LOS ANGELES – It was in 2008 that Oscar-winning film-maker Guillermo del Toro revealed he would make an ambitious stop-motion animation version of Pinocchio, the classic children’s tale.
But the Mexican writer-director’s passion project got stuck in development hell for more than a decade and is only now making its way to the screen.
An animated musical fantasy, it lands on Netflix on Dec 9 after debuting to rave reviews following a limited theatrical release – in stark contrast to its live-action namesake, the widely panned Tom Hanks-starring Pinocchio, directed by Robert Zemeckis and released on Disney+ in September.
At a screening of his film in Los Angeles, del Toro, 58, says “it took a little bit too long” to make.
“We got many, many, many nos,” he says of himself and co-director Mark Gustafson.
“We would travel and go in to pitch; we would get our parking validated and we would fly back,” recalls del Toro, who took home Best Picture and Best Director Oscars for The Shape Of Water (2017), his monster movie-meets-gothic romance.
“But you never give up.”
Set in 1930s fascist Italy, this telling of Pinocchio, co-written with Patrick McHale, leans into the darker elements of the original 19th-century Italian fairy tale – about a wooden toy dreaming of becoming a real boy.
But this Pinocchio – voiced by newcomer Gregory Mann in a cast that includes Ewan McGregor and Christoph Waltz – is a mischievous imp who plays mean tricks when he comes alive.
Del Toro hints that people have trouble believing he struggles to get the green light for any film, this one included.
One of the most respected film-makers working internationally today, his body of work spans Spanish-language arthouse movies such as the Oscar-winning fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to Hollywood action blockbusters like Pacific Rim (2013) and the Hellboy flicks (2004 and 2008).
“People say, ‘Oh, you must be able to get anything made.’
“But I have written or co-written 32 screenplays, made 12 movies, and have taken five years between many projects.
“And 20 screenplays have not ever been made (into films), so over 30 years of career, it turns out I was inactive half of the time,” he jokes.
Despite the setbacks, the Pinocchio fairy tale has compelled him more than most – in part because it reminds him of himself.
“The two figures I consider more biographical than any others, and who define me more clearly, are Pinocchio and Frankenstein.
“That was my childhood and teenage years, in that order,” del Toro says, laughing.
And as he gets older, the projects he gravitates towards must be true obsessions to make it worth putting the rest of his life on hold for.
“Especially now that I’m 58, what happens is you become more deep on why you need to make the movie – because you basically are reneging on your life, socially.
“So you say, ‘Which one is worth sacrificing life for?’ And this is one of mine,” says del Toro, who is married to film historian and screenwriter Kim Morgan and has two daughters, aged 27 and 21, from a previous marriage.
And as laborious as stop-motion animation is, he says it is unlike any other format.
“The thing this has that no other animation does is the intimacy between the model and the animator,” del Toro explains.
“It is like you are playing with toys – the most sophisticated, beautiful, handmade pieces in the world.”
A dying art, stop-motion also reminds him of bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre “where the puppet is an extension of the actor”.
“The first time we started working, we told the animators: ‘You are actors. And you connect with the puppet every morning.’”
The result, he says, is more subtle and realistic than what audiences are used to with most animated films.
“Animation tends to be too animated. It tends to be almost action for action’s sake – a lot of pantomime that has been very codified,” del Toro says.
“But here we did micro gestures, we did ‘failed acts’ – a stumble and a fall, like when Gepetto takes the balloons and gets tangled in them. Things that are not ‘necessary’.
“Normally, we are used to a very falsified version of reality in animation. But here, we were guided by principles that negated that.”
Pinocchio premieres on Netflix on Dec 9.