Home > Reviews > GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO – Alexandre Desplat

GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S PINOCCHIO – Alexandre Desplat

January 24, 2023 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been so many versions of Carlo Collodi’s classic story Pinocchio over the years that it’s hard to keep track of them all. The best known version of the story, at least in English-speaking countries, is the classic Disney musical from 1940; in the intervening years there have been dozens of others, including two different ones directed by Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni, and a remake of the 1940 version starring Tom Hanks just a few months ago. Given all this, one might wonder what Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio might have to offer that is different from all the other versions, but in actual fact it has a great deal to recommend, from its beautiful and detailed stop-motion animation, its unexpectedly deep and sophisticated screenplay adaptation, interesting voice cast, and appealing music.

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is set in Italy in the 1930s, and initially focuses on an elderly woodcarver named Geppetto, whose beloved son, Carlo, was killed in an aerial bombardment in World War I, 20 years previously. Unable to deal with his son’s death, Geppetto cuts down a tree that he previously planted using a pine cone that Carlo gave him, and intends to make a new son out of wood. However, unknown to Geppetto, an anthropomorphic cricket has been living in the tree, and after it is cut down he calls on a blue-haired ‘wood sprite’ to help him; the sprite appears, and promises the cricket one wish – in exchange for acting as the moral guardian to the puppet boy, whom she brings to life and names Pinocchio.

What follows thereafter is an unexpectedly deep and emotional meditation on life and death, as Geppetto and Pinocchio encounter various characters, including a nefarious aristocrat-turned-showman named Count Volpe, his monkey Spazzatura, and a brutal fascist government official who wants to turn Pinocchio into a Mussolini-loving soldier. The film has an excellent voice cast, including David Bradley as Geppetto, Gregory Mann as Pinocchio, Ewan McGregor as the cricket, Christoph Waltz as Volpe, and Tilda Swinton as the Blue Fairy, plus Ron Perlman, Finn Wolfhard, John Turturro, Tim Blake Nelson, and – unbelievably – Cate Blanchett making Spazzatura’s monkey noises.

The music for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio is by Alexandre Desplat, who won an Oscar for scoring Del Toro’s The Shape of Water in 2017, and was due to score Nightmare Alley in 2021 until scheduling conflicts got in the way. When this film was originally announced, back in 2012, Australian musician and composer Nick Cave was reported to be involved in the project, but he left the film when it went into development hell, and Desplat came in to replace him when Netflix brought the film rights and revived the project in October 2018, just a few months after winning his Oscar.

What people will notice immediately about this film is that it is a musical, the first of Desplat’s career. Desplat was apparently somewhat daunted by the prospect of writing a musical – he was haunted by the ghosts of the Sherman Brothers, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the Disney animated films he grew up watching – but eventually was able to craft half a dozen songs in collaboration with Del Toro and his long-time friend, lyricist Roeben Katz. In interviews Desplat has compared the musical style of Pinocchio to that of Cole Porter and George Gershwin, and it’s true that they are certainly very different from what one would expect to hear in a film like this. In fact – and perhaps this is a bit of a hot take – I actually think that song writing may not be his forte. The songs are very idiosyncratic, and sometimes downright strange, with melodies that develop in non-intuitive ways, peculiar time signatures and rhythmic steps, and lyrics that sometimes feel grammatically odd.

These song melodies are important, though, because many of them form the thematic core of the score, and so they have to be addressed. The one that has been almost universally praised is “Ciao Papa,” which Pinocchio sings to Geppetto when he first leaves to head off out into the world. Del Toro describes the song as ‘the most moving song in the film, and the most important song. It talks about longing, it talks about the loss of a father, the loss of a son. It talks about the sort of wistful energy that, for me, is at the core of the tale of Pinocchio’. Desplat further explains that the melody of this song is the only one that is not interwoven into the score, because he wanted it to represent a unique moment in the relationship between Pinocchio and Geppetto. It’s probably my favorite song of the bunch – it’s sweet, tender, and very effective in context.

Probably the second most prominent song in film context is “My Son,” which is sung by David Bradley in character as Geppetto as a sort of love song to his child, Carlo. Again, it’s a very pretty melody, but there’s just something about the lyrics which seem cloying, almost overly-saccharine, as if Geppetto has an unnatural fixation with his offspring. This obsession, of course, probably explains why the character never moved on from Carlo’s death and was thus inspired to build Pinocchio as a replacement, but… still… I don’t know. There’s something about the whole tone of it that creeps me out, and I can’t figure out why. However, I do like the idea that the same melody crops up later in “My Bubblegum,” which is a song that Pinocchio sings as part of his circus act as a love letter to candy. It’s a clever illustration of the idea that, for long stretches of the film, Pinocchio doesn’t have a full grasp on human emotions, and doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions. He has some of Carlo’s memories, and has heard Geppetto sing the ‘My Son’ version of it, but such is Pinocchio’s callousness that he takes the same concept and equates Geppetto’s love for his son with his own love of sweets – Pinocchio doesn’t have the mental capacity to separate the different levels of ‘love’.

“Everything Is New to Me” is again sung in character by Gregory Mann as Pinocchio, and is heard when the newly-created wooden boy is exploring Geppetto’s workshop, and becomes overly-excited by all the new things he is seeing and experiencing. Some of the lyrics are funny – I especially love the moment where Bradley as Geppetto has trouble explaining what a chamber pot is used for, and I appreciate his exasperated grumbles about Pinocchio’s antics – but this is one of the songs where the rhythm of the melody constantly throws me off balance, and the flow of the song feels oddly structured and metered. Then “We Were a King Once” is sung in character by Christoph Waltz as Volpe, and sees him lamenting for his former life as a showbusiness star, while wondering whether he can exploit Pinocchio enough to make him rich again. Waltz, like Bradley before him, really cannot sing, but again it’s the rhythmic core of the song that sends it spiraling away from the center. It’s technically a waltz – a waltz for Waltz – but it’s so encrusted and festooned with a variety of flamboyant musical adornments that it tends to lose its way with alarming frequency.

The “Fatherland March” is a mock-patriotic song sung by Pinocchio as part of a pro-fascist pro-Mussolini show that Volpe stages in an attempt to impress the man himself – he actually appears as a character in the film. Pinocchio has no idea what he’s singing about or what it all means – he’s just happy to be performing – but it’s an upbeat, jazzy little ditty that might be fun if it wasn’t for all the intentionally awful Nazi undertones. Later, the “Big Baby Il Duce March” is a parody of the same song, performed again by Pinocchio, but this time as a rebuke to both Volpe and Mussolini. These lyrics are childishly hilarious, and the idea of Desplat, who is a terribly sophisticated and stylish man, working on a song about pooping and farting is hugely amusing to me.

“The Late Lamented” is a weird funereal dirge sung by Tim Blake Nelson as the voices of three ‘rabbits of death’ guarding the gates to the afterlife (don’t ask). Then, finally, “Better Tomorrows,” is the song for the cricket, performed by Ewan McGregor; it’s the first song on the soundtrack, but it actually appears during the first part of the end credits – this is an in-joke as, throughout the movie, the character keeps trying to sing it, but continually gets squished by something before he can get past the first line. It’s a slow, lazy, jazzy number, the most Gershwin/Porter song of the lot, and McGregor croons it impeccably, but I have to admit that its placing in context does entirely ruin the emotional impact of the film itself, breaking the spell that Del Toro created in the final scene with a piece of incongruously peppy fluff.

So, on to the score. With the exception of the melody from “Ciao Papa” the underlying melodies of these songs are interwoven into the score, where they combine with a variety of additional themes unique to the score. The cornerstones of the score-specific themes are the theme for Carlo, and what Desplat calls the ‘Pine Cone Theme,’ so-called because Pinocchio is built from the wood of a pine tree that grew from a pine cone that Carlo gave to Geppetto. These two themes represent the heart of the story – representing both the boy who died and the boy who was built to replace him – and they are very similar in style. Initially the two ideas are distinct from each other but as the score develops Desplat blurs the line between the two, as Carlo and Pinocchio gradually morph into the same person in Geppetto’s mind.

“Carlo’s Theme” is just gorgeous; it starts out with various fluttery textures – harps, flutes, wooden percussion items – before emerging into a lullaby-like theme for piano that just melts the heart. The first performance of the Pine Cone theme then comes in the eponymous “The Pine Cone,” which underscores the scene of Carlo’s shocking death during an air raid bombing on his town. Desplat dives heavily into Geppetto’s grief in the moment, capturing it with lyrical beauty augmented by light choral textures. These two themes then reoccur frequently throughout the score; there’s an unexpectedly aggressive version of Carlo’s theme in “Geppetto’s Creature,” a pretty version for guitars in “Pinocchio,” a clownish comic version for recorders and xylophones in “Small Lies,” and a tender variation for a mandolin in “Pinocchio’s Solitude” that is defaced by darkly fluttering recorders, but eventually the two themes coalesce into one all-encompassing idea that represents Geppetto’s love.

The rest of the score overflows with that quintessential whimsical Desplat sound – the orchestrations are often light, dainty, and effortlessly pretty, and the recording is so crisp and precise that you can pick out even the tiniest little texture. Desplat’s orchestrations intentionally focus on instruments made of wood, for obvious reasons, and as such there is special emphasis on woodwinds and wooden percussion items, plus strings, piano, harp, mandolin and guitar, and an accordion.

So many cues stand out; the jaunty festivity of “Going to Town,” the quirky version of the ‘Better Tomorrows’ theme in “Sebastian J Cricket,” the effervescent but weirdly sinister performance of Volpe’s theme in “The Circus” and its more offbeat and bombastic variation in “Spazzatura,” the disjointed and chaotic version of the ‘My Son’ melody in “A Wooden Boy” which morphs into the introduction of ‘Everything Is New to Me,’ and then the tortured and broken-sounding deconstruction of the same two ideas in “Memory of Carlo”. There’s also a fascinating collision between ‘My Son’ and Volpe’s theme in “Capice” that really sells the circus ringmaster’s nefariousness.

The first score performance of the Fatherland March comes in the sprightly and pompous “Resurrection,” and it then returns later in the equally ostentatious “Pinocchio Soldier,” as well as the more serious “Il Duce,” and the brilliant, fast-paced “Paint Battle,” which blends the rhythmic parts of the Fatherland March with some light action music.

The music for The Blue Fairy and her netherworld counterpart, the Sphinx, is about as far from ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ as you can get – it’s magical, abstract stuff that uses metallic chimes, light electronic tones, ghostly wordless vocals, pseudo-Indian raga-like textures, and even some light dissonance to create an ethereal sheen. You get a tiny glimpse of it towards the end of “Sebastian J Cricket,” and then in “Geppetto’s Creature,” before it all properly emerges in “The Blue Fairy” and “The Sphinx”.

Interestingly, there is also some unexpectedly intense and powerful action music, especially in the scenes where Pinocchio is playing war games in Podestà’s military training camp, and then during the finale where Pinocchio saves Geppetto from the belly of a sea monster. You get the first hints of it at the end of “Going to Town,” which strives to capture the fear of the air raid that kills Carlo, and then in the mock-horror of “Geppetto’s Creature,” which underscores the scene where the carpenter first meets the wooden puppet but is understandably terrified of him, but it’s not until the second half of the score that it really comes into its own.

“To Catania” introduces the score’s main action motif – a deep, rumbling, undulating idea that shifts around from bass woodwinds to low strings and back – but it really comes into its own in the grandiose and bombastic “The Dogfish,” “Shoot the Puppet,” the thrilling “The Mine,” and then the climactic pair “Big Lies” and “Saving Geppetto”. A lot of this action music shares musical DNA with some of Desplat’s action writing from The Golden Compass, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and others – those cascading woodwinds are superb! I also love how Desplat continually weaves references to the ‘My Son’ theme, the Fatherland March, Volpe’s theme, and the Blue Fairy textures into the action, as well as the creative ways he continually shifts the emotional tone of the pieces through changes to the orchestration. The Italiano folk music section of “The Mine” is especially fun, like a modern take on Nino Rota’s music for Fellini.

The finale of the score, comprising “Pinocchio’s Choice” and “Farewell to Geppetto,” returns to the beautiful sentimentality of Carlo’s theme and the ‘My Son’ theme, and offers a warm, emotional, sincere musical conclusion to the story. Geppetto finally accepts Pinocchio as his son, Pinocchio comes to adopt more of Carlo’s personality, and the philosophical undertones of Del Toro’s screenplay are summed up by his parting thought: we are born, what happens, happens, and then, we are gone.

Overall, there is a lot to admire about Alexandre Desplat’s Pinocchio. It has a charming, playful, occasionally comedic, occasionally wondrous sound, with clear emotional depth and a sentimental message about fatherhood and love. I can see how some people might find Desplat’s orchestrations here a little on the twee side – they do sometimes verge on the side of mawkishness, and anyone prone to baulking at that might do so again here – but I found them pleasant and appealing. I also appreciate the thematic depth of the score, especially in terms of the conceptual progression of both Carlo’s theme and the Pine Cone theme, and the use of the different melodies from the songs. The songs themselves, though… well, that’s another matter entirely, and with the one exception of “Ciao Papa” I unfortunately found more of them to be misses rather than hits. It’s a shame that the songs are so integral to the score experience – you can’t really listen to one without the other or you miss a ton of context – because ultimately they knock the whole thing down a notch. Despite this criticism, like I said, there is still plenty to appreciate here; listeners already predisposed towards Desplat’s music will like it more than others, and as I am one of those people I can give it a cautious recommendation to my peers.

Buy the Pinocchio soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Better Tomorrows (written by Alexandre Desplat and Roeben Katz, performed by Ewan McGregor) (4:16)
  • Carlo’s Theme (2:10)
  • My Son (written by Alexandre Desplat and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by David Bradley) (2:48)
  • Going to Town (3:11)
  • The Pine Cone (2:07)
  • Sebastian J. Cricket (3:38)
  • Geppetto’s Creature (4:48)
  • Everything Is New to Me (written by Alexandre Desplat, Roeben Katz, and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by Gregory Mann and David Bradley) (2:19)
  • The Circus (2:23)
  • Pinocchio (1:42)
  • We Were a King Once (written by Alexandre Desplat, Roeben Katz, and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by Christoph Waltz) (2:34)
  • Spazzatura (2:56)
  • A Wooden Boy (2:21)
  • Memory of Carlo (1:57)
  • Friendship With Candlewick (1:25)
  • Ciao Papa (written by Alexandre Desplat, Roeben Katz, and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by Gregory Mann) (2:48)
  • Resurrection (1:41)
  • Pinocchio Has Left (1:57)
  • Small Lies (0:49)
  • Fatherland March (written by Alexandre Desplat, Roeben Katz, Patrick McHale, and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by Gregory Mann) (1:36)
  • In the Army (0:49)
  • Pinocchio Soldier (2:17)
  • Volpe’s Charm (1:37)
  • To Catania (1:41)
  • The Blue Fairy (2:31)
  • The Late Lamented (written by Alexandre Desplat, Patrick McHale, and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by Tim Blake Nelson) (2:17)
  • The Sphinx (1:39)
  • Capice (1:59)
  • Pinocchio’s Solitude (0:58)
  • Il Duce (1:03)
  • My Bubblegum (written by Alexandre Desplat, Roeben Katz, and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by Gregory Mann) (1:44)
  • Paint Battle (2:37)
  • The Dogfish (0:46)
  • Shoot the Puppet (5:55)
  • The Mine (2:15)
  • Papa! (0:49)
  • Big Lies (2:19)
  • Saving Geppetto (1:14)
  • Pinocchio’s Choice (1:37)
  • Big Baby Il Duce March (written by Alexandre Desplat, Roeben Katz, Patrick McHale, and Guillermo Del Toro, performed by Gregory Mann) (1:36)
  • Farewell to Geppetto (0:23)

Running Time: 84 minutes 31 seconds

Columbia Records (2022)

Music composed by and conducted by Alexandre Desplat. Orchestrations by Conrad Pope, Jean-Pascal Beintus, Nicolas Charron, Sylvain Morizet, Larry Rench and Jeff Toyne. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbinand Kirsty Whalley. Edited by Chris Barrett and Lewis Morison. Album produced by Alexandre Desplat.

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