In lieu of press screenings, Miramax’s muted publicity campaign for Pinocchio set Roberto Benigni loose on The Tonight Show, where the cloying comedian again challenged viewers to find life more beautiful than it seems on the surface. Entering to “Flight of the Bumblebee” like a bambino off his Ritalin, Benigni leaps into Jay Leno’s arms, nabs a hat from a visibly disturbed audience member, and forces Leno to relinquish his set, sitting behind his desk and demanding to introduce the host. The interview is incomprehensible: Leno sounds like he’s addressing a dimwitted pet, while the Italian feigns linguistic incapacity. He yelps that “children are the dew of god” before introducing a clip of Pinocchio being interrogated by the Blue Fairy. When the puppet opens its mouth, the voice seems a bit squeaky, the English too polished. Benigni sounds a bit like Breckin Meyer.
This faithful, humorless, altogether insufferable (and, by all accounts, hastily dubbed) version of Carlo Collodi’s 1883 fairytale about the trouble-causing puppet who longs to be human is the director’s lifelong dream: Born into Pinocchio-like poverty, Italy’s most recent Oscar winner now has the clout to mount the most expensive film in his country’s history. And he’s made one for the kid inside us all. Shot for 45 million Yankee dollars on a monstrously opulent set featuring a town named Grab-A-Dimwit and a carriage pulled by digital mice, Pinocchio aspires to be Benigni’s Gangs of New York crossed with his A.I. He dreamed of working on the film with the late Fellini, though perhaps a current-day Antonioni would have injected this chore with some much-needed down time.
Pinocchio may be the first vanity project where the actor-director (surely at the behest of his American creditors) has erased his own distinctive voice—as if bounding around in a dress and pretending to be a preteen wasn’t emasculation enough for a 50-year-old man. What remains is a variant of the nincompoop Benigni persona, here a more annoying, though less angry version of the irresponsible Sandlerian manchild, undercut by the voice of the star of Road Trip. Was Ben Affleck deemed too wooden to play a puppet?
If Benigni the actor is muffled by the ignoble substitution—with Meyer appropriately playing Pinocchio as a castrato—Benigni the director–co-writer remains attuned to the Freudian possibilities, making Pinocchio’s adventures into a battle between id (Leonardo), ego (Blue Fairy), and superego (Cricket). Though there are only two scenes of Pinocchio unable to control his, er, nose (both under stress from his mother figure), Benigni laces his story with phallic symbols from the get-go: “Once upon a time,” the narrator begins, “there was a simple piece of wood.”
This magical pine log bounds through the streets, landing on the stoop of the impoverished Gepetto (the voice of David Suchet), whose paternalistic desire ends up biting him on the ass. Soon after he’s whittled into existence, Pinocchio trashes the unsuspecting town, and cavorts about the countryside like a Diff’rent Strokes alum (right down to the jail time). While Benigni’s dickless puppet makes googly eyes at Blue Fairy (Glenn Close voicing wife Nicoletta Braschi), Gepetto wanders in vain searching for the lovable missing reprobate. Ignoring Cricket’s threat that good-for-nothing children are turned into donkeys, Pinocchio takes off with Leonardo (Topher Grace) on a road trip of his own for the hedonistic Fun-Forever Land—less A.I.‘s Rouge City than a Felliniesque Democratic political convention—before he’s transformed into said ass and sold to a circus. Ringmaster Regis Philbin takes too much pleasure in a very moot exhortation: “Send in the clowns!”
All is not candy and chocolate in Benigni-burg. The fantastical situation always gives way to an underlying, unsatisfying reality—you know, like serial killing, the Holocaust. To provide a near-dead Gepetto with milk, Pinocchio toils at Farmer Belushi’s, learning the Spielbergian value of fatherly love, as well as respect for his fellow, er, humans, an ill-gotten moral curdled by the interminable preceding parade of mirthless, miscreant, and borderline lewd behavior. As the now donkey Leonardo lays dying, Pinocchio allows him one last lick of his precious tangerine lollipop; Grace, I swear stifling a laugh, gasps: “The flavor . . . of . . . paradise.” Indeed, outside the theater, cold Christmas Nor’easter air never seemed so sweet.