We could run through a decent list of the things about the (for now) newest cinematic adaptation of Carlo Collodi's 1883 children's novel The Adventures of Pinocchio that sound like they should be interesting, but are in fact not actually very interesting. This is different than saying the film is "bad": it is on the contrary an exceptionally handsome work, lovingly detailed in its sets and costumes and fanciful make-up work, kissed with golden lighting, and by some margin the least-disgusting live-action version of the story I have ever encountered (with the caveat that there are a jaw-dropping number of Pinocchio films and I have certainly seen only the most meager fraction of them). But it's not very lively, which is maybe the one solitary quality that's most important for any film about the naughty little sentient puppet who wants above all to become a flesh-and-blood human boy - it is a story about liveliness, which makes this film's sedate, airless "prestige movie" take on the material all the more glaringly ill-advised.

But anyway, there's time enough to go into that. For now, I promised some not-very-interesting interesting things, of which the foremost is: this is the newest film directed and co-written by Matteo Garrone, who's surely still best-known in the United States, and I imagine the rest of the English-speaking world, for his 2008 mafia epic Gomorrah, a film which promised a certain explosive career that never seemed to come to fruition (and which the director doesn't seem to have actively pursued). The more significant experience would undoubtedly have been 2015's Tale of Tales, a somewhat weird and clumsy and threadbare grand fairy tale for strictly grown-up audiences that's fiercely committed to its odd, unmarketable self enough that it has a kind of loopy appeal even if I am thoroughly unconvinced that it "works". But that still doesn't really get us to Pinocchio, which is in all ways the opposite: it "works" with a vengeance, losing the ungainliness that made Tale of Tales striking, if nothing else, and it is also in every way other than perhaps its unhurried 125-minute running time entirely designed as an all-ages family film. That nothing in Garrone's filmography points in the direction of a children's movie is entirely besides the point: he has now made one. He has done so at the expense of any real personality beyond the borrowed glow of many other winsome, mildly sad fantasy movies, but he has done so.

Another interesting, and potentially terrifying thing: this is, as far as I can tell, the first theatrically-released live-action Italian Pinocchio since the notorious 2002 adaptation directed by Roberto Benigni as his very first movie after Life Is Beautiful, and starring himself, all 49 years of him, as the mischievous little puppet child. And now Benigni is back, starring in his first film role since Woody Allen's To Rome with Love in 2012, only this time playing the kindly, endlessly patient old woodcarver Geppetto. In truth, this says more about the brain-melting decision he made to play Pinocchio back then and not so much about his appearance in the current film, but it's at the very least an extremely uncommon thing to happen. The film also makes absolutely nothing of it whatsoever, and Benigni's performance as Geppetto finds him in the most quiet mode I think I've ever seen him in, only being asked to do comedy at all in an early sequence where he's trying very badly to flim-flam a publican into hiring him to do some repair work in exchange for food, before he strikes on the idea of carving a puppet. Outside of that, he's kind of solemn and nervously focused, as befits a conception of Geppetto that's primarily interested in his desperate poverty.

Which gets us to the third potentially interesting thing, which is that this is the version of Pinocchio in which "desperate poverty" is front and center in the first act, and that really does set the stage. It is an extraordinarily dour and laconic film for a children's fantasy, pretty much from start to finish. It's not enough to say that it's not lively - it's altogether sleepy, even in the places that it's generally working. For example, the performance of Federico Ielapi as Pinocchio himself: the film greatly softens the edges of Collodi's character, making him less of a bratty hedonist who finds doing good hard and more of a completely guileless innocent who finds doing good confusing, and Ielapi's bright, wide-open performance serves very well to get us into this treatment of the character. At the same time, without any sharp points, Ielapi's Pinocchio ends up feeling passive even for a character who, in every incarnation, is mostly just bounced from situation to situation with very little influence on where he goes or how he gets there. It's a nice, likable take on the puppet, but simply not dynamic enough.

Even "nice" and "likable" would be going to far for other parts of the movie. The golden-hued nostalgia, so ably captured by Nicolai Brüel's cinematography, ends up being fatiguing; this is a film of washed-out white skies and hushed charcoal grey shadows, and as rich and posh as it looks as a result, it's heavy. And even a bit glum: everybody in this Pinocchio seems vaguely sad other than Pinocchio himself, which makes for a long 125 minutes.

That being said, outside of the melancholic cinematography, the visual craftsmanship on display is absolutely fantastic; and even putting it that way is unfair to Dario Marianelli, who provides a lovely, delicate musical score that matches the sullen tone of the movie without indulging it, and giving a sense of fairy-tale magic back to the material. But I do think that the stars of the show are Dimitri Capuani's production design, Massimo Cantini Parrini's costumes, and all of the effects used to bring the little wooden boy to rather persuasively-textured life - most of it done practically through make-up, no less, with the handful of CGI effects standing out rather baldly, though not destructively. For one thing that all these audio-visual elements do is to give the film an unearthly, otherworldly aura: even as it feels like it takes place in a grounded world with a physical history, there's a picture-book fantasy to the design that goes well with Ielapi's gregarious emptiness and even the floating sense of indistinct loss and solemnity that have been insistently placed into the film. It feels like it genuinely takes place in a fantasy world that's nestled liked a pocket universe into our own - not on sets, not in a pure realm of fairy tale inhumanity, but in something like a fondly but poorly-remembered dream of 19th Century Italy. That sense, and the plush visuals supporting it, just manage to make Pinocchio a worthwhile experience, even if it's hardly the most sparkling or playful - or just plain effective - version of this fable we've ever gotten.