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Alexandre Desplat scores 'joyous melancholy' in Guillermo del Toro's 'Pinocchio'

Gepetto is voiced by David Bradley and Pinocchio by Gregory Mann in Guillermo del Toro's <em>Pinocchio</em>.
Netflix
Gepetto is voiced by David Bradley and Pinocchio by Gregory Mann in Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio.

Updated December 15, 2022 at 12:54 PM ET

Darkness was bound to find its way into Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio. The tale of the long-nosed wooden puppet who wants to become a boy is one for all times. But in an era when truth is once again sacrificed on the altar of political expediency, this version of the tale hovers constantly between joy and sadness. And so does the music.

"I would call it a happy melancholy or joyous melancholy," composer Alexandre Desplat told NPR's Rob Schmitz as he related his inspirations. "That's why I love Mozart. Because Mozart has this bi-dimensional or multi-dimensional quality. It's never happy or never sad. It's just both. And when I think when music is good, it has both qualities."

Desplat's lush score brings into sharper focus the range of scenes and emotions on the screen. He could have easily resorted to a full symphony orchestra but instead opted for a softer sound by limiting himself to wood instruments, including woodwinds and percussion instruments, a piano, harp, mandolin and guitar.

Composer Alexandre Desplat used only wood instruments for his <em>Pinocchio</em> score.
/ Liam Norris / StillMoving.net for Netflix
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Liam Norris / StillMoving.net for Netflix
Composer Alexandre Desplat used only wood instruments for his Pinocchio score.

It's the kind of creative challenge embraced by the composer, who limited himself to small instruments for Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009).

"I always like to challenge myself when I start on a score and trying to find the musical color, the musical sound that will really stick to the film and belong to the film," Desplat explained. "Having this little boy made of wood ... and Geppetto, who is a woodworker, there was something about the wood that I could maybe explore."

The sweetly melancholic "Ciao Papa" — Pinocchio's farewell to his home and his father — has already garnered the film a Golden Globe nomination for best original song, and the feature also grabbed nods for best original score and best animated motion picture.

When the puppet first comes to life, he soon bursts into song about how "Everything is New to Me" — utterly gleeful as he shatters and destroys everything within reach.

"He's just out there ready to do anything. He has no fears. And that opens to the range of being mysterious, having always a great sense of humor," Desplat said. "That's a connection between Pinocchio and children when they see the film, because I've heard many children watching the film having fun [in] these sections of the film songs where Pinocchio doesn't respect anything."

Mexican director del Toro — co-directing with Mark Gustafson on this project — has left his unmistakable stamp, infusing the 19th-century story with his trademark dark fantasy found in previous, Oscar-winning films like Pan's Labyrinth (2006) and The Shape of Water " (2017) — the latter also scored by Desplat. Part of how del Toro achieves that is by setting the story from World War I to the years leading to World War II in a fascist Italy led by Benito Mussolini.

"It's a deep, deep story and the context in which the movie is set is ... really fascism," Desplat explained. "You have to take that seriously, but without being heavy."

During the fascist section of the film, songs performed by the cast are largely replaced by anthems or military marches. Toward the end, Pinocchio (voiced by Gregory Mann) disparages Mussolini while performing for him, in a song laden with toilet humor that's called "Big Baby Il Duce March."

Desplat's nickname for the tune? "The poop march." That word is repeated throughout, prompting the diminutive dictator (around 5 feet 7 inches) to order his cronies to kill the puppet.

Unlike Disney, Del Toro based much more of his story on the original 1883 novel by Carlo Collodi, adding depth and complexity.

Desplat criticized Disney for oversimplifying stories like Bambi and Pinocchio. "In the same way, Guillermo made his own story ... to remind the world the history that we've gone through, that our parents went through, and the danger of fascism."

While in the grips of scheming puppet master and ringmaster Count Volpe, Pinocchio manages to enroll the help of ill-treated monkey Spazzatura. The simian is voiced — wordlessly, through screechy vocalizations — by two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett. (Spazzatura means "garbage" in Italian.)

Del Toro is "able to somehow Trojan-horse these really big discussions about fascism and humanity into a really entertaining movie that's going to spark conversation," Blanchett said, according to Netflix press materials. "I think it's about curiosity and humility and the death of innocence, the loss of innocence, and about the deep love, the abiding love between people and it's a real true adventure."

Pinocchio performs in a circus run by Count Volpe, a scheming puppet master and ringmaster.
/ Netflix
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Netflix
Pinocchio performs in a circus run by Count Volpe, a scheming puppet master and ringmaster.

The Mussolini-ordered shooting is one of the many deaths Pinocchio experiences. After each death, he is sent to the underworld, where he meets chanting and joking blue-violet hares who double as graveyard workers, and Death embodied as a sphinx, with whom he shares existential musings.

"The one thing that makes human life precious and meaningful, you see, is how brief it is," says the sphinx, as she picks up a handful of sifting sand that quickly runs out of her paw.

Tilda Swinton, who voices both Death and her sister, the Wood Sprite — who gave life to Pinocchio — praises del Toro's "cineaste" decision to "go full artisan" on the film. "We all have beautiful memories of stop motion from our childhoods, and he's making it all the more magical for a new generation," Swinton said, according to Netflix.

A team of more than 40 animators shot the film for more than 1,000 days. The longest shot takes place in Geppetto's bedroom and involved nearly 700 frames. Pinocchio is also Del Toro's first animated feature film, in a career that already spans three decades.

Pinocchio is Guillermo del Toro's first animated feature film, in a career that already spans three decades. It took more than 1,000 days to shoot.
/ Netflix
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Netflix
Pinocchio is Guillermo del Toro's first animated feature film, in a career that already spans three decades. It took more than 1,000 days to shoot.

The darker sides of the story are balanced by plenty of humor and poignant reminders that "life is such a wonderful gift." That line is spoken by Pinocchio's companion, Sebastian J. Cricket (voiced by Ewan McGregor), who lives in the wooden boy's "heart."

There's a song the cricket keeps trying to sing. It sounds like the beginning of a sweeping, epic Broadway number, but each time he starts, something catastrophic happens to him, and it's always cut short. We only hear it in full after the film ends, as the credits roll.

"We wanted the songs and most of the music to sound as if it was organic to the film," Desplat explained. " The film is really set in a time in the '20s, '30s, and we didn't want the songs or the score to sound contemporary in a way that it would be a pop song, with a pop kind of rock and roll drum kit."

The director and composer also worked intently to make the music match what the viewer sees.

Pinocchio is voiced by Gregory Mann, who was only 10 years old when he was cast.
/ Netflix
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Netflix
Pinocchio is voiced by Gregory Mann, who was only 10 years old when he was cast.

At the start of the story, Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley) has a young son, Carlo. A dropped missile kills the boy as he runs into a church to retrieve a pine cone. Years later, the grief-stricken, aging carpenter chops down a pine tree that grew out of Carlo's pine cone and carves a wooden puppet that becomes Pinocchio. Creating Pinocchio thus emerges from deep pain, while Geppetto is in a drunken rage.

It takes the rest of the film for Geppetto to finally realize he was trying to bring Carlo back to life through the wooden puppet but that, ultimately, Pinocchio has his own distinct, mischievous personality that he can learn to embrace. "You are not, nor will you ever be a real boy like Carlo," as the sphinx explains to Pinocchio. That is, at least, until Pinocchio makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his father.

This interview was conducted by Rob Schmitz, produced by Milton Guevara and edited by Olivia Hampton. To hear the broadcast version of this story, use the audio player at the top of this page.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Olivia Hampton