Zemeckis’s Pinocchio Is Hamstrung by Its Visuals

Geppetto (Tom Hanks) sends Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth)

Pinocchio is a phenomenal timeless story revolving around identity that was first adapted in 1940 and repeated every decade forward. The Italian children’s novel by Carlo Collodi has become Disney’s flagship song. Whenever any film starts with the soothing chords of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” you have Pinocchio to thank for that. Pinocchio’s longing to become a real boy is a feeling everyone can project onto themselves. No matter who you are, we’re all destined to become very familiar with the yearning to be something else, something genuine, something…more. Robert Zemeckis’s 2022 rendition of Pinocchio does a fair enough job updating the 1940s cartoon to live action, but does it ultimately work?

The slim beat-for-beat notes of the 1940 original resonate today but lack vibrance due to spotty visual effects. If there’s anyone who could adapt Pinocchio without the material feeling soulless or redundant, it would be Robert Zemeckis. The mastermind behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Polar Express knows a thing or two about blending animation with reality. However, Who Framed Roger Rabbit isn’t remarkable only for the tech that enabled cartoon characters to interact with living, breathing actors. It was the attention to detail that made it so unique. It’s how the lights within the frame bounced off the cartoon characters or how the camera moved around the subjects instead of keeping the frame static to make the animator’s already stressful jobs a little easier to withstand. Roger Rabbit wasn’t the first film to blend people with ‘toons. But it was, and possibly still is, the best at it. Cheap imitations like Cool World, Ready Player One, and Space Jam (especially its sequel) attempted to capture Rob’s magic but have failed to do so.

When adapting Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book The Polar Express in 2004, Zemeckis upgraded Fantasy: The Spirits Within graphics card to match the gorgeous illustration from Mr. Allsburg’s book. Although a technical marvel, there was something a bit creepy in the picture attempting to mimic reality. Despite some critical blowback, Zemeckis continued to work with his semi-live-action computer animated films with Beowolf and A Christmas Carol.

Zemeckis knows how to make a classic while continuing to push the envelope, which is why I’m disappointed to see his rendition of Pinocchio look so inconsistent. From the opening frame, Jiminy Cricket (voiced beautifully to a tee by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) looks out of place in front of Disney’s shooting star logo. As the camera swoops around Geppetto’s cottage, I thought I was watching a scene from The Polar Express. Nothing appeared like live action until the camera stopped spinning and settled still on Tom Hanks (Geppetto). Initially, I thought the film looked like rubbish. But when the camera centered on Hanks, I pondered, “is everything intentionally animated except for the humans? Are they blending real people with the Polar Express engine? If so, that’s kind of brilliant.”

Unfortunately, the case is more like 2019’s The Lion King, where we’re supposed to be watching “photorealistic animation.” If so, then Jon Favreau has beaten Rob at his own game. Although Favreau’s Lion King is an expensive yet cheap imitation of the original, it did look incredible overall. The times it fell apart were when all the animals spoke. Seeing a lion or bird annunciate the English language in something that looks like a National Geographic special is just […] weird. Pinocchio has a similar yet completely different problem. It looks like a 3D cartoon.

I can’t tell if Zemeckis was trying to implement his style into a movie where the viewer is aware that it looks fake or if Disney’s shareholders simply tormented the VFX team to get the film out on time. Elements like Pinocchio (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) himself are an impressive achievement in live-action animation. Every turn of Pinocchio’s wooden joints replicates gorgeously on screen. Much of this is thanks to the sound design. I don’t know why, but there’s something incredibly soothing when hearing Pinocchio’s pieces move. It’s too bad the characters outside of Pinocchio like Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key) look terrible.

The most notable problem in the graphics department is the climactic whale-chasing scene. The beginning of the sequence is impressive. The waves of the giant seaplane look as accurate as any lake or ocean as far as the eye can see. Soon, things take a dive for the worst when the whale opens its mouth, turning a visually appealing sequence into James Bond parasailing a cartoon tsunami. I can’t imagine the Robert Zemeckis from the ’80s-’90s letting this sequence out the door within a million years.

Like anyone, Zemeckis is getting old, and it’s starting to show. That, or he got pixel screwed by Disney. I opt for somewhere in between where the director was demanded a deadline, he didn’t have the time to get what he wanted, so he took the L. If the old saying goes, don’t bite the hand that feeds you is accurate, then Zemeckis knows how to play his cards.

If I haven’t mentioned anything about the story, it’s because what is there to say? Pinocchio is a moment-to-moment, almost shot-for-shot retelling of the 1940 classic. The only thing that’s different is a few added scenes to stretch the length of the picture out. Do those scenes provide anything to strengthen the story? No. So why add them? Probably to have something, literally anything new in this retelling. It’s no secret Hollywood doesn’t like to take risks, so why not repackage and resell what folks already liked 82 years ago? After ruining Oscar Winner Roberto Benigni’s career, and multiple failed attempts for decades, using the exact screenplay (with minor adjustments) works in Zemeckis’s favor, but only at arm’s length.

Pinocchio’s quest to become a real boy lacks imagination. If Robert Zemeckis could wish upon a shooting star, it would be to get a year’s extension deadline for his visual effects department and a fresh screenplay that can bring something new to the table. When it comes to changing not the source but the favored material, the movie could benefit from switching a few more things than the ending. Where 1940s Pinocchio ends with our hero becoming a real boy, this film takes a different route that’s genuinely beautiful but is lost amongst the CGI sea wreckage of modern-day studio demands.

Written by Mike Crowley

Mike Crowley is a full member of the Chicago Indie Critics. He periodically produces video content for and writes weekly film reviews for his publication You'll Probably Agree. He also writes content for Film Obsessive from time to time. You can follow him on Twitter, Tik Tok, and Instagram @ypareviews

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