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Kids really can change the world — just ask 'Pinocchio' and 'Matilda'

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

The young heroes of Carlo Collodi's classic fantasy Pinocchio and Roald Dahl's 1988 children's novel Matilda may not seem too alike at first: One is a wooden puppet who becomes a real boy and finds he has a lot to learn, while the other is a real girl of such extraordinary brainpower that she winds up schooling everyone else. But in their own ways, they're both about a child's extraordinary power to change the world — a lesson that stays winningly intact in two new screen adaptations, both arriving on Netflix this month.

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio, as its title announces, is very much the work of the dark fantasist who made Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water. That's not to say it's too scary for children, only that its mix of visual richness and ghoulish whimsy would be hard to mistake for another filmmaker's work. In this telling, the aging Italian woodcarver Geppetto has a young son who's killed by a falling missile during World War I. Many years later, Geppetto, still distraught, chops down a pine tree in a drunken rage and carves a little puppet boy out of it, as if he could somehow bring his son back. And so this Pinocchio, forged in grief, springs to life not as a joyous creation, but as a sorry replacement for Geppetto's lost son. That gives Pinocchio's mischievous, defiant behavior an extra emotional edge.

Del Toro, who directed the movie with Mark Gustafson, has also darkened the story in other ways. This Pinocchio, who's voiced by Gregory Mann, dies multiple times and is magically resurrected each time. World War II also looms in the background, and Pinocchio will soon come face-to-face with Mussolini himself. It's not the first time Del Toro has blended history and fantasy, pitting his young characters against the forces of Fascism.

It is, however, the first time he's made a feature entirely in stop-motion animation, and the hand-crafted, herky-jerky images are a wonder to behold. The backdrops are exquisite, and I loved the intricate non-human character designs for a benevolent woodland sprite, voiced by Tilda Swinton, and for Sebastian J. Cricket, a kind of Jiminy-like sidekick voiced by Ewan McGregor. Still, for all its overflowing invention, this Pinocchio, like a lot of Del Toro movies, could've been tighter and more disciplined. I'm also not sure why the movie had to be a musical, given how unmemorable most of the songs are.

By contrast, the songs in the new movie Roald Dahl's Matilda the Musical are as terrific as they were when I heard them performed on Broadway years ago. The movie is an extremely faithful adaptation of that hugely popular show. It tells the story of Matilda Wormwood, a child prodigy who's already reading Dickens and Dostoevsky by age 6.

Much of the pleasure of the story comes from watching Matilda — the winning Alisha Weir — get revenge on her foolish, vulgar and generally indifferent parents whenever they treat her badly, which is often. But Matilda will soon have bigger fish to fry in the form of Miss Trunchbull, the sadistic headmistress at her school, who terrifies her students and calls them "maggots." In one showstopping number, Matilda's fellow students manage to overcome their fears and rise up, declaring their right to be, as they call themselves, "Revolting Children."

Miss Trunchbull is played, with the help of a fatsuit and facial prosthetics, by Emma Thompson, and she's a memorable monster, subjecting her students to all kinds of cruel mind games and baroque forms of corporal punishment. It's fun watching Matilda outwit her, while also bonding with her kind-hearted teacher, Miss Honey — a very moving Lashana Lynch.

The movie retains the show's central creative trio: the director Matthew Warchus, the writer Dennis Kelly and the composer-lyricist Tim Minchin. That's mostly a good thing, even if the movie's relentless high spirits and bright, bouncy colors tend to overpower the darker vibes of the original story. There are also elements here that simply don't work as well onscreen as they did onstage, including a subplot that takes place within Matilda's own imagination.

I have to say, though, that my 6-year-old screening companion didn't mind in the slightest: I looked over every so often to find her laughing at the jokes, covering her eyes at the scary parts and bopping along to the music. She was completely transported — and so, in those moments, was I.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.