Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio” is a beautiful tour de force. Here the Mexican auteur reimagines the old tale, keeping its Italian setting but building his own world, thanks in part to the film’s lush and distinctive stop-motion animation. “Pinocchio” is entirely del Toro’s, bringing sweetness to the dark and monstrous aesthetic of the “Pan’s Labyrinth” creator. The film follows Pinocchio to the underworld and imagines an afterlife that feels as at home here as it would in his 2017 Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water.” Similar to that film, “Pinocchio” uses its otherworldly quality to explore aspects of the human experience that can feel difficult to approach when considered head-on. Here, the focus is on fathers and sons and how the pressures of masculinity can make it particularly important and fraught.
Del Toro begins “Pinocchio” with a long exposition of Geppetto’s past. In it, we learn the toy maker had a human son whom he raised himself with great love and care. But the boy dies, a casualty of war, and the man is overwhelmed with grief. The rising fascism around him doesn’t help. So when a wood sprite decides to bring Geppetto’s carving of a boy to life, the old man can’t help but bring his trauma with him into this next iteration of fatherhood.
Father of three and healthy-masculinity advocate Hugo Chacon can relate, thanks in part to his 15+ years in social services. “When it came time to engage in the fathering piece, to be active, and to be present, I found myself defaulting to the things I had seen growing up,” he tells POPSUGAR. “I felt myself going back to what I knew and what I saw. But it didn’t line up with what my intention was of being a father. And so I had to really dig deep and start processing my own traumas that happened to me as a kid to be able to show up for my children in a different way.”
In “Pinocchio,” Geppetto is an imperfect father but still a good one, loving his sons the best way he knows how. In contrast, the film also shows the bad father in Podestá and his relationship with his son, Candlewick. Podestá wants a (fascist) soldier more than a son and punishes his boy for any joy or creativity outside of that rigid mold.
Carlos Aguilar — a content creator who works in advertising, has produced numerous television shows, and runs the fatherhood blog Big Brown Dad — lost his own father when he was 10. Still, he remembers, “My dad would make me go fight older kids [with] boxing gloves. . . . So the expectations are: don’t be soft, [and] fight.” Layer in the cultural expectations of being a man, which Aguilar describes as a “patriarchal toxic kind of sh*t,” and you have a recipe for disaster.
But Aguilar is working to change that, declaring, “My parents weren’t as equipped as my wife and I are to raise kids in a healthy environment.” He is adamantly against corporeal punishment and rejects the celebration of chancla culture. Part of that for him is modeling a different definition of masculinity, one that splits household duties with his wife. He is quick to take on household chores but recognizes that’s not the only way the gender divide works in households — there’s also emotional labor. “She’s thinking about the homework. She’s thinking about the hairdo. It’s a lot of emotional labor, [and] I gotta step up there, too,” he says. In “Pinocchio,” there are no women to pick up the pieces, and they largely fall through the cracks. Geppetto cannot take care of his own emotions, let alone guide his newly formed wooden son on how to handle his. And Candlewick just has it worse — there’s no one to so much as offer him a kind word as he deals with his emotions of growing up in war.
Likewise, Mike Diago, a social worker, father of two, and writer (including at Fatherly), is rejecting the old type of masculinity. “[My father] probably still wonders what I’m going to do with my life,” he says. “He had very concrete recommendations and expectations . . . like a lot of immigrant parents, it’s engineering or business or medicine.” The message Diago got was “very much your job [as a man] is to make money, make as much as you can. There really aren’t any other considerations.” And while Pinocchio certainly doesn’t get this message from his father, it’s a path he tries. When he can’t make Geppetto happy with his presence and personality, he runs away to the circus, figuring that sending money back will be a valid substitution. It isn’t.
Diago is actively countering that money-first message with his children, because like Pinocchio, they can pick it up even if it’s not what they’re getting at home. As an alternative, he’s creating a more approachable, more present, more open-to-learning model of fatherhood. “I don’t worry so much about having to preserve some super-serious fatherly image,” he shares. “Family in general just wasn’t always the priority for my father. And the relationships within the family weren’t always a priority.”
Over the course of “Pinocchio,” Geppetto learns this lesson — figuring out how to make his son his top priority. Pinocchio learns it, too, valuing family and relationships in a much deeper way. And it’s only by growing together that they’re able to build a functioning, fulfilling family. Aguilar also sees fatherhood as multidirectional. “We’re collaboratively learning. We’re going through this together,” he shares. “All the wisdom doesn’t come from one person or from the parents.” For Chacon, too, parenting is “constant cocreation.”
And in “Pinocchio,” both the little wooden boy and his toy-maker father must make sacrifices in order to be together. Pinocchio gives up eternal life, and Geppetto risks his life and limb to save his second son. And over the course of their adventures, they learn to love each other in a way that satisfies both their needs.
In their final reconciliation scene, Geppetto declares, “I was trying to make you someone you were not. So don’t be Carlo or anyone else. Be exactly who you are. I love you exactly as you are.” Pinocchio responds, “Then I will be Pinocchio. And you will be my papa. Will that do?” And Geppetto hugs him, affirming, “That will do.”
It’s a telling moment of true acceptance between father and son, and it’s followed by a happier conclusion as the two of them (along with everyone’s favorite talking cricket) grow old together in peaceful harmony. It’s also a powerful model for real fathers who are looking for more meaningful ways to connect with their sons. In the end, “Pinocchio” asks us to let go of toxic masculine expectations, love ourselves, and find and share the joy in life. It’s a blueprint for healing past trauma, and it’s one that will be of use to countless fathers and sons.