The wooden puppet whose dreams of becoming a real boy have enchanted generations of children since he was created in 19th century Italy is bursting back to life this Christmas.
Almost 80 years since Pinocchio, the toy whose nose grew when he lied, inspired Walt Disney’s cinematic masterpiece, at least three major movies are planned, and the National Theatre is premiering a “spectacular” staging in time for Christmas.
Jeremy Thomas, the Oscar-winning British producer, is making a screen version with Matteo Garrone, the Italian director of acclaimed mob drama Gomorrah, while Robert Downey Jr is developing a separate project with American Beauty producer Dan Jinks.
Guillermo del Toro, the Pan’s Labyrinth director, has also long been planning his own ambitious stop-motion production, re-imagining Pinocchio as an anti-fascist story.
Although he announced last week that he has so far been unable to finance it, he has been collaborating with the Jim Henson Company, and is still hoping to make it happen.
Chris Weitz, who wrote Disney’s Cinderella remake, is reportedly working on another project.
The National Theatre production, which opens on 1 December, is being staged in partnership with Disney Theatrical Productions and director John Tiffany, whose staging of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child received a record number of Olivier awards.
It promises to bring Pinocchio to life “as never before”, and has made new arrangements of the much-loved songs from Disney’s original 1940 animated film, including I’ve Got No Strings.
The Adventures of Pinocchio was written by Carlo Lorenzini, under the pseudonym Carlo Collodi.
Serialised in a children’s magazine in 1881, it was published as a book in 1883.
The genius of Disney’s animation is a hard act to follow, but there have been many attempts to adapt the story for the screen, most recently, Roberto Benigni’s 2002 Pinocchio, which had mixed reviews.
In Jinks’s Pinocchio, Downey Jr will star as the father, Geppetto. Asked why Pinocchio is now inspiring so many productions, Jinks said: “The world changed when Tim Burton directed Alice in Wonderland seven years ago.
It became one of the top-grossing pictures in history [making more than $1bn] and so everybody looked at giant titles that were in the public domain that could possibly be exploited.
That’s literally what I did. I had been working with [writer/producer] Bryan Fuller … I pitched him five titles in the public domain and one was Pinocchio.
If I’m doing that, other people are. Now some of these things are coming closer to fruition.”
Burton is a master of the macabre whose take on Lewis Carroll’s classic story reached an audience beyond children. Producers now believe that Pinocchio has similar potential.
Thomas’s previous films include The Last Emperor, Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic that won nine Oscars.
Describing Pinocchio as “a timeless story”, he spoke of returning to Collodi’s original, “which is quite frightening”: “It’s nothing like the Disney cartoon, which is a very saccharine version.”
Garrone’s films include Tale of Tales, which was inspired by folk myths and described by one critic as “fabulous”.
In his Pinocchio production notes, he observes: “Burton has proved many times that children appreciate the dark and the mysterious much more than we give them credit for.”
He points out that the story of “the world’s most famous puppet” transcends cultures, having been translated into 240 languages: “But the story has a dark soul. The book hides themes that have yet to be developed.
The voice of the dead little girl, black bunnies, a nose that grows on its own, a boy morphing into a donkey, are just some of the scenes that reflect the ancient oral traditions Collodi grew up with … I intend to stick close to Collodi’s powerful story.”
He has cast Toni Servillo, who starred in Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning The Great Beauty, as Geppetto, and a young girl, Alida Baldari Calabria, as Pinocchio.
Thomas said: “Matteo read with many children for the role, but he kept thinking about Alida’s performance and knew she was right.
He will realise Pinocchio, the animals and fantastical creatures in his world with an artisanal approach, blending prosthetics, special makeup and CGI. Digital effects will be aesthetically integrated with the actors’ makeup and layered over facial prosthetics, making the characters appear extraordinarily real – so it is not so important whether Pinocchio is played by a boy or a girl.”
Garrone has wanted to film Pinocchio since he was a child, when he drew his first story-board.
Now part of his inspiration comes from some of Goya’s “grotesque and accusatory engravings”.
Wonderful initial sketches give a hint of some of the creatures that will be brought to life by Nick Dudman, the Oscar-nominated artist from the Harry Potter films.
Peter Saunders of Mackinnon & Saunders, the leading British animation producers and puppet-makers, confirmed meanwhile that they have done “a fair deal” of development work for Del Toro’s production and that the Jim Henson Company has created “staggering artwork”.
While paying tribute to Disney’s original, he said: “Go back to the original story and it’s very moralistic, dark and violent in many aspects … It’s not like someone’s done the definitive version.”