On the rare occasion that Roberto Benigni’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning “Life is Beautiful,” a profoundly strange adaptation of “Pinocchio,” is remembered by Americans, it is usually for the film’s comically bad English-language dub. Certainly, it’s a challenge to make any dub worthy of being taken seriously, but this particular job, featuring once-teen star Breckin Meyer as the titular puppet-turned-real-boy, was monumentally bad. So bad that it’s hard to believe that most of the voice-work didn’t intend to parody the film, as if part of a “Mystery Science 3000”-type scenario driven by absurd vocal inflections of line-readings rather than direct wise-cracking.
Focusing on the dub, however, is a distraction from just how bad the actual movie is. “Pinocchio” is a work so deranged that one must wonder if Benigni and company got their hands on an advanced copy of the “bath salt” drugs that are currently turning people looney. It’s as if Benigni’s understanding of the concept of fantasy was throwing everything and anything from his imagination into the movie. What other explanation would there be for the opening scene, which finds an elderly male character (who never appears again) hauled in by a mice-driven carriage, only to have a conversation about the relativity of time with a fairy while holding a teddy bear?
Then there is Benigni’s decision to play Pinnochio himself, despite being 50 years old when filming. (Why he didn’t play the son in addition to the father in “Life is Beautiful,” we’ll never know.) Given that the casting essentially makes the film about a man with the desire to become a “real boy,” it’s impossible to not try to read it as Benigni’s personal attempt to regress to a pre-sexual stage of life. Said reading is especially convenient when one views Pinocchio’s fluctuating nose-size and the fact that he was born of wood as Freudian symbols, reminders that true innocence may be beyond the character’s grasp. But there is nothing else in “Pinocchio” to support such an interpretation; by the end, it is clear that the film simply depicts oddness for oddness’ sake.
What moral Benigni would like to convey is ultimately confusing, as well. Despite possessing many of the same characters, this film is not at all similar to Disney’s famous 1940 imagining of the Pinocchio story – it’s stylistically darker and considerably more ambiguous in its messaging than simply “Lying is not OK.” With old-man Benigni playing the role, Pinocchio’s lying seems to signify a larger personality disorder, especially when one considers the fact that he displays the kind of cheerful demeanor only fitting of a sick serial killer. Moreover, the characters that exploit Pinocchio (such as the cat and the fox) seem like truly sleazy derelicts, as opposed to simple plot devices. The film received a G-rating from the MPAA, but at heart, it’s more Terry Gilliam than Disney.
It has been reported that this project was originally conceived as a collaboration between Benigni and legendary filmmaker Federico Fellini, who died before they could make it a reality. Needless to say, Fellini’s version would have been considerably more interesting, given his ability to merge fantasy and reality. Further, one wonders if Fellini would have delved into the aforementioned sexual undertones inherent in having a grown man star as Pinocchio, perhaps making the first telling of this story intended strictly for adults. But as interesting as it may be to envision such a version, doing so is ultimately fruitless. The “Pinocchio” that Benigni delivered is strictly “so bad it’s good” Midnight Movie material — heinously dubbed for English-speaking audiences, schizophrenically imagined, and just plain creepy.
“Reviews by Request” is a column in which Critic Speak readers are able to force writer Danny Baldwin to review a film of their choice, on the condition that they post a link to Critic Speak on their Facebook wall and/or Twitter feed in return. You can get in on the fun today; just send proof that you’ve linked Critic Speak via Facebook or Twitter and make your request (film must be available to rent on Netflix). This review of “Pinocchio” was requested by Robert Patrick (@Analog_Boston).