With “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” we are warned right from the title that this is no merry, bright-colored fairy tale of a boy made from wood. The filmmaker behind “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Crimson Peak” and “Nightmare Alley,” to name just a few, has a fascination with shadows and elegant grotesquerie, and his stop-motion animation “Pinocchio” is wrapped in grief — an old man, desperate to re-create his dead son, creates a Frankenpuppet — and set during a dark period of history: Italy, during Mussolini’s fascist regime. It’s an artful, moving and often beautiful film, but be careful about showing it to young children; nightmares could ensue. (It haunted me, and I’m quite grown.)
Co-directed by del Toro and stop-motion animal wizard Mark Gustafson (whose credits include animation director for “The Fantastic Mr. Fox”), and made in association with The Jim Henson Co., this “Pinocchio” begins and ends at a graveyard. The woodcarver Geppetto (gently voiced by David Bradley, who might be recognized by some sharp listeners as Argus Filch from the “Harry Potter” movies) is grieving the loss of his beloved son Carlo, who we see in happy flashbacks. “It was as if Carlo had taken the old man’s life with him,” a reflective cricket narrator (Ewan McGregor) tells us.
In a drunken late-night stupor, Geppetto makes a puppet that looks like his lost boy; after a bit of magic crafted while the old man sleeps off his binge, this spindly legged creature is dancing wildly around the room. He’s not a sweet boy like Carlo, but an untamed spirit who doesn’t want to obey, and Geppetto doesn’t know what to make of him. Fascist Italy, we quickly see, is not the place for a wanton tree-child who says whatever pops into his head, and soon we’re seeing Hitler salutes, the Nazi youth corps, a nightmarish carnival in which Pinocchio performs and the swirling, fetid bile of a whale’s stomach, from which a harrowing escape must take place.
All of this is rendered with dark perfection and careful attention to detail: the grime under Geppetto’s fingernails and the gray-spaghetti disorder of his hair; the delicate dance performed by dry autumn leaves in the breeze; the almost frightening spidery, uncontrolled quality of Pinocchio’s legs and the eerie nothingness of his smile; the perfectly dappled sea. (What feels less perfect are the handful of songs; though this is technically a musical, they don’t really register.) Ultimately, this “Pinocchio” is a reflection on loss, on fear, on how things end, told with wistful resignation. “Why do they like him and not me?” asks Pinocchio, pointing to a figure of Jesus on the cross in a church; he sees in the statue just another wooden boy. Replies Geppetto, “People are sometimes afraid of things they don’t know.”