Toy Story: Soon to be seen in a feature film, Pinocchio appears to have made a big comeback in Tuscany, but he has always been a big star in his native land, writes Shasta Darlington.
While inter-galactic warriors and web-spinning superstars may be the stuff of heroes in other countries, in Italy a long-nosed wooden puppet called Pinocchio still holds centre stage.
Oscar-winning Roberto Benigni - director and star of the concentration camp tragi-comedy Life is Beautiful - has breathed fresh life into one of Italy's most traditional and beloved characters with a new film based on the classic 19th-century fairy tale.
Although Benigni has been reluctant to talk about the upcoming movie, which will be released abroad for the Christmas market, Italy is already abuzz with anticipation.
Sales of hand-made wooden Pinocchio dolls have soared and modern merchandise, including baseball caps and backpacks featuring the mischievous liar, is disappearing from toy shop shelves.
A children's park in Tuscany has been dubbed "Pinocchioland" in expectation of a surge in interest. Publishers have re-issued The Adventures of Pinocchio, Carlo Collodi's original 1883 bestseller about a naughty puppet in search of boyhood.
"Italy has older traditions, a culture of artisans and country living so it's natural that our hero is Pinocchio," said Giorgio De Rienzo, a literary critic for Corriere della Sera newspaper and self-described "Pinocchiologist".
In the classic fable, the elderly Gepetto carves a puppet from a mysterious piece of wood. Pinocchio, an endearing mischief-maker whose nose grows every time he tells a lie, comes to life but aches to become a real boy.
His adventures on the way to learning honesty and bravery are peopled by a talking cricket, a blue fairy, an evil puppeteer and a giant fish, figures which have all become popular characters in Italian folklore. "Pinocchio is about freedom and fairy tales. It is the kind of story that can continually transform itself and be adapted," De Rienzo added.
The new Pinocchio movie is due to open in cinemas across Italy on October 11th. Film industry experts are already betting it will be the most popular movie ever in Italy, squeezing out the previous record-holder, Benigni's own Life is Beautiful.
That shouldn't be surprising, considering Pinocchio is the most widely-read book in Italian history and perhaps the most-read children's book around the world, according to Italian critics.
"Italian movies aren't usually blockbusters even in Italy, but there are exceptions," said Andrea Lazzarin, marketing director for Medusa Film, distributor for the film in Italy.
"Both Pinocchio and Benigni are cultural heritage in Italy - together they're just too appealing." Benigni, Italy's most beloved comic actor and director, won Oscars in 1999 for best foreign film and best actor with his tragi-comic story about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful.
He has sworn the entire cast to secrecy until the film is released but before shooting started he said he wanted to "make a big film from a small idea" with Pinocchio. Unlike Walt Disney's 1940s animated version, real actors will star in Benigni's film and the director himself will play the long-nosed wooden puppet.
Most of the $35 million Miramax production, Italy's most expensive film to date, was shot in the village of Pignone, north of Tuscany where Collodi, born Carlo Lorenzini, was brought up by his chef father and house servant mother.
The film is just the latest in a string of Pinocchio adaptations. A silent, black and white Italian Pinocchio was made in 1911, followed by Disney's animated version in 1940 as well as a series of made-for-TV films, one of them starring Mickey Rooney.
Italian director Luigi Comencini made a popular movie based on the book in 1972 and Pinocchio was even turned into a porno flick, called The Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio with the subtitle: "It's Not His Nose That Grows". Collodi's book has also proven to be something of a chameleon. Walt Disney turned him into the star of a sweet, growing-up morality tale, while in Russian translations, Pinocchio was portrayed as an organiser of a puppet co-operative.
Even before Benigni's film comes out, a musical play is being prepared and Italian feminist writer Vittoria Haziel is putting the finishing touches to a book called Pinocchia.
However, the growing Pinocchio hype unleashed by the Benigni film is alarming some diehard local fans.
"Pinocchio is known all over the world, but here we really consider him Italian," said Gianpaolo Galli, a craftsman at the Trad.Eco co-operative that sells wooden Pinocchio dolls in central Rome. "The only thing that worries me about all of this is that what has been a symbol of tradition for so long in Italy is turning into something trendy."