NEW YORK — The movies are an illusion. We know that — and welcome it. After all, they’re an illusion we pay money to see. What tends to get overlooked is how deceptive the movies are. That they concentrate our attention so much on who (stars) and what (action) means we simply take for granted what they consistently do best: how. This is the movies’ big secret. The real thrill they offer has nothing to do with glamour or CGI or even Tom Cruise’s grin. It’s process.
If you doubt that, consider “Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio.” The exhibition runs at the Museum of Modern Art through April 15. The show, which takes for its subject “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio,” is all about process, and it’s absorbing. The winner of this year’s Oscar for best animated feature, del Toro’s reimagining of Carlo Collodi’s classic tale of a wooden puppet turned into a boy (except in this version he stays a puppet), is currently streaming on Netflix.
How classic? “The Adventures of Pinocchio” has been translated into 135 languages, and there have been more than 240 Italian editions alone. That’s not counting the much-loved 1940 Disney animated feature or last year’s not-so-loved Disney+ version, starring Tom Hanks as Geppetto, the woodcarver who fashions the puppet.
All movies are miracles of craft and execution. Animated movies really are — and stop-action animation maybe most of all, because the process is so painstaking and detailed.
“To me,” del Toro has said, “the most sacred and magical form of animation is stop motion, because it’s the bond between an animator and a puppet which goes back to the most basic traditional storytelling.” That’s the form of animation del Toro and his co-director, Mark Gustafson, chose for their film.
Chief among the many pleasures the MoMA show has to offer is how (that word again) it reveals the nuts and bolts of a miraculous process (that word again, too). The fecundity of del Toro’s imagination being what it is — his other films include the “Hellboy” movies (2004, 2008), “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), and “The Shape of Water” (2017) — means a degree of miraculousness even greater than with most movies.
Among the nuts and bolts on display are puppets, maquettes, marionettes, armatures, drawings, photographs, molds, time-lapse videos, five stage sets, and nine pizza boxes. Those boxes greet visitors outside the entrance to the show. Are they a reminder to visit the museum cafe? No: Although not seen in the movie, they played a key role in its making. That’s where the filmmakers stored the 900 different printed faces applied to the Pinocchio model for its expressions.
Some 400 items are on display. And you thought Geppetto had a well-stocked workshop.
The attention to detail is remarkable, as is the very evident care lavished on getting everything just so. Perhaps the most striking example is the disassembled version of one of the Pinocchio puppets. In its precision and delicacy, the pieces are like an array of jewels. Or there’s the care and consideration devoted to wood: its textures, its colors, its general appearance. Wood, as you might imagine, figures prominently in the movie. Unless the occasional use of chipboard counts, none of these renderings are actually made of wood.
It isn’t just props and prop-adjacent items that convey the extent of the imaginative effort involved. Two production scheduling boards are a window on just how complicated fitting together all these pieces was. Two other boards show small head shots of several hundred crew members. Del Toro’s photo is among them, no bigger than the others, and easy to overlook in the eighth row of the first board. The placement speaks to a modesty on del Toro’s part — as well as the collective nature of the enterprise — a modesty that his name being in the title of both movie and exhibition might indicate is otherwise absent.
The exhibition is full of fascinating oddities, but the oddest thing about it is nowhere visible in the galleries. It’s that the show is better and more interesting than the actual movie. “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is that rare film which is more imaginative than good. Whereas the exhibition is all about parts, and literally so, the film faces the challenge of being about a whole. Its Oscar status notwithstanding, this one is an uneasy blend of sentimentality and darkness. Much of the darkness, though not all, stems from del Toro having chosen to set the story in Fascist Italy (the show includes several Mussolini-related items).
As the exhibition title reminds us, process is about craft, not art. Where art comes into play is with things like tone and sensibility and emotion. Since it’s all about craft, “Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio” is engrossing. Since it has to be about more than just craft, “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio” is frustrating. The show works better than the movie it celebrates.
GUILLERMO DEL TORO: Crafting Pinocchio
At Museum of Modern Art, 11 W. 53rd St., New York, through April 15. 212-708-9400, www.moma.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.