Robert Zemeckis has always been a director fascinated by avant-garde technology. His biggest films of the ’80s and ’90s—Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, Forrest Gump—were all revolutionary in their use of visual effects and CGI. In the 2000s, he dove into the nascent field of motion capture to produce the animated movies The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. But as Zemeckis has tried to stay on the cutting edge, he seems to have grown less interested in some of the building blocks of good cinema, such as story originality and stakes, interesting characters, and the use of physical cameras and sets. Which explains how we got Disney’s Pinocchio.
No, not the classic 1940 animation, which still has the capacity to delight and terrify young viewers many decades later. Zemeckis’s Pinocchio, now available to stream on Disney+, is a live-action remake, and a largely faithful one. But instead of capturing the old-school charm of the original, the new film looks as dead-eyed as one of Zemeckis’s motion-capture characters, as it recites the familiar fable of the puppet who wanted to be a boy. Zemeckis certainly remains good at running a production that uses expensive-looking CGI. The actual narrative behind those visuals, however, seems to have vanished.
Part of the blame lies with Disney. The studio has been pushing a never-ending spate of live-action remakes, with little regard for whether it’s found a particularly new take—zombified, marketable nostalgia, presented with a slick modern sheen. Some of the films, such as Tim Burton’s Dumbo and the Maleficent movies, made an effort to depart from their source material, but most merely trudge through the same beats audiences will remember from childhood, only this time featuring a celebrity such as Will Smith or Emma Watson. Pinocchio very much takes the latter approach. Its major plot points echo the 1940 film’s. Ironically, if Zemeckis had reached even further back, to Carlo Collodi’s original Italian novel from 1883, he may have found a fresher twist. That transfixing moral screed subjects its puppet protagonist to untold horrors before he achieves his goal of becoming a “real boy.”
Walt Disney was drawn to Collodi’s book but perhaps wisely realized that its rougher edges needed to be sanded down. So in his film adaptation, when the kindly woodworker Geppetto creates his puppet son, Pinocchio does not kick him in the nose and run away, and when a wise cricket advises Pinocchio on good behavior, he is not immediately murdered with a hammer. Still, the 1940 Pinocchio does have a mischievous streak, along with his famed penchant for untruth. And the consequences he faces strike fear into the heart of the viewer; the sequence in which Pinocchio and his friend Lampwick start turning into donkeys remains one of the most chilling things Disney has ever produced.
Zemeckis’s version removes every last hint of misbehavior or menace. His Pinocchio looks just like Walt’s (complete with yellow cap) but is simply guileless, a wide-eyed innocent failing to navigate a world of hucksters and thieves. Geppetto, played by a cheerful but checked-out Tom Hanks, sends him off to school and then vanishes from the movie until its conclusion. With him gone, almost everything else onscreen is a CGI creation; much like other “live-action” remakes The Jungle Book and The Lion King, Pinocchio has barely any living action in it at all.
Instead, Pinocchio (voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) encounters a computerized Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a chipper seagull named Sofia (Lorraine Bracco), and the conniving fox Honest John (Keegan-Michael Key), whose main ambition is to swindle the puppet and lead him astray. Pinocchio’s flirtations with a career in the circus, or a life of iniquity with Lampwick, are the result of nothing more than pure naivete. Collodi’s novel moralizes about children’s need to obey their parents and follow society’s rules. Disney’s original film charts the expanding maturity of its protagonist. Zemeckis seems animated by neither of these impulses.
After his early-2000s trio of motion-capture-animation films that garnered attention but lacked substance, Zemeckis enjoyed a run of visually experimental projects: Flight, The Walk, Allied, and Welcome to Marwen. None was an unqualified success, and Marwen is a particularly strange fiasco, but all were grown-up dramas with a genuine sense of humanity and sparkling performances. Zemeckis seemed to be returning as one of Hollywood’s innovators. But Pinocchio, combined with his dreadful remake of The Witches in 2020, suggests that the director, having received mixed results for risky efforts, has swerved into lazier territory. There has to be a better use of his, and his audience’s, time than making more lethargic robots.