There are two films opening at The Nugget this week. If you’re a fan of stop-motion animation, you’re in for a treat. “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On” is a sweet faux documentary about a young snail searching for his family. Marcel is voiced by Jenny Slate, the actor and comedian who created the character with her friend and director Dean Fleishercamp. Together with writer Nick Paley, they created a series of short YouTube videos during the pandemic that found an adoring audience.
Suitable for the whole family, the full-length film version features a few other characters, and the story sends Marcel out into the world. There are a few celebrity voices like Andy Richter, and Isabella Rossellini voices the grandma, Nana Connie. What the team kept in the film is the handmade feel of the animation. Part of the charm is that it retains that hand-crafted, off-the-cuff feel of a project made by a small group of artists on a limited budget. It’s a simple story with a lot of heart, and the chutzpa of these friends and collaborators is to be applauded. The runtime is 129 minutes.
“Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is not as short nor as sweet. Running 157 minutes, this stop-motion animation isn’t intended for young children. Not to be confused with the latest adaption starring Tom Hanks, this film is closer to the Brothers Grimm. The screenplay by del Toro and Patrick McHale (from a story by del Toro and Matthew Robbins) is based on Gris Grimly's illustrations from his 2002 edition of the 1883 Italian novel “The Adventures of Pinocchio” by Carlo Collodi. Del Toro shares directing duties with Mark Gustafson. The story opens with a tragic death, and the setting is an Italian village plagued by fascism.
The animation is a marvel. Though the wooden boy looks nothing like the Disney version, there’s a wonderful textural quality to the rough-hewn wooden creature. He was whittled in a moment of despair, and when he becomes animated, he’s jangly movements seem almost puppet-like. He’s a raucous boy, breaking things and moving like a spinning top. His creator, the grieving Geppetto (David Bradley), has his hands full.
Del Toro specializes in monsters, and this film gives us some creatures from the spirit realm that are fascinating. The film is packed with creatures voiced by wonderful performers. Tilda Swinton voices a wood sprite who she sends Pinocchio back to Geppetto. Cate Blanchett is Spazzatura, the angel who gives the puppet life.
Christoph Waltz is another recognizable voice as the circus manager who tricks Pinocchio into running away with his circus. His ringleader, Count Volpe, is vividly animated. He’s a cross between a conniving fox and a menacing bird: all pointy nose and wings of hair. The circus scenes recall del Toro’s noir film from last year, “Nightmare Alley,” which is also set in an old-time circus full of charlatans. There are many echoes between the films.
Ewan McGregor voices the Cricket of the tale. Here, he’s not called Jiminy Cricket, and he’s not the voice of reason. He does become a bit of a moral guide at the end. His role is the funny sidekick. He’s often being squashed and left behind.
The story is full of jeopardy and sadness but there’s also many moments of wonder. The scenes inside the whale and the reuniting of Geppetto and his wooden boy are well rendered. The snippets of Pinocchio and Geppetto in their bedroom as Geppetto ages and his “son” remains a boy are touching. The return to the grave under the tree which morphs into multiple graves to show the passage of time is brilliant shorthand.
The steampunk sensibility of the production design is clever and eye-catching. The story moves a fast clip only slowing down when Pinocchio visits the underworld. It’s easy to see why it would be difficult to edit the story down to a standard runtime. Del Toro has built so many interesting characters and worlds.
Mature children and teens would enjoy the film but a brief overview on Italian fascism might be in order first … or after. The stop-motion animation is the reason to see this darker version. Not all fairy tales need to be for children after all. If you’re looking for a festival holiday outing, might I suggest you see the snail movie with the family and enjoy the mature fairy tale sans kids.
Drinks with films ratings: 2 thimbles of water out of 5 for “Marcel the Shell with Shoes On”
3 flagons of Italian wine out of 5 for “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”