Pinocchio as you have never seen him; Emancipation a brutal slavery chase thriller
117 minutes, Netflix
The story: The classic Carlo Collodi novel of a wooden puppet brought to life has been endlessly retold — but never before by Mexican magician Guillermo del Toro, and not like this.
Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio, a decades-long passion project of the Academy Award-winning film-maker, is a stop-motion animated fantasy rich with feeling and imagination.
The tactile craftsmanship of co-director Mark Gustafson and his animation team is a beauty.
Their gnarled Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) is crudely nailed together with an ear missing. He is an unruly tyke, a “burden” to grieving carpenter Geppetto (David Bradley), who had carved this pinewood son after losing his actual child in a bombing. It is wartime in his 1930s Italian village and fascism is dangerously on the rise.
Del Toro has refashioned the story of a puppet into a cautionary tale on string-pulling authoritarianism where Pinocchio’s spirited disobedience is now a brave thing. The marionette has escaped from a carnival ringmaster (Christoph Waltz), only to be conscripted into dictator Benito Mussolini’s army.
It is a cruel world indeed, with Cate Blanchett consigned to voicing an abused monkey named Spazzatu, meaning “garbage” in Italian.
The final entry in del Toro’s childhood and war trilogy following The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2016) is frequently disturbing. Not even Pinocchio will lie about this. But it is a lively adventure, thanks to the antics of insect narrator Sebastian Cricket (Ewan McGregor).
And amid the darkness is great tenderness. Pinocchio learns bittersweet lessons on mortality and morality, while Geppetto comes to love him for who he is.
Hot take: One of the most distinctive children’s movies by more than a nose.
132 minutes, Apple TV+
The story: An 1863 photo of one “Whipped Peter”, his back horrifically mutilated by his overseer’s floggings, galvanised the abolitionist movement during the American Civil War. It is the inspiration behind this fictionalised historical account of a runaway slave played by Will Smith.
The Haitian slave Peter of Emancipation escapes from a dehumanising labour camp in 1860s Louisiana. He is Smith’s first role since the actor’s Academy Award-winning King Richard in 2021, and his most physically demanding as Peter endures alligators, snakes, exhaustion, terror and the hounds of vicious tracker Jim Fassel (Ben Foster) over his 10-day barefoot flight through the swamps towards freedom – and back to his family.
The disembowelled black bodies strewn along the way warn of the fate that awaits recaptured slaves.
There are better pictures on this shameful period in history, notably 12 Years A Slave (2013). And currently available on Amazon Prime Video is the mini-series The Underground Railroad (2021).
Peter’s odyssey is unflinchingly honest in its depiction of savagery and degradation. But it is largely one long, propulsive wilderness survival adventure from Hollywood action director Antoine Fuqua of Training Day (2001) and The Equalizer (2014), shot in an arty desaturated patina.
Fassel relentlessly closes in as if Peter were the only fugitive in the Deep South.
The beady-eyed sadist is a stock villain. And despite Smith’s effortful performance, Peter is also a mere symbolic figure, a hero without inner conflict, unwavering in his goodness and Christian faith.
“I am not a slave,” he declares. “I am a man.” But who, exactly, is Peter?
Hot take: Will Smith suffers mightily for a brutal if not particularly profound chase thriller.
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