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.Wooden Mythology

A fantasy double feature with ‘Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio’ and Martika Ramirez Escobar’s ‘Leonor Will Never Die’

Puppet kid Pinocchio looks like a convention of toothpicks, or perhaps an animated pile of splinters in the shape of a forest gnome. The songs are uniformly forgettable. Monstro the Whale now resembles a sea cow, or maybe an escapee from David Lynch’s Dune. The intrepid, wooden-headed little hero manages to get himself crucified. 

Pleasure Island, where naughty boys once smoked cigars and turned into donkeys, has been remodeled into a fascist military summer camp. J. Worthington Foulfellow, the deceitful fox, is nowhere to be found. Sebastian the Cricket, subbing for the departed Jiminy, is a long-winded bore. And what’s all this about rabbits in purgatory?

Aside from the above-mentioned anomalies, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is arguably a nice-try re-do of the most sentimental Walt Disney animated fantasy of them all, Pinocchio (1940). In it, the maker of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water dares to rethink the much-debated Disney homogenization of the collective consciousness—but produces a fairytale almost no one will love as much as the sight and sound of Cliff Edwards’ original Jiminy Cricket crooning Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s “When You Wish Upon a Star,” late at night in Geppetto’s chiaroscuro workshop. That particular mountain is just too high for del Toro to climb. 

But that doesn’t mean he can’t feel free to chase his own private rainbows. Del Toro has always stood up for the underdog and opposed totalitarian brute force. Same deal here. The narrow-minded Catholic priest, proto-fascist Count Volpe (voiced by Christoph Waltz), a strong whiff of Mussolini and his Black Shirts and an equal-size reference to Jojo Rabbit show us that del Toro is still battling the same hoodoos he depicted in his earlier Spanish allegories. Pinocchio himself is a dedicated proletarian anti-fascist.

Fellow fantasist Terry Gilliam, for one, would know better than to re-stage World War II for the benefit of a stick figure, but del Toro doesn’t care. He pushes the political pedal all the way through the floorboards and stubbornly remains true to his roots. While spending an enormous amount of Netflix’s money.

Writer-director Martika Ramirez Escobar’s Leonor Will Never Die was made in the Philippines for the price of Guillermo del Toro’s lunch budget. Or so one can imagine. It’s the kind of movie one would like to discover at a film festival, as evidence that underdeveloped entertainment industries are filled with fresh, unspoiled talent, waiting for their break. 

Philippine family-movie veteran Sheila Francisco stars in the title role as a former action-flick queen now living modestly in Metro Manila—and working on her comeback screenplay—with her grown son, Rudy (Bong Cabrera). Both Leonor and Rudy are dreamers, but Leonor’s subconscious wish-fulfillment mechanism takes over when she gets bonked on the head by a TV thrown out a window and goes into a coma. Suddenly we’re in an ’80s-style violent gangster scenario, with the senior-citizen grandma battling a crooked politician and platoons of goons.

Filmmaker Escobar’s shoestring parody gleefully disobeys the rules of story structure, continuity, characterization, realistic action, etc., just as one would expect. One character, Ronwaldo, is played by two different actors—Rocky Salumbides as the live Ronwaldo in flashbacks, and Anthony Falcon as Ronwaldo’s dead self, a pugnacious ghostly crime fighter. Don’t expect much irony. But this reviewer was happy to see a female Philippine director making the art house rounds with her feature debut, even one as homemade-looking as this. 

‘Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio’ streams on Netflix. ‘Leonor Will Never Die’ screens at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission in San Francisco.

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