Disney's desire to turn its classic animated movies into live-action-CGI hybrid films seems unrelenting at this point. Since 1996, the world famous studio has remade and modernized 14 of its most iconic features for the big and small screens, with many of those – such as Cruella and Mulan – being released since 2014.
Fans and critics have regularly wondered why Disney would pursue such an endeavor. But, when many of its remakes, such as The Lion King and Aladdin, have pulled in over $1 billion at the global box office, Disney's live-action adaptations are cash cows primed for milking, regardless of how well they're received. It's unsurprising, then, that Disney plans to make another 16 live-action movies – 11 remakes from its animated back catalog, plus five sequels to previously released live-action adaptations, including The Jungle Book – over the next few years.
Those flicks are for the future, though. Right now, Disney's sole focus is on its live-action remake of Pinocchio, the studio's beloved 1940 movie, which has landed on Disney Plus as part of the company's Disney Plus Day 2022 celebrations.
So, is it any good? And does this new interpretation live up to its animated predecessor's and fans' expectations? Yes and no. Disney's Pinocchio remake is a near faithful recreation of its classic fairytale; one that also incorporates new material and creative deviations to contrasting effect. It's not without some obvious issues either, though, which ultimately prevent it from usurping its animated sibling.
Wishing upon a star
Set in 19th century Italy, Pinocchio tells the story of the wooden puppet who comes to life when his lonely but kind-hearted creator Geppetto (Tom Hanks) wishes on a star to make that dream come true.
After the Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) grants Geppetto's wish that same night, Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) sets out on an adventure to prove how brave, selfless, and truthful he is – traits he believes will turn him into a real boy. However, with dangers lurking around every corner, such as the cruel puppeteer Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston) and the menacing Pleasure Island owner known simply as The Coachman (Luke Evans), Pinocchio must learn to distinguish right from wrong to achieve his goal. Fortunately, he has the help of his trusty sidekick Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to try and keep him on the straight and narrow.
For the most part, Disney's live-action Pinocchio movie does a stellar job of following the narrative depicted in its animated counterpart. Without spoiling anything for those who haven't seen the original, the studio's remake hits all the major story beats seen in its predecessor, ensuring that it doesn't stray too far from faithful adaptation territory. It retains much of what made the original such a captivating watch, including the terror-infused parts of that Pleasure Island sequence, which some younger viewers may find a bit too frightening.
There are occasions, though, when Disney's remake diverges from the original film's plot. Some changes feel like a fine fit, such as the addition of a subplot concerning new character Fabiana (Kyanne Lamaya), one of Stromboli's puppeteer employees who befriends Pinocchio through her ballerina marionette called Sabina. It's a side story that adds emotive substance to the narrative, one that adds a novel character who aids Pinocchio's character development rather than hindering it. In a movie where everyone except Geppetto and Jiminy wants to lead Pinocchio astray, Fabiana's addition to the story is a welcome one.
Other slight plot deviations are also necessary to update Pinocchio's story for a 21st century audience. Disney's live-action adaptation removes content from the 1940 original that isn't child friendly, such as cutting the Pleasure Island elements where Pinocchio and his fellow kidnappees smoke cigars, gamble, and get drunk – a sequence replaced with theme park attendees eating copious amounts of candy and drinking root beer instead. They're subtle but essential changes to the story that help to make this family friendly flick, well, more family friendly.
Disney takes some creative liberties with its recreation that some fans may take exception with, however. For one, Disney makes a bold narrative decision with the movie's ending. Again, no spoilers, but it's a creative divergence that feels pretty anticlimactic, even if it's a finale that generally makes sense from a contextual perspective. Nonetheless, it's an ending that might divide viewers, particularly those who may expect to see a similar conclusion to the 1940 original play out.
Long time Pinocchio fans are sure to bristle at the notion that this film isn't as musically-led as its animated cousin, too. Sure, Disney's remake contains some classic Pinocchio songs, but there are a few that have been truncated or removed entirely, such as Jiminy Cricket's 'Give a Little Whistle'. Traditionalists, then, might not take too kindly to these musical numbers being altered or dropped completely.
A magical cast but inconsistent CGI
If there's an area where Disney's Pinocchio remake feels like a cut above its predecessor, it's the movie's spellbinding cast.
Unsurprisingly, Hanks is on top form as Geppetto; the legendary actor delivering a tender and charming performance as Pinocchio's father. Hanks feels right at home in a production such as this, bringing finesse and soul to the character that other stars may not be able to replicate as deftly as the award-winning actor.
Hanks isn't the only star of the show. Erivo's take on the Blue Fairy is wonderfully delicate if a tad brief – sadly, Erivo only appears in one scene in the entire movie, which doesn't make full use of her talents. Meanwhile, Evans and Battiston bring out delightful devilishness and menace in their respective antagonists who revel in their ability to guide the naive Pinocchio down the wrong path.
On the voice acting front, Ainsworth delivers the right balance between childlike innocence and fearlessness as the titular character, with Gordon-Levitt's Jiminy bringing equal parts levity and concern to proceedings. Special mention, though, goes to Keegan Michael-Key's portrayal of Honest John, the film's anthropomorphic street urchin fox, whose scene-stealing performance is as riotously entertaining as you're likely to see in a live-action Disney film. If his Chris Pine joke doesn't elicit a hardy laugh from viewers, we're not sure what will.
As for the movie's VFX, the effectiveness of its CGI isn't as consistent as one would expect from a Disney production.
The movie's VFX-based characters, including Pinocchio, Jiminy, Figaro the cat, Cleo the fish, and Honest John are expertly animated. Each one moves as realistically and enthusiastically as you would expect and, for the most part, they fit seamlessly into the real-world surroundings they have to inhabit.
There are multiple occasions, however, where the movie's live-action and CGI hybridization is clumsily represented on the screen. Early on in Geppetto's workshop, there's a sequence where it's plainly evident that Hanks' carpenter is acting around a bunch of props. Replaced by their CGI counterparts in the final edit, the blend between live-action and VFX components feels janky and somewhat unrealistic; a fault that ruins the immersion and belie the otherwise fantastic production design that's gone into the film's real world sets.
Other instances, such as the giant, candy-laden slide sequence at Pleasure Island and Geppetto's ocean search for Pinocchio, are conspicuous by their obvious use of green screen technology. They're disappointingly distracting, pulling you out of the scene once they're noticeable and spoil the fantastical nature of what's playing out in those scenes. It's unclear if these problems would be evident on a bigger screen – Pinocchio has only been released on Disney Plus – but, on the small screen at least, they're complications too prominent to overlook.
Pinocchio is a fairly magical remake of one of Disney's most beloved movies. The addition of new story elements and characters help to bring its age-old tale into the 21st century. Coupled with the retention of the original movie's main narrative components, excellent cast, nuanced humor, and endearing themes, it's a remake that plenty of viewers will enjoy and be entertained by.
That said, it's not as spectacular as it could be. It doesn't have the emotional impact that the original film has, while the evident disparity in its VFX and CGI components are hard to miss.
Disney purists will argue that, like other live-action Disney adaptations, such as The Lion King, it's an unnecessary remake that fails to add much to proceedings – and they have a point. It's a movie that largely retreads old ground, making the odd change or two that enhances its story while removing classic elements, such as iconic songs, that didn't need to be taken away. Compare that to Disney's 2016 and 2017 remakes of The Jungle Book, and Beauty and the Beast, which did far better jobs of updating its classic tale for modern day audiences, and Pinocchio falls short of performing a similar feat.
Pinocchio might not become entangled in its own strings, but its problems mean that it can't completely break free of its thread-like shackles. For that reason, it's a movie worth checking out, but one that won't linger in the memory.
Pinocchio is available to stream on Disney Plus, as part of 2022's Disney Plus Day and D23 Expo celebrations, now.