There’s a scene near the end of The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical drama about his childhood and teenage years, where the budding filmmaker Sammy Fabelman is confronted by Logan, a young jock and Northern California high school peer who had been bullying him for being a Jew. Logan is unsettled by the way he appears in an 8mm film Sammy shot on a school beach outing known as “Ditch Day”: he doesn’t understand why Sammy depicted him as an athletic golden boy (with edits reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi-glorifying Olympia), and he insists that’s not who he really is. Sammy is dumbfounded by this reaction, since he assumed the film would soften Logan’s hostility.
In that moment lies the crux of Spielberg’s career. The most financially successful filmmaker of all time — the director of Jaws, the Indiana Jones series, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and Jurassic Park — Spielberg has always been obsessed to a fault with thrilling and satisfying the viewer. His ingratiation of audiences can be relentless: he’ll tie up every loose end in a movie with multiple resolutions. This is true of even his most serious Oscar bait, such as the Holocaust film Schindler’s List, which celebrates Oskar Schindler, the gentile industrialist and savior of hundreds of Jews, with an overlong, worshipful dénouement.
Spielberg’s filmmaking craft, honed from the masters of the medium, is undeniably impressive. (Indeed, Spielberg is confident enough of this to include a scene in The Fabelmans in which Sammy meets the great John Ford, played by director David Lynch, and that pokes fun at the art of cinema.) His action scenes are brilliantly executed, and his understanding of the emotional basics of storytelling runs deep. Many of his set pieces — featuring the great white shark in Jaws; the bloodied beaches of Normandy in Saving Private Ryan; the brutal emptying of the Kraków ghetto in Schindler’s List — are breathtaking. But he has trouble dealing with the bitterness and ambiguity of life, both of which get lost amid his insecure efforts to reassure audiences of the world’s justice and morality.
There are times, however, when Spielberg transcends that impulse, and his collaboration with playwright Tony Kushner, part-time Provincetown resident and author of the monumental Angels in America, provides some of the best examples. Kushner wrote the screenplays for Munich, Lincoln, and West Side Story, and now co-wrote The Fabelmans with Spielberg — all films as mature and tough as Spielberg ever gets.
The Fabelmans, which is playing now at local theaters and can be streamed on Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime, is his most personal film, and the particulars onscreen about the Fabelman family are almost identical to those of Spielberg’s own. The performances are wonderful: Michelle Williams is Mitzi, the mom, a restless housewife filled with creative energy; Paul Dano is Burt, the dad, patient and loving but a boring and ambitious electrical engineer in America’s burgeoning computer industry; and Seth Rogen is Bennie Loewy, Burt’s ever-present best friend and the seed, in Mitzi’s affections, for the inevitable breakup of the family. Gabriel LaBelle makes a perfect teenage Sammy, full of confusion and yearning and a passion for spectacle. There are also sisters and grandmothers and a great cameo by Judd Hirsch as Sammy’s great-uncle Boris, who drops by for a quick visit and helps the boy integrate some uncomfortable truths.
It’s a powerful story about Jewish assimilation in postwar America, marital dissatisfaction, and the dominating lure of crowd-pleasing financial success in this country, which often overshadows the prerogatives of artists. These are not revelatory themes, but they’re handled honestly and intelligently. Spielberg’s usual stellar collaborators, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams, are on board. And, ironically, The Fabelmans has been something of a box-office bomb — Spielberg’s lowest-grossing movie to date.
Another meditation on the shattered innocence of childhood by an illustrious director, Gabriel del Toro’s Pinocchio, was released this December (and is streamable on Netflix). It’s an update on the Disney animated film based on Carlo Collodi’s folkloric fable, and like the Disney classic, del Toro’s version is a masterpiece of fantasy and horror that will probably terrify young children. It’s also animated, but instead of using drawn and painted images, del Toro opts for beautifully sculpted stop-motion figures. He also changes the story significantly: gone are Geppetto’s cat Figaro and fish Cleo, and the Cricket (sans the moniker Jiminy) is more insect-like. Instead of pre-industrial Europe, the story is set in Mussolini’s Fascist Italy, a time when Geppetto’s suffering — he had a real son who died in World War I bombing, one for whom Pinocchio is a substitute — seems directly connected to the societal evils that pop up everywhere in this dark environment.
Del Toro is an evocative auteur specializing in horror and romantic tragedy, as evidenced in his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, the Spanish-set nightmares The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, and the cartoonish Hellboy movies. More than with any of his special-effects-laden live-action films, del Toro has created an entire handcrafted universe for Pinocchio. Pinocchio himself, minimally anthropomorphized, actually looks as if he’s made of wood, and even when he becomes a “real” boy, that doesn’t change. The voices of the adults around him — by Tilda Swinton, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz, Cate Blanchett, David Bradley, and John Turturro — and the sumptuously gothic Alexandre Desplat score and songs enliven the cloud of doom that envelops this world.
Del Toro’s Pinocchio can’t equal the visual brilliance of golden-era Disney animation, but it replaces it with sharp political allegory. At a time when Putin is showering bombs on Ukrainian civilians and Trump’s autocratic legacy refuses to die, this dark fable seems almost lighthearted in comparison. Immerse yourself in its romantic imagination.