★★★☆☆

Film versions of Carlo Collodi’s iconic 1883 children’s novel are almost as old as cinema itself. Disney’s 1940 version notwithstanding, the first film adaptation dates from 1911, while the fable of an artificial boy who yearns to become ‘real’ has inspired countless science fiction films and TV. Italian director Matteo Garrone is now the latest to take the reins of Pinocchio.

Pinocchio’s iconography is so firmly embedded in our collective cultural memory that it’s easy to forget just what a strange story it is: in the modern cultural milieu dolls that come to life are more likely to wreak havoc than warm the hearts of lonely carpenters, while kidnappers who transform little boys into donkeys is pure fairy-tale horror. Pinocchio himself is brought to life with marionette uncanniness through Mark Coulier’s astonishing practical effects.

It’s often said that no matter how good digital rendering becomes, human CGI characters always lack that essentially vital spark behind the eyes. The opposite is true of Pinocchio: his face is a wooden simulacrum framing the vitality of real human eyes. The effect is as purposely unsettling as any CGI counterpart. Our subtle discomfort at his animism is underlined by an impish performance from Federico Ielapi that has us rooting, more often than not, for the disobedient little sod to get his comeuppance.

Coulier’s make up is at the centre of an enchanting aesthetic that captures the sentimentality and strangeness of Collodi’s novel without relying on showstopping set pieces. The result is an almost made-for-TV feel that gives space for the imaginative magic of the audience over epic CGI to lifelessly fill in the blanks. Pinocchio’s fairy-tale rural Italy is full of wonder, anthropomorphic creatures, benign spirits and malign adults; there’s a talking cricket, minus the Jiminy, while Fox and Cat are gross humanoid hucksters. It has to be said that the ethics of this morality tale are a little dubious. The travelling puppet master Mangiafuoco (Gigi Proietti) borders on antisemitic caricature, while the story – with the exception of one dyspnoeic tuna fish – is uninterested in the terrible fates of most of Pinocchio’s hapless companions.

The most important of these, of course, is Geppetto, played with childlike wonder by Italian screen stalwart Roberto Benigni. It’s hard to imagine better casting for the preeminent godfather of starry-eyed sentiment. There’s a certain amount of dramatic irony in this, knowing that Benigni played the puppet in his poorly-received 2002 version of Pinocchio. Early on, Garrone shoots at a high angle, looking down on Geppetto as he gazes in wonder at at Mangiafuoco’s marionettes.

In suggesting Geppetto’s own boyishness, Pinocchio becomes a manifestation of Geppetto’s inner-child. One wonders if there was an early version of the film that focussed more on Geppetto’s journey. Unfortunately, Garrone’s reverance for the source material is where Pinocchio falls short. There’s little here to surprise anyone with a passing familiarity with the story, and its creepiest elements sometimes feel neutered. It may be heresy, but the body-horror of the Land of Toys and sublime terror of the whale were imagined far more viscerally in the Disney version.

Christopher Machell @MachellFilm