Composer Alexandre Desplat breaks down ‘Pinocchio’ score and finds “moments of joy and happiness” amid sadness

It is impossible to talk about it Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio Regardless of the music. Del Toro’s Netflix adaptation of the Carlo Collodi story takes place in 1930s Italy, under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. In this story, woodcarver Geppetto (David Bradley) loses his son Carlo in an aerial bombardment, and Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) carves his son’s grave from a tree. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who worked with del Toro shape of water, was tasked with capturing the “joyous sadness” of the wooden boy in music. To enhance the connection between Pinocchio’s character and the music, Desplat chose to use only woodwinds in the score. Below, Desplat breaks down the three key parts of the score — “Carlo’s Theme,” “Going to Town” and “Saving Geppetto” — including the corresponding scenes for reference.

“Carlo’s Theme” was the first piece of the score that Desplat wrote. “It was important for me to find that theme before the melody, before I could develop and find other ideas,” he says. The theme, which recurs throughout the score, is crucial to achieving the “joyful melancholy” that Desplat and del Toro wanted for the story. “Losing a child is absolutely tragic and difficult to overcome,” she says, “but when you think of a child, you think of good times, beautiful moments of joy and happiness, not just grief.” For this scene in the film, “Carlow’s Theme” returns, another example of Geppetto dealing with the loss of his son. When Desplat first wrote the piece, he wanted to underscore Pinocchio and Carlo for it. “Pinocchio is the creature that Carlo is made to give birth to again,” he says. “‘Carlow’s theme’ is actually Pinocchio’s theme.”

Desplat decided to start with something reminiscent of a children’s lullaby, but give it a more sophisticated chord progression. “It’s between a lullaby and a love song,” he says, which gives it a nostalgic feel as the theme both celebrates life and mourns the loss of Carlo. Desplat first played the song for Del Toro on piano, then began adding more instruments. “The strings come in slowly with the harp and then the woodwinds join the flutes and clarinets,” he says. “Little by little, it amplifies the sound, but never too much. I didn’t want to bombard because it had to be confined to the frame of the film.

“Going to Town” is the more adventurous and playful part of the score, as Pinocchio leaves home to go to town with Geppetto. “Pinocchio is a free spirit,” says Desplat, “he’s not innocent because he likes to do things that may not seem innocent, but he’s a free spirit.” The theme changes when Pinocchio sees Volpe’s circus poster, but changes once more as Pinocchio is called by his father. “Anything is an adventure for Pinocchio,” he says. “He’s happy to do something that gets him out into the world and opens him up to discovering what’s out there.”

Desplat wrote the theme in a “question and answer” format, as a child questions the world and receives answers from their parents. “It’s a continuation of the first song he sang, ‘Everything is New to Me,'” he says. As Geppetto says they need work, Pinocchio exclaims that he likes work, before asking what work is in a questioning tone of childlike wonder. “Everything is new to him in the workshop, but then everything is new to him outside the workshop… Going to the city is like traveling around the world, it’s a real adventure.” “Questions” are raised by woodwinds and “answers” come from strings, creating the enthusiastic rhythm of an inquisitive child experiencing the world for the first time.

“Saving Geppetto” begins with Pinocchio trying to save Geppetto from drowning. “Pinocchio is wounded, with only one arm left, and he’s desperately trying to swim to help Geppetto,” says Desplat. “It’s weird and very, very moving at the same time because you’re taking care of this little boy trying desperately to save his father.” Although the scene is horrific, the music focuses on the feeling of hope for Pinocchio to save his father. “The music is trying to help Pinocchio with the hope that he will be able to bring him back to life. It’s a very moving moment.”

Desplat begins with “swirling, descending arpeggios” to imitate Geppetto spiraling into the sea, using the piano to match the downward force. “The full orchestra is here, but it’s playing a motif that we hear in the first song of the film, ‘My Son,’ which Geppetto sings to Carlo,” he says. To connect this scene to the beginning of the film, Desplat now uses the full orchestra to reinforce the melody and the string instruments to give effect to Pinocchio’s determination. “I knew very early on that we were going to use the melody from ‘My Son,'” he says, “but we made a variation where the melody swells up and down again… so, it’s quite haunting and emotional.”

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