By now we probably all know the story of Pinocchio. You know, the one about an old woodworker who creates a puppet who is brought to life and goes on a quest to become a real boy. I grew up watching the Disney animated version as a kid, so when I found out that one of my favorite filmmakers, Guillermo del Toro (who also happens to be Mexican!), was making his own version I knew I’d have to watch it.
The first time I watched the film (yes, I’ve watched it more than once — I love it that much) I couldn’t help but notice how Mexican the film felt. And I know the film is not only set in 1940s Italy but also based on an Italian story. Still, Guillermo del Toro imbues his version of Pinocchio with Mexican spice and magic, like all of his work to be honest.
Del Toro is known for many things — including, but not limited to, championing young Mexican filmmakers and offering to fund the Premios Ariel — but my absolute favorite is his talent to artfully merge beauty and horror in every single one of his films. His rendition of Pinocchio is no exception. Guillermo del Toro has previously credited his Mexicanness for this special ability to express horror in such a beautiful and moving way. Cue the viral interview moment from 2018 when, after winning his Golden Globe for Best Director, he answered “because I’m Mexican” to a journalist who asked him about his ability to find balance between showing the dark side of human nature while remaining a happy, cheerful person — as if that reasoning should be obvious to anyone.
It’s no coincidence that he, a Mexican filmmaker, can tread this line so beautifully. Mexicans, but also Latinx folks in general, are the best at finding the light within the dark and beauty in horror. We all grow up with the scary tales of La Llorona and El Chupacabras (we give them different names in different places, but the stories are usually the same). We’re told these stories not to scare us, but to entertain us. So, of course, it’s only natural that we grow up having a sort of fascination with death, the dark, and the occult.
Mexican horror doesn’t need gore because it’s not meant to be scary, it’s meant to teach us something: That the horrific cannot exist without the beautiful (and vice versa) and that they are not only opposites but that can (and should!) coexist. There is also the fact that death is present in most Latin American cultures: we have holidays that celebrate our dead loved ones and build pathways between realms. We’ve made death a literal saint and worship at her altar. We’re taught to befriend and respect Death, rather than fear her.
All of these very Latinx things permeate Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio. The film touches up on some rather dark subjects — grief, war, fascism, abusive parents, forced labor — but it does so in a very child-friendly way. Unlike the Disney hero, this Pinocchio can be rather annoying and unlikeable at times (and in this way, he’s just like the real kid he so desperately wishes to be). And it is his imperfections that eventually allow him to become a “good, real boy.”
In addition, the film takes on Mexican ideas around fatherhood. Traditional Latinx parenting is very harsh — kids are expected to be prim and proper, perfectly behaved little adults (much like Gepetto expects Pinocchio to be at first) with no room for bad behavior “or else” (tbh, I grew up knowing that La Chancla was to be feared more than La Llorona). As a child, I was expected to sit quietly in the living room with the older folks and not be too loud. It always felt like a very black-or-white situation: a kid can be either good or bad, there’s no middle ground. Thankfully, del Toro’s Pinocchio redefines that. Kids can make mistakes (even big ones) and yet still be “good” kids, worthy of love and respect. Even the way the movie is made, with deliberate “mistakes” in the characters’ movements, almost as if the animated characters were regular humans who err and not puppets whose movements are perfectly calculated. These “mistakes” make the film all the more real and enjoyable. And again, it is with this balancing of good and bad, of horror and beauty, of life and death that Guillermo del Todo forges his film into such an exceptional and emotional watch.
The director’s Mexican roots, culture, and folklore are present in more ways than these nods to death and darkness. There’s also how Death explains how life’s value is tied to the inevitably of death. This ethos allows us to appreciate life that much more, being aware of how frail and temporary we are reminding us to live boldly while we can. And del Toro’s depiction of both Death and the Wood Sprite (who happen to be siblings, once again highlighting the dichotomy but also the familiarity between light and dark) heavily resemble Mexican Alebrijes, mythical creatures formed by different animals’ body parts who meant to ward off evil energies and spirits, and serve as spirit guides for their owners.
What’s even better is that part of the film is actually animated in Mexico in El Taller del Chucho, a studio set up by del Toro in his native Guadalajara. He wanted part of the soul of the movie to be created and animated in his home country so Pinocchio (who by the way, is made with 100% Mexican wood), Cricket, and the rabbits who carry the dead to the underworlds, came to life there. Guillermo del Toro’s beautiful interpretation of Pinocchio serves as a reminder that being “good” sometimes means being a little “bad.” It’s never all one or the other. In fact, the beauty of life lies precisely in these two opposites coexisting. And dramatizing that balance is a wonderfully Mexican endeavor, regardless of the source material.