Jan 1, 2003 at 12:00 am

Pinocchio should be a cautionary tale of delight and morals, of empty-headed love and intervening magic. Most of all, it should be a story of redemption and betterment of self. This is true of Disney’s 1940 animated version of Carlo Collodi’s novel, which is perhaps the studio’s most endearing cartoon epic to date. Who can argue with a sing-along of “I Got No Strings”?

Roberto Benigni’s live-action Pinocchio, filmed in Italian but dubbed in English for American audiences, has no singing puppets. (It does, however, have Topher Grace’s voice coming out of a handsome Italian’s mouth.) But it has lots of potential in the opening frames, as a willful block of wood bounces off a cart and through a bustling village, causing all sorts of havoc as it cartwheels its way to the home of lonely woodcarver Geppetto. The old man is so taken with the unexpected chunk of tree before him that he immediately sets to work freeing the boy he sees within. Once the bark and excess wood shavings are brushed aside, though, the real troublemaking begins. Pinocchio as a boy with arms, legs and motormouth is a lot more dangerous than Pinocchio as a stump.

Pinocchio (voiced by Breckin Meyer) careens from adventure to adventure, acting on his every whim and impulse, lying when he gets into trouble — and always getting bailed out by the Blue Fairy (Nicoletta Braschi, voiced by Glenn Close) when things get too serious. If the story wasn’t so ubiquitous thanks to the Mouse House, this Pinocchio might be a little hard to follow. It often feels like it’s just a bunch of small stories and situations strung together, with no more memory of what happened five minutes earlier than the block-headed puppet has himself.

Pinocchio loves Geppetto (Carlo Guiffre) and is devastated when the geezer is lost at sea. He spends much of the movie searching for his beloved papa, but there’s never any substance behind the feeling. Worse, Pinocchio’s ultimate quest — to become a real boy — is barely there, fading in and out of his, and our, consciousness. Pinocchio is a fleeting emotion personified.

There’s also something a little disturbing about a 40-year-old hopping about in a clownish suit, treating each person and thing and situation he encounters with unbridled exuberance. This is true even when the grown man trying to channel the child inside is the funny-looking Benigni, who seems to treat everything he encounters in the real world — remember the 1999 Academy Awards? – with unbridled exuberance.

If the movie had made it across the Atlantic with its Italian sound track intact, that might be excusable. But when Benigni opens his mouth and Breckin Meyer’s all-American voice pours out like a torrent of good-natured acid, it’s more than a little incongruous. The problem is that we’ve all heard Benigni’s real voice, with its excited tremblings and joyous gurgles, both as real Benigni at awards shows and acting Benigni in Life is Beautiful. And when that voice doesn’t come out of his body, Pinocchio doesn’t work. Unfortunately, Benigni is in nearly every scene.

So here’s the catch-22: The movie loses a lot (one hopes) in translation, but putting subtitles (or subtleties, for that matter) on a children’s film is a kiss of death worse than an eternity in the belly of a whale — as is putting in scary, ugly, mustachioed men doing mean things to poor, innocent Pinocchio. I took a 7-year-old and a 5-year-old with me to see the movie, and the younger one was petrified and kept asking to leave. At first I suspected it was because evil puppeteer Maestro was voiced by Regis Philbin, but then realized that she probably had no idea who he was. The 7-year-old, on the other hand, was fine, and the film isn’t all that frightening (most of its scariness comes from the fact that it’s live-action and has real actors doing potentially real things).

But this isn’t Disney, which in this case might not be such a good thing.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].