and resonated with religion in different ways.”
That resonance was also fostered by his mother, Guadalupe del Toro, a “weird” woman who shared his fascination with monsters. She was “a poet, a painter, a witch” who taught him to read tarot cards and the I Ching, and regularly took him to see horror movies and melodramas.
But mixed in with those — and actually the second movie they ever saw together, after 1939’s Wuthering Heights — was Disney’s Pinocchio. It became the film they bonded over, a film they rewatched together, a movie that inspired her to give him a number of wooden Pinocchios over the years, and a movie that she continually pestered him to remake himself.
“She said this is the one, you know, this is the one you’re going to deliver.”
I guarantee you one thing right now to everybody in this room, we will all die…. That makes you realize the second thing: I’ll guarantee we’re all alive. We are all alive in this room, and that’s absolutely remarkable.
But unfortunately, she died before the movie released — shortly after giving him a final Pinocchio fridge magnet, and just hours ahead of the film’s world premiere at the London Film Festival.
She had seen little of the movie itself, but still lived in it — from its original inspiration, to its dedication to bringing heavy themes to a children’s story, to a preoccupation with what he calls a “very Mexican vision of death.”
“I guarantee you one thing right now to everybody in this room, we will all die,” he explained in the interview, motioning to everyone standing behind the cameras. “It actually gives you a finality that makes you realize the second thing: I’ll guarantee we’re all alive. We are all alive in this room, and that’s absolutely remarkable.”
He fought to be true to that, to include the difficult — and frightening — aspects of growing up into the film.
It was his way of avoiding what he calls “babysitter movies” — made-for-children films designed to keep kids occupied for two hours, but don’t challenge children to ask any questions.
That struggle is part of what made the film take fifteen years to make, because “for 10 or 11 years, [the studio] would say ‘Is it for kids?’ And I would say ‘It’s not made for them, but they can watch it if their parents talk to them.’” del Toro said. “And that’s very different — you’re going to have a conversation about life, death, about parenthood.”
After his mother died he said he began to recontextualize why he made movies the way he did — and what they meant.
“The way I phrase it … is all of my life, I thought the question was my father. And when I lost my mom, I realized it was her,” he said.
“They are going to be the two shapes that affect my life and my narrative and what I do — and if I’m lucky as I go away, I’ll figure that it was not that important that I never figured it out. But my father is me and my mother is me, so this is the answer for me.”
In many ways it’s that unanswerable question about his parents, and what they meant to him, that most fuels his movies.
“The idea is they were people,” he said, “ but to me they were symbols.”
With files from Eli Glasner.