This movie is so cosmically God-awful that when they finally catch Osama bin Laden, they’re going to make him sit through it — twice. Sure, Pinnochio looked bad from the trailers, but nothing — nothing — can prepare you for the sheer sick-making tedium, the jaw-dropping badness and the downright creepiness of Roberto Benigni’s bloated vanity film. I suppose Benigni is himself an acquired taste. Alas, it is not a taste I have ever acquired, nor am I likely to.
Benigni has stated that he is Pinocchio — in the same sense, I imagine, as Sean Connery is James Bond and Rudolph Nureyev is Valentino. In truth, the only similarity I can imagine between Benigni and Pinocchio is the possibility of a shared wooden head. The very idea of casting a 50-year-old man as the puppet boy who comes to life is just plain wrong. The idea of casting Italy’s answer to Jerry Lewis (who asked them?) is even more wrong. Bereft of chin, shy of hairline and invariably looking in need of a shave, Benigni is about as believable as a boy — or even a boy puppet — as Ian McKellen’s Gandalf would be. The effect isn’t just wrong, it’s creepy.
The spectacle of a 50-year-old man frolicking through fields and marveling at the existence of squirrels (“Oh, what a wonderful world I live in!”) isn’t something I can imagine is too high on anyone’s must-see list. I kept wishing I had a tranquilizer gun on me. Supposedly, they dumped $45 million into this thing — making it the most expensive film ever produced in Italy. That may be possible, but obviously none of that money went toward a screenplay; and even with that price tag, the movie feels like corners were cut whenever possible. Some sequences don’t even play out to a conclusion. When the whale — a hokey pantomime-looking creation that actually more resembles a shark — coughs up Pinocchio and Gepetto (Carlo Giuffre), for instance, we have about 30 seconds of the pair splashing around in the ocean, followed by a quick cut to them walking through the movie’s city set. How did they get out of their predicament? Who knows? Who cares?
The frenetic opening sequence involving a runaway log — freed from a cart by a badly superimposed animated butterfly — is just plain cheesy and overstated. Worse still, the actors are all too obviously expecting to be hit by the marauding lumber (just watch the policemen jump up a couple of seconds before the log hits everyone from behind).
In the film’s favor — to the degree that anything can be — is some gorgeous production design by the late Danilo Donati. The problem is that as a director, Benigni hasn’t got a clue what to do with any of it. The film is likely meant to evoke Fellini, and it probably would have worked better if it had gone further in that direction; I can well imagine the whale sequence working had it been played out on the canvas “ocean” from Fellini Casanova. The sequence in the land where little boys are transformed into donkeys obviously thinks it’s in the mould of the “Poor Little Pierette” scenes from Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend; however, it ends up looking like outtakes from Tinto Brass’ X-rated Caligula — with that film’s outright pornography replaced with something that’s far more sinister.
Granted, the movie might have been marginally better in the original Italian. The dubbing — despite dragging in name actors like Glenn Close (The Blue Fairy), Breckin Meyer (Pinocchio), John Cleese (The Cricket) for the voices — is perfectly dreadful; performances are stale and the recording sounds hollow. And as far as matching the mouths of the actors in the movie … let’s just say it makes the dubbing in the Inoshiro Honda Giant-Monsters-Knock-Over-Tokyo films look pretty good.
At the same time, I can easily imagine Benigni’s Pinocchio becoming a Christmas perennial: Coal isn’t as easy to come by as it used to be, and this film would be a worthy substitute for naughty children’s stockings.