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Dr. Toon: Altered States

Dr. Toon revisits Pinocchio and its alternate ending via this year's 70th anniversary DVD/Blu-ray release.

Martin Goodman.

As I begin to look back on 2009, I can categorically state that one of my favorite releases on DVD was the 70th anniversary reissue of Pinocchio (and first time on Blu-ray). Not only is the original film newly sumptuous in its presentation, there is a bonus disc that is certain to satisfy the hunger of many a Disneyphile and animation aficionado. Two features (which are actually somewhat related) in particular stand out: the first is titled "The Sweatbox --Walt Disney's Artistic Review Process." This documentary details how progress on an animated film was reviewed and refined through use of pencil tests and Leica reels. The second is a newly discovered trio of deleted scenes including an alternate ending. It is this ending, as much as anything else that shows the thought that went into the final version of Pinocchio, as well as the purpose an alternate ending should truly serve.

Alternate endings have vastly different meanings today than they did in 1940. Many films today do, in fact, shoot two (or even more) endings that are then shown to test audiences or focus groups. The ending that gets the most positive response is the one that usually gets nailed to the film, sort of a cinematic version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. Of course, the selected ending may be the one that was furthest from the screenwriter's intent, and some tinkering may have to be done with earlier material to make the Procrustean fit look neater.

It often matters little if the tail ends up pinned to the donkey's nostrils; profit is the bottom line, and giving the public (or a tiny test sample of same) what it wants trumps creative consistency. In Walt's studio, the focus group was comprised of the people responsible for the artistic content of the film, and their aesthetics were the deciding factors. Improvement and refinement were the goals of having a film end differently than originally written. The only ending the public saw was the one Disney ultimately released.

Another difference is that test audiences have developed specific tastes based on their filmic experiences. They are familiar with the structure of modern comedy, farce, drama, psychodrama, conspiracy flick and horror film as it exists in their culture. Ask them how a story told in the multiplexes ought to end and they can give you viable feedback. They have creative expectations of others whereas the Disney story team on Pinocchio had only creative expectations of themselves. Thus, the investment by Disney was far greater.

The Pinocchio: 70th Anniversary Platinum Edition DVD/Blu-ray (Walt Disney Home Ent.) offers an emotionally weaker alternate ending in which Geppetto dies and is resurrected. All images courtesy of Disney.

A test audience watching two, three or even 15 different endings to an Adam Sandler film couldn't care less if said film gets poorer play than the balloon boy hoax; they lose nothing. Disney's crew, in 1940, was under tremendous pressure to create an aesthetic triumph equal to Snow White, keep the studio solvent and further artistic improvement and innovation in the process. They had everything to lose. Therefore, the alternate ending to Pinocchio is a deceptively important artifact in the early history of Disney. No pencil tests, story notes or finished animation seems to exist, only fragmentary storyboards. Notes on the boards indicate "same animation," suggesting that this ending may have survived well into production. It may be more appropriate to consider this work as an unused rather than alternate ending, but I will stick with the language used in the DVD.

In this ending, known as Sequence 12, Geppetto has been washed ashore, seemingly lifeless after the harrowing escape from Monstro the Whale. Pinocchio desperately wades up toward the shore as Cleo, Figaro and Jiminy Cricket float in to the beach. Jiminy sees the woodcarver and weeps against a stone at Pinocchio's fruitless attempts to revive Geppetto. The anguished puppet cries over his father's body: "It's all my fault! Look what I've done to him. I don't deserve to have him back!"

Geppetto is suddenly bathed in shining light (generated by the unseen Blue Fairy) and begins to awaken, moaning, "Save yourself, Pinocchio." The light extends over Pinocchio with dramatic effect as Geppetto exclaims, "Pinocchio! What has happened to you?" The next drawing reveals Pinocchio to be a real boy; Jiminy Cricket rejoices, Figaro kisses Cleo and the group dances merrily down the beach. Jiminy stops to thank his Wishing Star, which is reflected in his shiny new badge (Official Conscience -- 18 KT). Cut to the star itself. The End.

When one considers the emotional weight of the film up to this point, the ending is too forced, too abrupt. There is also the sense of deus ex machina with the Blue Fairy accomplishing two miracles within seconds of each other (not to mention coming up with a gold badge in the bargain). Since it is Geppetto who "dies," there is no real sense of sacrifice on Pinocchio's part, merely remorse on the puppet's part at having continued a long line of screw-ups. Pinocchio, in this version, becomes a real boy just for making a good effort and falling short.

Now consider the released ending, so much more satisfying and emotionally engaging. A semiconscious Geppetto washes up first, whispering, "Save yourself, Pinocchio." It is Jiminy Cricket who finds the puppet face down in a tidal pool. After a long held shot, the scene fades to the interior of Geppetto's shop, where Pinocchio lies on the bed while a grieving Geppetto whispers, "My brave little boy."Jiminy Cricket cries beside a candle while Figaro and Cleo mourn side-by-side. Only after we are left to grieve along with them is the Blue Fairy heard in voice-over. A brilliant aura surrounds Pinocchio as she intones," Prove yourself brave, truthful and unselfish, and someday you will be a real boy. Arise, Pinocchio, arise." Thus, both Geppetto and the Blue Fairy attest to Pinocchio's bravery, validating his resurrection as a living boy.

Another bonus feature traces the history of "The Sweatbox" and its artistic importance to Disney and his animators.

Noted animation historian Michael Barrier is less than enthralled with the released ending, writing in his book Hollywood Cartoons that the film's coda suggests "clumsy manipulation." Barrier is accurate in noting that a puppet who has just spent an extensive sequence submerged under the sea would not drown of a sudden, nor would he be killed by a crack to his solid pine noggin. Barrier seems to see this scene as a contrived device that enables the Blue Fairy to conveniently revive Pinocchio and turn him into a real boy.

As deep as my respect runs for Mr. Barrier, I disagree with all of the above. It's true that Pinocchio is a wooden puppet with neither lungs nor brain. But haven't we spent an entire film suspending disbelief in the service of fantasy? Pinocchio is a fairy tale, after all, not CSI. Boys can't really turn into donkeys, and crickets don't stand upright and talk. Also consider that Pinocchio does have an inorganic semblance of life, and that is all he has to hang on to until he can be converted into flesh and blood. If it can be bestowed magically, then it can be extinguished as well, and Pinocchio gives it up selflessly. It is the idea of ultimate sacrifice that matters, not its plausibility.

Thus, Pinocchio's resurrection is no mere device; he has kept up his end of the bargain and is well on his way to becoming human even before the Blue Fairy shines her light for the final time. This is logical story progression, not clumsy manipulation. Pinocchio "dies" with his donkey ears still attached as he lies in state, a visual signifier of his sins and mistakes. This detail is more important than it seems; Pinocchio is loved and mourned as an imperfect being, a not-quite-good-enough son whose waywardness and folly can be forgiven in the end. This makes his transformation into a perfect little boy even more powerful. Pinocchio had to sacrifice himself and die, and not in the service of maudlin tear-jerking on the part of the writers. This film could not have plausibly ended any other way.

When one compares the original ending, which seems to have been in use fairly late into the film, with the final product, one can see a team of writers gradually refining their script, fleshing out a weak and hurried ending and adding details congruent with scenes and concepts shown or stated earlier in the film. The alternate ending of Pinocchio does not do justice to a comic-book version of the story, and it is inconceivable that Walt Disney, that master analyst, would have let it stand, test audience or not.

Pinocchio may have its critics, such as Mr. Barrier, but that's only fair. What truly matters is that an alternate ending for a film such as Pinocchio should represent nothing more than a stage in the film's evolution, to be used --or scrapped-- as development proceeds. Alternate endings presented to a focus group, test audience or screened for the purpose of gauging what might work at the box office is artificial, anti-creative and cynical.

Disney's writers trusted themselves despite the risks, and with good reason; Snow Whitewas a fantastic success, they had dozens of quality short films under their collective belts and the rest of the creative team was capable of turning their script into the most sophisticated animation on the planet. Only they had the experience, storytelling savvy and intuitive knowledge to dictate how an animated film should begin -- and end. And, oh yes, the guidance of Walt Disney himself. That is why, dear readers, the alternate ending to Pinocchio, as fascinating as it may be to historians,exists as only a scrap of animation paper populated by rough stick figures.

Robert Rodriguez plans a live-action re-do of The Jetsons. Courtesy of Cartoon Network.

In the News

Well, maybe this is old news but it seems that Robert Rodriguez is prepared to begin shooting a live-action version of The Jetsons. Two vital components of the classic LAAF (Live-Action Animated Feature) are already in place: The first is the futility of adapting a well-established animated property into live action. Second, while Mr. Rodriguez has proven to be a virtual one- man film crew, his only animation credits over the course of his career is a "Special Thanks" credit in a 2007 anime feature and an animated title sequence for his short student film, "Bedhead" (1991). Ah, Hollywood, will ye never learn? Open the bay doors, Captain; one large bomb on the way!

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.