In Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s 1882 fairy tale, Pinocchio is a puppet, a wooden marionette in the form of a child. In Roberto Benigni’s 2002 remake of the tale in which Benigni stars as the puppet, he is neither wooden nor a child. What’s the point?

Benigni was a hugely popular comic actor in Italy long before he won an Oscar for “Life Is Beautiful,” but I wonder if his more-recent award hasn’t gone to his head? Simply appearing on screen in this live-action fantasy and acting pretentiously coy is hardly enough to entertain an audience.

My first question is why anybody would want to watch a live-action “Pinocchio” in the first place when the 1940 Disney animated version is a classic next to which all other interpretations pale. But that hasn’t stopped filmmakers from coming up with dozens of variations, from live action to cartoons, none of them, understandably, very successful. There’s even an adult version, “The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio” (1971), and a horror-movie production, “Pinocchio’s Revenge” (1996), if you can believe it. Well, of course, you can; we had “Chucky,” so why not?

My second question is why anybody would want to see a middle-aged man in the part of the child-puppet. I mean, when Danny Kaye starred in a “Pinocchio” movie in 1976, he had the good sense to play the toymaker, Geppetto, and not the toy; and when Robin Williams played Peter Pan, he did so as an adult Pan. Did Benigni really think that his natural childlike exuberance could pass for actual childlike innocence? The result seems like a colossal self indulgence and turns out to be more of an embarrassment than an amusement.

You all know the story. The beautiful Blue Fairy (Nicoletta Braschi) enables Geppetto the toymaker (Carlo Giuffre) to create a living puppet, which he carves from a pine log and names, appropriately, Pinocchio (according to the “Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary,” meaning “It: lit., pine seed, pine cone, equiv. to pin(o) PINE1 + -occhio < VL *-uc(u)lu(m), L -i-culum; see -I-, -CULE1>”). I’ve also heard the name interpreted as “Pine Eye,” “Little Pine,” “Small Pine,” and “Wooden Head.” The name has multiple meanings, but I like my colleague Eddie’s interpretation for this production: “Blockhead.”

The puppet is naive in the ways of the world and immediately gets into all sorts of trouble with a Giant puppeteer; a wily Fox and his friend the Cat; a mischievous best friend, Leonardo; a huge man-devouring shark; and various other nefarious creatures. In Benigni’s hands, though, the plot rambles on endlessly, with its point that the carefree little puppet will not become a real boy until he learns responsibility rather lost to flounder at sea. Each episode is so pedestrian, so uninspired, we hardly know when one event ends and another begins. There’s no zip, no spark, no imagination, no real life in the story, let alone in the puppet.

Benigni both stars and directs, so he’s the guy to blame. As the star he is terribly miscast and as the director he develops no pacing to the script of any kind. The fact is, the main role is a bore and the tempo is flat. Almost the only things that work in the movie are the sets and scenery. They are often a wonder to behold, and the viewer can easily see why the film cost so much money to produce (reportedly one of the biggest budgets in the history of Italian filmmaking); but sets and scenery can’t sustain our attention for long when the characters and action are so remarkably lifeless.

Let’s start with Pinocchio. He no sooner comes alive than we find him an obnoxious buffoon, running amuck through the toymaker’s workshop and then through the village, jumping up and down on things and generally raising Cain. There’s nothing funny or entertaining about these antics, however; it’s just Benigni acting wild and silly and expecting his audience to laugh for no reason. He’s supposed to be joyful at the suddenness of his being alive, but his behavior is so exaggerated he’s actually repellent.

Then we wonder why everyone in the village recognizes Pinocchio as a puppet when he’s clearly a human being played by Benigni, and it suddenly dawns on us that we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief and accept every fantasy creature in the movie as a fantasy creature even though we can see they’re human actors. The cricket who becomes Pinocchio’s conscience, for instance, is simply a little man in a topcoat; the Fox is a man with funny whiskers, etc. I suppose if some effort had been made to help Benigni at least look like a puppet, it would have helped; but he doesn’t look like anything but a middle-aged man in a clown suit acting foolish.

In the American-dubbed version Brecklin Meyer stands in for Pinocchio’s voice, but not even this works because Meyer, who was around thirty at the time, sounds about fifteen, while Benigni looks his age, which was about fifty. So in the American version the puppet’s voice doesn’t match the puppet’s appearance. It’s best to watch this thing, if you have to, in Italian with English subtitles.

The only thing apart from the sets and scenery that works well is the part of the Fox (Bruno Arena). This guy’s makeup really does remind one immediately of a fox, and in the American rendition he’s voiced perfectly by Cheech Marin. Unfortunately, the Fox is but a small part of the larger picture and hardly provides enough justification to waste over an hour-and-a-half of one’s time on the whole movie.

The fact is, there’s no magic in “Pinocchio.” The entire film is a dull and tedious affair, lacking humor, wit, style, or even a decent slapstick gag. By its conclusion Benigni is attempting pathos and failing miserably here as well. Everything is entirely too forced and too contrived, while at the same time being far too familiar. I’ve heard that at one time the celebrated filmmaker Federico Fellini had wanted to direct Benigni in “Pinocchio,” but I can assure you that as a director, Benigni is no Fellini.

Since Benigni is in practically every scene after the opening sequence and because the man is so poorly cast as the child puppet, it makes for a very long stretch of movie watching, indeed. Better this log-headed “Pinocchio” had been burned at the stake.

The screen image is presented in a generous 2.17:1 ratio scope, enhanced for those televisions able to play back an anamorphic picture, with a video quality that varies from very, very good to very, very ordinary. Overall, the look of the colors is slightly dim or hazy, perhaps an intentional effect to romanticize the story. It’s easy on the eyes even if it doesn’t bring out all the clarity of the sets and scenery or the characters and their costumes and makeup. There is no transfer grain to speak of and there are very few shimmering lines or other telltale hints of faulty disc reproduction. Close-ups in broad daylight bring out the best in the picture, with nighttime and indoor shots suffering a bit by comparison.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio fares a little better than the video, with especially good surround effects in the rear speakers and often dramatically well-executed channel separation. Dynamics are impressive, too, as the examples of the Giant’s and the shark’s sneezes will testify. While the extremities of the frequency range, the highest highs and deepest lows, are not always prominently displayed, the main body of sound is reproduced in a clear and well-balanced manner.

The two-disc set includes both an American-dubbed rendering and the original Italian-language version. The American dub on disc one is 100 minutes long, and the original Italian version on disc two is 110 minutes, although the disc for the Italian version claims “approximately 117 minutes.” That’s some approximation error! I watched the first half of the movie in Italian and the second half in American. In addition to the incongruity of Brecklin Meyer’s voice and Benigni’s appearance that I mentioned earlier, the American version also suffers because the voices don’t even come close to matching the Italian actors’ lip movements. So instead of a pleasure, it was a distracting pain to watch, despite the voice talents of Mr. Meyer, Glenn Close as the Blue Fairy, Eric Idle as her attendant Medoro, David Suchet as Geppetto, John Cleese as the Cricket, Topher Grace as Leonardo, Kevin James as the Giant, Eddie Griffin as the Cat, and Cheech Marin as the Fox. Interestingly, too, the Italian version, which is longer, has the option of listening to the American dubs as well, so I’m not sure what the advantage is to having the first disc at all, except that it’s thankfully shorter.

Anyway, the only extras on the two discs are a pair of very brief featurettes, “The Windows of Pinocchio,” showing us FAO Schwarz’s holiday windows in New York, four minutes; and “The Voices of Pinocchio,” showing us the creation of the American-dubbed version, again four minutes. Then, there are several Sneak Peeks at other Buena Vista promos and trailers (in pan-and-scan) and eighteen scene selections. Finally, and as usual from BV lately, there is no booklet insert.

Parting Shots:
What can I say about a film I wish I hadn’t watched? Benigni’s “Pinocchio” is undoubtedly too slow moving for children and too boring for adults. It seems mainly to have been a vanity project for its star and director, who clearly is too full of himself to realize his own limitations. Stick with Disney’s classic animation, and you can’t go wrong.