Though some of Disney’s big-budget live-action remakes of its hand-drawn animated classics have performed well financially, they’ve almost uniformly struggled creatively. David Lowery is the only director who’s cracked the code: His tender 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon makes an old film feel fresh and new by telling a story that actually is fresh and new. Unfortunately, remakes of Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and others had less room to stretch. If people pay to see a remake of a beloved Disney favorite, they expect to see the greatest hits on repeat, from the songs to the signature moments. So audiences can only expect so much new material. And it often comes in small interstitial moments, like the bit in the 2019 Lion King where the adult Simba kicks up a tuft of leaves that float through the breeze and eventually land in front of the wizened old mandrill Rafiki — after a pit stop in a ball of giraffe dung.
Regretfully and inexplicably, animal excrement also prominently features in Disney’s latest bit of self-cannibalization, Robert Zemeckis’ remake of the 1940 classic Pinocchio. Like the animated version, the straight-to-Disney Plus live-action remake tells the story of a wooden marionette (a CG creation voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth) brought to life by a magical Blue Fairy (Cynthia Erivo), who sends him on a journey to become fully human by exemplifying the traits of bravery, truthfulness, and selflessness.
As in the original movie (and the Carlo Collodi children’s book it adapts), Pinocchio encounters anthropomorphized animals like Jiminy Cricket (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Honest John the fox (Keegan-Michael Key). There’s a cruel, mustachioed impresario named Stromboli (Giuseppe Battiston), the hallucinatory Pleasure Island theme park, and other recognizable elements from the classic. Zemeckis has more than enough experience in blending live actors and digital technology with past films such as The Polar Express and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But the new Pinocchio lacks soul, no matter how hard Zemeckis and his co-writer, Chris Weitz, try to will it into being through leaden dialogue where characters talk about what truly makes someone real.
Nü-Pinocchio gets off to a shaky start by skipping past “When You Wish Upon a Star,” which may be the most quintessential Disney song of all time. Where Jiminy Cricket performs it as a quiet, telling moment in the original film, the 2022 Pinocchio truncates it and gives the shorter version to the Blue Fairy. Erivo has a genuinely phenomenal voice, as evidenced in her Tony-winning role in the Broadway version of The Color Purple. Her rendition of the abbreviated classic is lovely. But handing the song to her makes Jiminy a less interesting character, far less present and passionate — which is a problem, since he’s meant to illustrate humanity to Pinocchio, even though neither of them are human.
The changes mount up. Unlike in the animated film, Geppetto (Tom Hanks, whose questionable Italian accent does not deserve a future in memes à la his Elvis performance) offers a clunky explanation of the reasons a kindly old woodcarver like him would create a boyish marionette. He also explains why he refuses to sell off his dead wife’s treasured cuckoo clocks — which feature characters like Rafiki and Simba, Roger Rabbit, and Sheriff Woody, which may go down as one of the most painful bits of corporate synergy in film history.
These are answers to questions best left unasked — many of the small touches in the original Pinocchio are haunting because they defy explanation. By studiously spelling out each emotion, Zemeckis and Weitz remove any potential for enigmatic complexity. And while the computer technology bringing Pinocchio to life is nowhere near as creepy as anything in Zemeckis’ Polar Express, that’s mitigated by how obviously fake he is anytime there’s a shot with a human actor “touching” or “holding” the little wooden boy.
The story’s outline will still be extremely recognizable to anyone with a passing familiarity with the animated film or Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio. Because this is a modern film, though, apparently someone felt the film needed to scoff a bit at its own flights of fancy. When Pinocchio, stuck in a cage by the evil Stromboli, begins to tell a lie and his wooden nose grows, Jiminy says, “A bit on the nose, I’d say.” When Pinocchio rattles off his various adventures late in the film, a bemused character asks, “You did all that in one day?” Simultaneously copycatting a classic and smugly mocking it comes across as crass, as if Zemeckis and company are afraid of real emotion, and determined to safeguard audiences against any sense of authenticity or sincerity.
This Pinocchio isn’t quite a shot-for-shot remake of the 1940 film, though its scant few additions are so baffling in part because they feel so insubstantial. Songs such as “Give a Little Whistle” and “Little Wooden Head” have been jettisoned in favor of four lifeless new songs by Alan Silvestri and Glen Ballard. Each one stops the story’s pacing in its tracks. Hanks is tasked with two new numbers in the early going, where he speak-sings his way through painful lyrics that rhyme “Pinocchio” with “Holy smokey-o.”
The way Pinocchio is ensnared by the Coachman (Luke Evans, doing his best impression of Disney’s animated Captain Hook) and needled by other kids into going to Pleasure Island hints at one of this remake’s most unavoidable problems: Zemeckis and company don’t want it to be as complex as its forebear. Though the 1940 version of Pinocchio isn’t as aggressive and rowdy as his fellow boys on Pleasure Island, he’s perfectly willing to dive into bad behavior, aping his cigar-smoking pal Lampwick.
But his naive, childish selfishness only makes his eventual heroism that much more redemptive. In Zemeckis’ version, Pinocchio is initially led astray by some uncouth characters, but he’s essentially a good little boy from start to finish, whereas many of the other characters — especially some new human characters, like a loutish headmaster and a kindly performer in Stromboli’s traveling show, who both throw around the term “real” like a buzzword — are as hollow as the wood that comprises the title character.
Pinocchio isn’t the first Disney remake to be shunted straight to Disney Plus. (Mulan debuted on the service’s premium tier.) Nor is it the first Robert Zemeckis film to skip theaters for streaming. (Coincidentally, his The Witches remake for HBO Max is the only other serious contender against Pinocchio for his worst film.) When Disney Plus first kicked off in 2019, one of its opening-day original films was the Lady and the Tramp remake, which is predictable, lifeless, and entirely unmemorable.
The 2022 Pinocchio does have its unforgettable moments, but they stand out for all the wrong reasons. It will be difficult to forget the image of Pinocchio staring at a pile of horse manure and touching it out of curiosity. It’s a gross image in a film that otherwise doesn’t add in scatalogical humor, a gag that isn’t in the original and has no purpose in the remake, and a weirdly unnecessary cost in a film that struggles to merge CG and live-action elements. But maybe all that tracks. Pinocchio ’22 is a top-to-bottom embarrassment with no good reason to exist, so it might as well feature images with an equal lack of creative logic.
Pinocchio debuts on Disney Plus on Sept. 8.