Though not apparent in the brilliantly animated 1940 Disney film, underlying Carlo Collodi’s 19th century cautionary tale about a puppet boy with a habit of lying was an urgent political message. Collodi was a political satirist and activist who argued passionately for Italian unification, who sought to shape a national identity and common values for a fractured society. Throughout Collodi’s serialized Adventures of Pinocchio, the citizen-in-training was censured for his irresponsibility and hedonism. 

Disney stripped Collodi’s tale of its bloodier, more gruesome travails, and whittled his brash, hot-tempered protagonist into a softhearted, happy-go-lucky young hero. But the final message endured: rewards come to children who show respect for their elders, while suffering awaits those who hang out with the wrong crowd. 

Swedish choreographer Pär Isberg and his collaborators – Jérôme Kaplan (costumes), Bo-Ruben Hedwall (set), Aya Mok (props) and Billy Chan (lighting) – deliver a stunning production that deftly avoids the pablum of Disney and the extreme violence of Collodi, while retaining some of the darker elements of the story.

In Collodi’s original tale, for example, when Pinocchio first encounters the Cricket, he is annoyed by the Cricket’s moralizing and smashes him dead with a mallet. The Cricket’s ghost later surfaces to serve as Pinocchio’s conscience. 

Isberg permits Pinocchio this fit of comic rage, but the Cricket – portrayed in a delightful gender reversal by the enchanting Liu Yu-yao – nimbly jetés out of harm’s way.

This is a sophisticated retelling that succeeds where many ballet adaptations of fairy tales fail – captivating children with stage magic and engaging adults with nuanced portrayals of character and conflict. 

One can simply be dazzled at the visual spectacle of the ensemble in full commedia finery, tethered by cables that hang from the flies. Or one can search for deeper meaning as the commedia performers play out their petty trials, under the grip of unseen puppet-masters. 

The handsome company shows commendable range not only in the authority of their bold allegro work, but also in the polish of their mime and in the delicate precision of their commedia dell’arte antics. 

Wit abounds, from the opening moment of each act when the Cricket slips in front of the curtain and impishly pries it up. The feckless Pinocchio later wanders into the house, asking directions of the audience, before the maestro firmly motions him on stage. Shades of Willy Wonka’s enterprise emerge in the Land of Candy and Play, where truant schoolboys gobble oversize lollies until their tummies swell and they sprout donkey ears and tails. Pinocchio is sold as a donkey to a circus master, who kicks him to the kerb after he is crippled in an acrobatic stunt. The moral will be clear to the tiniest tot in the audience, whereas adults will recognize metaphors for the exploitation of the ignorant masses by overlords like the whip-wielding Coach Man and Circus Master.

Wit of the highest order is on display in Kaplan’s costuming. Reminiscent of Alexander McQueen in his woodland phase, the rakish Cricket and her brigade sport shimmering bloomers, tunics that tail off like a phalaenopsis leaf, and tiny bowler hats topped with elongated antennae. Equally chic are the cunning Fox and Cat, the corps de ballet outfitted as French boarding school students straight out of Ludwig Bemelmans’ tales of Madeline, incandescent jellyfish who drift languidly like catwalk models, schools of fish with enormous fins sculpted from the finest Issey Miyake pleats, and the scores of actual children who swarm onstage as mice (in ruched bloomers) and cartwheeling starfish. 

No less fantabulous are Hedwall’s abstract sets and backdrops, with paintings by Jordi Castells – vaguely Japanese-inspired, in autumn reds and bronzes, sea and sky undulating in ripples of blue and white. The belly of the whale, in contrast, is embellished with a bold African design and a pair of giant octopuses suspended from the flies, their suction cups outlined in bright white light bulbs, like the sign on a Broadway marquee. 

The simplest of effects work like magic against these spectacular backdrops, moodily lit to convey tranquility, sadness, or a sense of menace. Balinese shadow puppetry illuminates Pinocchio’s braggadocio, his wooden nose lengthening as he boasts of his exploits to the Blue Fairy. Children costumed as crabs skitter along the ocean floor, lying on skateboards. Pinocchio plunges into the sea, floating down from the rafters on an invisible wire.

Throughout, the Hong Kong Sinfonietta soared in the Respighi score, imaginatively confected by conductor Benjamin Pope.

The fleet-footed Shen Jie won hearts in the role of Pinocchio. The character is mostly mischievous, though Shen gave a moving display of pain and remorse as an injured donkey. Li Jia-bo was an exceptionally fine Gepetto – lonely but dignified in the first act, stirring in the second, his anguished variation full of big Russian jumps. Jin Yao as the Blue Fairy was tentative and remote, her dress uninspired in comparison with the finery of the rest of the cast. (Surely a sumptuous tutu is in order for the Blue Fairy?) 

Though some choreographic editing is needed, Isberg and his dancers marvelously convey the layered innocence in puppetry. This Pinocchio hints at political subversiveness in a child’s anthropomorphizing of the world. “What this theater demands is the seriousness of the child at play,” wrote Kenneth Gross in his fascinating Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life – a demand that Hong Kong Ballet has triumphantly fulfilled.