What a difference a director makes. In Robert Zemeckis’ recent remake of Disney’s Pinocchio, it felt like a downright creepy and unnecessary addition to give Geppetto a dead son as motivation for creating a wooden replica in his place. When Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (in select theaters now and on Netflix December 9) does the same, however, with a drunken Geppetto carving a grotesquely half-assed surrogate son replica he pledges to finish when he’s sober, only to have it come to life first ... that feels appropriate. The director, known for his love of the grotesque, put his name in the title for a reason. Obviously, he wanted to distinguish it from the Disney films, but the full title also makes clear that this is distinctly his version of the classic. Carlo Collodi’s serialized story for kids may have inspired it, but del Toro isn’t going for fealty. He very much has a take, and if he creeps you out with it, so much the better.

Most of the broad strokes are still here. Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) does indeed have a cricket (Ewan McGregor’s Sebastian) imparting moral lessons, this time from literally inside the wooden boy’s chest, where the bug has nested. As always, Pinocchio finds the temptations of a traveling puppet show more intriguing than school, and eventually he will be swallowed by a sea creature. But all this also happens during the rise of Mussolini in Italy, with the local fascist authority figure the Podesta (Ron Perlman, who else?) taking interest in Pinocchio both as a potential troublemaker and as a possible military recruit. This time, Geppetto, carney Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), and the Podesta are all aware of each other’s conflicting intentions towards the string-free marionette; it’s up to Pinocchio to make actual, informed moral choices, rather than being duped into the wrong ones, as most tellings have it.

Co-directing with Will Vinton Studios Claymation veteran Mark Gustafson, del Toro creates as fully designed a reality as he ever has in live-action; arguably more so, since he’s also creating actors from scratch as well. The humans, for the most part, are so caricatured that it’s remarkable you end up empathizing with them, yet the voice acting and the small gestures sell the illusion. Unlike the ultra-smooth stop-motion of Wendell & Wild, the animation here, presumably using a lower frame rate, retains the herky-jerky quality of older entries in the medium, which is of a piece with the many classic cinema allusions and references scattered throughout.

Biblical subtext inherent to the original story already included the Jonah-inspired climax and the notion of a carpenter’s son who magically transcends his physical limitations. This time around, there’s even more. Geppetto works on a giant wooden crucifix for the local church; Pinocchio, with nails sticking out of his unfinished form, wonders why the local religious fascists love that tormented-looking wooden figure but not him. The cosmology at play in this world, however, is far from typical Christianity, with coffin-toting bunnies hauling coffins to an afterlife presided over by a Tilda Swinton-voiced Sphinx. As in Hellboy II, del Toro incorporates both the modern notion of winged angels, and the ancient concept of them as many-eyed monstrosities.