"Long ago, the world was full of wonder." These are the opening words of Onward, the new Pixar feature, directed by Dan Scanlon, and the opening stretch is a delight. A winged unicorn soars over a lake filled with mer-people. Witches and wizards roam the land. But over time, the magic fades. Why do you need a spell to dispel darkness when there's the lightbulb? Who needs a galloping centaur when you have a car? As for winged unicorns, hello! Heard of an airplane?
And we cut to the present day, where these magical creatures live mundane lives. As premises and plot points go, it's all quite derivative. If Harry Potter got a letter from Hogwarts on his 11th birthday, elf lad Ian (Tom Holland), on his 16th birthday, gets a letter from his now-dead father. Like Harry, Ian has never seen his father, and he aches for his presence. Now, that might actually be possible, given that the letter contains instructions on how to bring the man back to life, if only for a day.
The standard Pixar formula is at work here. (1) An absence. (2) A frantic quest, borrowing liberally from the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings films. (3) An emotional conclusion. It's fun to see pixies as bad-boy road warriors, but at times, I wished the film just stopped every now and then to breathe. Because when that happens, Onward becomes truly transcendental. Watching Ian dance with his brother Barley (Chris Pratt) and their father (they've managed to conjure up half of him), it's hard not to wish you could do the same with someone you've lost.
The Pixar folks are solid craftsmen when they're doing physical storytelling. There's so much wit and imagination in the action sequences that you just strap in — unquestioningly — for the ride. But it's when it comes to the emotional stuff that they become real artists. The big, blustering Barley is one of the all-time-great Pixar characters, and the soul of Onward. Two scenes had me in tears. The first, when Barley manages to pull off a rockslide that allows them to escape the cops on their tail. The second, when we realise, towards the end, that this is really his story. This is pure screenwriting genius, to make us expect something and leave us with something else that's far more satisfying. I wish the whole film had operated at this level, but I'm not complaining.
Carlo Collodi, who wrote The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) was Italian, and, apparently, he wrote quite a different story from the one many of us know from the cutified Disney animated feature, from 1940. For one, the Blue Fairy didn't materialise out of the ether and make the puppet walk and talk. (She is a rather forlorn presence, here.) Pinocchio was carved from a log of wood that was almost… alive. It moved on its own. And when the carpenter Geppetto was sculpting the puppet from this log, he felt a thumping beat where the heart would be. Pinocchio, thus, came alive on his (its?) own. Also, Monstro the whale? That's Uncle Walt's tweak. It was actually The Terrible Dogfish.
Matteo Garrone takes this fairy tale back to its earthy Italian roots. Pinocchio opens marvellously. The title appears in wooden letters, and when we meet Geppetto (Roberto Benigni), he's no cuddly Santa figure. This is a very poor man, literally dining on scraps. Benigni is wonderfully cast. With his sad eyes and emaciated frame, he looks like a tired old cartoon character with the sadness of a real-life old man with no one to call his own. When he stumbles on a travelling puppet show, he's struck by an idea. He wants to make the most beautiful puppet ever made, travel the world with it, and make an honest living.
But when the puppet begins to speak, he's thrilled. It's night, and he wakes up the neighbourhood: "I have a little boy, just born. I have a son." But Pinocchio, of course, is the classic problem child, with no sense of right and wrong. And the rest of the film is the picaresque tale we know (but it's fleshed out with more incidents than the Disney version), with a series of morals. A talking cricket warns the puppet: Woe betide children who disobey their parents! Much woe lies in store for Pinocchio, including one of the ghastliest images I have seen in a children's story. Pinocchio is hung up on a tree and left to die. Talk about a Grimm fairy tale.
In another moment, he sits too close to the fire and his legs are burnt to cinders. He crawls on the floor, beseeching Geppetto to carve him a new pair of legs. I wouldn't go so far as to call this traumatic, as today's children are exposed to far greater gore — but this scene reminds us that, for all his anthropomorphism, this is a puppet made of wood. In another scene, after Pinocchio is transformed into a donkey, he is tied to a stone and pushed into the sea. There are probably easier ways to kill a donkey, but then we wouldn't have the sight of the creature gasping for breath, as shoals of fish swarm around it.
But for all these touches, the film never finds its feet. The scenes with the Fox and the Cat go on and on, and another stretch with a strict school teacher (he makes students kneel on strewn chickpeas) really tests your patience. What's the problem? Is it the fact that all the creatures seem to be in costume, thus preventing a complete suspension of disbelief? Is it the tone, wavering uneasily between art-house naturalism and mainstream fantasy? Or, like Steven Spielberg's live-action Peter Pan adaptation Hook, is it the issue of bloat? I think it's a bit of everything. Garrone seems to want to make a "realistic" fairy tale, filled as much with sadness as joy, but he forgets to fill it with magic.