‘Pinocchio’: Tom Hanks and Cast Bring Cheerful Spirit to Otherwise Standard Remake 

There is a curious middle ground some remakes find where they aren’t necessarily the worst film, but they also confirm why we don’t need them. “Pinocchio” is, as promised, a live-action version of Disney’s 1940 animated classic. It follows the basic story without many detours, delivers the same messages and is directed by a respected filmmaker. We are very aware that Robert Zemeckis knows how to make a movie. He’s been at the forefront of cinematic visual breakthroughs since the ‘80s. Yet, his “Pinocchio” is no different from a good band covering a standard without bringing much originality to the arrangement. It’s no surprise Disney has relegated this production exclusively to streaming. Even more than other recent live-action offerings of familiar titles this one looks totally automated.

The story is, of course, based on Carlo Collodi’s 1883 book “The Adventures of Pinocchio” and Zemeckis maintains the 19th century Italian setting. Humble woodcarver Geppetto (Tom Hanks) works in his shop putting the finishing touches on wooden boy Pinocchio, which is a somber channeling of how much Geppetto misses his boy who died tragically. Dropping into the shop unannounced is Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is indeed a cricket, still dressed dapper and swinging an umbrella. Surely you know the rest. Geppetto wishes upon a star and as he sleeps, a Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo) appears in the workshop and brings Pinocchio to life. To help guide the wooden boy, the Blue Fairy anoints Jiminy Cricket as his conscience. A deliriously happy Geppetto instantly accepts Pinocchio as his son and enrolls him in school. The innocent, curious Pinocchio walks out into a world full of temptations and hard lessons.

Typically live-action Disney remakes offer something to make them significant. “The Lion King” had a notable Black voice cast and fantastic album by Beyoncé, while “Beauty and the Beast” featured the kind of LGBTQ nods that would have been unheard of in a family film not too long ago. Aside from diversifying the cast by having a Black actor portraying the Blue Fairy, much of “Pinocchio” is really just a literal tracing of the 1940 animated original. Zemeckis, who has directed many eye-popping movies like “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf,” along with notable films like “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump,” continues a bland streak. Nonetheless this is still a more visually fun and energetic movie than his 2020 remake of “The Witches.” Zemeckis’s eye for detailed sets and CGI are present, with the town Geppetto inhabits seeming taken from a Dickens novel. His workshop is adorned with many intricate clocks and Jiminy Cricket’s attire is finely designed. Goldfish Cleo and pet cat Figaro remain the same, only now rendered as CGI cast. 

Yet “Pinocchio” will only feel totally fresh if you’ve never run across this version of the tale. On his way skipping down the street to school, naïve Pinocchio is approached by shady fox Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), who, accompanied by his cat minion Gideon, convinces him to be an actor. Honest John just wants to make a quick buck by selling Pinocchio off to carnival master Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston). Their mischievous stroll luring Pinocchio away from school features a lively, faithful rendition of “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me).” Honest John is also one of the movie’s best digital animations, with snarling teeth and grins that will hopefully cement in kids the idea of not talking to strangers. Zemeckis and team also enhance many other familiar moments such as Pinocchio and a pack of misfit kids making their way to Pleasure Island, where fountains of endless root beer and candy await. But when the naughty children inevitably begin turning into donkeys, the scene still lacks the sheer, authentic fright of the animated version. Maybe we’ve become so accustomed to this form of CGI that it just pales next to the unnerving force of the scene for any younger viewer who sees it drawn. As good as the graphics can be, never does Pinocchio’s face register the pale fright of his cartoon predecessor when the donkey ears start sprouting.

Zemeckis brings some of his familiar visual energy to other favorite scenes as when Geppetto and Pinocchio find themselves in the jaws of sea beast Monstro, who has always been a giant sperm whale but here gets redesigned as an actual sea monster. There’s no reason as to why except maybe the director wishing at least this could stand out. What couldn’t be changed in any decent “Pinocchio” are the core themes and messages of the story. Even as a by-the-books project, it at least retains the sense of sorrow and fear that still makes the animated film a rarity among the Disney roster. Zemeckis still evokes the scary feeling of abandonment when Pinocchio realizes he’s far away from home and Geppetto is out there looking for him. For younger viewers it’s a stark drama dealing with how the wider world can be a scary place, with scoundrels ready to take advantage and dangerous places that can get you hurt. At least Zemeckis didn’t turn this into a sci-fi action movie with Pinocchio firing rounds out of his nose. And, yes, in this one the nose still grows whenever Pinocchio lies.

What else can be said about Tom Hanks? He’s such an American standard that little effort is required on his part to give Geppetto some lovably goofy cheer. The big star is doing a Disney gig here and never goes beyond what’s needed when it comes to jumping around, singing and giving us a heartwarming ending. The conclusion is actually where Zemeckis gets a bit bold and doesn’t give us quite the ending we expect. Let us hope this isn’t because the house of the mouse is planning another franchise. “Pinocchio” is the kind of fairy tale that will always retain some lasting appeal, which is why filmmakers keep returning to it. Guillermo Del Toro has his own stop-motion take releasing on Netflix later this year. Sure, it’s heartwarming, but unsettlingly wise in the right moments and themes. All this version does is double your options on Disney Plus. Before giving it a look, at least make sure any younger viewers at home get to experience the animated gem first.

Pinocchio” begins streaming Sept. 8 on Disney+.