[The following essay contains MAJOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Traditionally, adaptations of Pinocchio revolve around naughty children learning to behave properly. By updating the story’s setting to Mussolini’s Italy, however, Guillermo del Toro puts a refreshingly nuanced spin on this morally simplistic premise. Smoking, drinking, and slacking off aren't what turn men into jackasses, he argues, but rather war, jingoism, and zealotry—mindlessly sacrificing one’s own life for the benefit of an oppressive dictator.
Nothing communicates this theme more clearly than the gradual evolution of the film’s production design, which evokes Bob Fosse’s Cabaret. Early scenes are characterized by radiant sunshine and a warm color palette—but as the insidious tendrils of fascism slowly begin to ensnare the community, the quaint and quiet village that Geppetto inhabits becomes increasingly inhospitable: the once blue skies are dreary and overcast, previously friendly neighbors are clad in sinister black uniforms, and beautifully painted murals have been consumed by propaganda posters. Eventually, the plot abandons this tarnished rural landscape entirely, instead transporting the audience to the symmetrical, monochromatic hallways and scorched, barren fields of a military training facility—an industrial Hell designed to manufacture perfect little soldiers: anonymous, fanatical, and utterly incapable of independent thought.
It is there that the foul and odious Podestà (superbly voiced by Ron Perlman) imprisons Pinocchio, reasoning that the sentient puppet—being effectively immortal—would serve as ideal cannon fodder. His son, Candlewick, is likewise subjected to the grueling rigors of boot camp. Through the trials and tribulations that they endure together, the naïve wooden boy and his severely put-upon flesh-and-blood counterpart forge an unlikely friendship—even collaborating during a competitive “capture-the-flag” exercise so that neither has to suffer the shame of defeat. When the Podestà reprimands him for his unorthodox tactics, Candlewick refuses to be intimidated: he may be a “coward” when judged by his father’s warped standards, but at least he has enough courage to defy a tyrant—something that the older party stooge certainly can’t claim.
It’s the most powerful moment in a movie absolutely packed with them, illustrating the inherent value of "disobedience." Patriotism, after all, can no longer be considered a virtue when those in authority are transparently selfish, corrupt, and malevolent; under such circumstances, nonconformity and rebellion become ethical imperatives.