Did we need another take on "Pinocchio," the fable of the wooden puppet who longs to be a real-live boy? Probably not. Disney's animated classic plays as fresh as the day it opened in 1940. But director Robert Zemeckis longed to do his own version with his "Forrest Gump" star Tom Hanks. Now it's streaming on Disney+ for the world to judge on its merits -- or lack of thereof.
Since Pinocchio taught us that a lie would make our noses grow bigger, there's no sense in fibbing that the movie is anything but mostly meh with a few welcome surprises in between.
No expense was spared to let Zemeckis blend animation and live-action into an updated "Pinocchio" that could re-imagine Carlo Callodi's 1883 tale for a new generation and dazzle audiences with 21st century digital advances.
Zemeckis throws in references to social media influencers, but his reboot feels oddly old-hat and out of touch. And yet, Oscar-winning directors keep wanting to put their own stamp on it. Roberto Benigni tried and failed in 2002 and Guillermo Del Toro will have a go in December.
It helps that Hanks headlines as Geppetto, the lonely woodcarver who builds Pinocchio, voiced by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth. Even in a wig and a bushy mustache, Hanks underplays the role, which is a nice change from seeing him buried in prosthetics, a fake accent and a fat suit as Colonel Tom Parker in "Elvis." Here Hank’s natural warmth shines through.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt steps up as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, the insect guide who serves as Pinocchio’s conscience. When Geppetto wishes from the heart for a son, the powerhouse Cynthia Erivo appears as the Blue Fairy singing "When You Wish Upon a Star" and ready to wave a magic wand to erase Pinocchio’s puppet strings and make him a walking, talking boy.
Not so fast. Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Chris Weitz try for laughs when it’s suggested there are other ways to make a boy than with a carving knife. Sasses Jiminy, "Geppetto doesn’t get out much." Later, when Pinocchio’s name is deemed hard to pronounce and harder to spell, someone advocates that he should call himself Chris Pine since he is made of wood.
These are the jokes, folks, and they fall flat more often than not. In fact, the modern touches that attempt to pull in the cooler kid crowd come off as strained, even desperate. That happens when changes are cosmetic instead of organic to the material.
The techno wiz in Zemeckis pulls out all the stops, replacing the original’s cartoon flatness with a dimensionality that applies to animated and human characters alike. There seems to be little rhyme or reason why Figaro is played by a real cat or why the swindling Honest John (voiced by Keegan-Michael Key) sells Pinocchio to carnival hucksters.
Newbie characters benefit from the talents of Lorraine Bracco, who voices Sofia the Seagull, a trusted friend to Geppetto and Pinocchio, and Kyanne Lamaya as Fabiana, a puppeteer with an injured leg who vicariously dances through her marionette Sabina.
Visually, Zemeckis is on more solid ground, whether Pinocchio and his bullying school chum Lampwick (Lewin Lloyd) are being swept by the Coachman (a singing, sinister Luke Evans) into the temptations of Pleasure Island (pool! root beer!) or the puppet boy is finding himself trapped and terrorized with Geppetto in the belly of Monstro the Whale.
No knock on a movie that wants to preach the importance of being "brave, truthful and unselfish." But did it have to be this lifeless, this lacking in deviltry, this devoid of soul? "Pinocchio" works hard to get the job done as family entertainment. Still, to paraphrase one of the songs, Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee, it didn’t work for me.