Roberto Benigni takes a second crack at Pinocchio — this time as Geppetto in Oscar-nominated adaptation

By: Steve Pulaski

Playing catch-up on some Oscar-nominated films in time for the Academy Awards on April 25th.

Perhaps it’s an unfair designation, but Matteo Garrone’s Pinocchio could be seen as a redemption hour for Roberto Benigni. Following the success of his 1998 film Life is Beautiful, he opted to make an expensive, live-action adaptation of the children’s classic Pinocchio in 2002. Then came trouble. Benigni not only made the questionable decision to cast himself as the wooden boy visually punished for telling a lie, but Harvey Weinstein and Miramax made the unforgivable choice to redub the entire film for its American release. Benigni, who was 49 at the time, and his graceful Italian dialog was replaced with 28-year-old Breckin Meyer to disastrous results. Benigni has since only directed one film.

Credit Garrone — who struck gold with his acclaimed crime-drama Gomorrah in the late aughts — for committing to Benigni, this time in the role of Geppetto. The initially head-scratching decision pays dividends as he gifts the umpteenth adaptation of Carlo Collidi’s timeless story with a gentle performance as the woodworker responsible for bringing Pinocchio (Federico Ielapi) to life in the early minutes of the film. From there, it’s about getting the rambunctious Pinocchio acclimated to the life of a young boy. This proves to be a challenge. After inadvertently burning off his feet, forcing Geppetto to carve him new clodhoppers, he runs away to a Puppet Theatre setting into motion a wild and sometimes frightening sequence of events that send him miles away from the only life he’s ever known.

Originally released in Italy over Christmas 2019, Garrone’s Pinocchio is a marvel of makeup. Gifted makeup-man Mark Coulier (who worked on the Harry Potter and X-Men films) creates a symphony of detailed character designs and prosthetics that integrate the story into the real-world rather seamlessly. This is Pinocchio by way of the Grimm brothers, stripped of the story’s now-inherent Disney cuteness. This loans gravity to moments such as when Pinocchio is nearly tossed into the fire after joining the Puppet Theatre or comes face-to-face with a tuna fish after being swallowed by a shark. Just when you thought The Shape of Water would be nightmare fuel, Garrone and Coulier work to assure you won’t think of Pinocchio with the same rose-colored glasses.

Like many live-action adaptations of stories that have become firmly rooted in animation, Pinocchio can occasionally suffer from its realism, which robs it of that fairy tale grace. The larger hang-up at hand is the tone, which segues from aggressively dark to sentimental at the drop of a hat. The aspects it chooses to linger on for several minutes are sometimes obscure, such as the scene when a group of misfit toys bicker about what disease has overtaken Pinocchio. If anything, the commendable roster of supporting players mostly sandpaper over the flaws. The late Gigi Proietti is an enthusiastic Mangiafuoco, and Rocco Papaleo and Massimo Ceccherini are valiantly conniving as the Cat and the Fox, respectively.

Federico Ielapi is also wonderful as Pinocchio. He’s put through the ringer in a performance that’s both physical and with lofty emotional range, and he’s up to task as the titular character for whom you can’t help but root. Nicolaj Brüel’s cinematography enhances the variety of settings either through a pleasantly rustic color palette or an appropriately ghastly aura that hits an apex when Pinocchio finds himself in the belly of the aforementioned shark. Tied together with Dario Marianelli’s soft, string-heavy score and you have a beautiful production that more than makes up for the sins Weinstein bestowed upon Benigni’s original vision. Every Oscars needs an out-of-left-field nominee in whatever category and Pinocchio takes that torch and runs with it as if he just found out how to use his legs.

Grade: B-

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