Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí seems an unusual and fascinating pairing. What is only somewhat well-known is that they did in fact collaborate, or at least tried to, on a short animated film called Destino. Happily, their work came to fruition, although it took nearly sixty years for it to happen.
Separated in age by less than four years, both Disney and Dalí, in their own ways, sought to bring the world of dreams to life in their art. Their careers intersected for the first time in 1936 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where several Dalí works were exhibited at the same time as a couple of animation cels from Disney’s short film “Three Little Wolves.” The following year, Dalí wrote to his fellow Surrealist André Breton, “I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with three great American Surrealists – the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney.”
After reading his autobiography The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí in 1944, Disney sent his copy of the book to Dalí in hopes of an autograph, while also suggesting that they might collaborate one day. They started exchanging mutually-admiring letters, and finally met face-to-face at a party at the home of Jack Warner (of Warner Brothers fame) in Hollywood in 1945.
Later that year, Disney, who was thinking of doing another film along the lines of 1940’s Fantasia, hired Dalí to create a short film. Disney had taken somewhat to heart criticisms that his animated films were mere entertainments, although beautiful and endearing ones. He aimed for a higher level of artistry in Fantasia, and his work with Dalí can also perhaps be seen in that light.
To help inspire Dalí, Disney pointed him to a song – a ballad by Ray Gilbert and Mexican songwriter Armando Dominguez called “Destino,” sung by Dora Luz. (Destino is, of course, Spanish for destiny or fate, as well as destination.) Work on the new film began in early 1946, with Dalí spending a great deal of time at The Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, exploring possible ideas with Disney studio artist John Hench. Along with animation, they envisioned incorporating live-action dancers as well as special effects.
Gradually, though, it became clear that Disney and Dalí had somewhat different ideas as to what form the film should take. In a Los Angeles Times article from April 1946, Dalí described the story in symbolic terms as “A magical exposition of life in the labyrinth of time.” Disney, however, envisioned it as “A simple love story – boy meets girl.” It’s hard to imagine, but it was also true at that time that the Walt Disney Studios were in poor financial health. Work on Destino slowed. Hench completed a short animation test of some 17 seconds – which can now be seen just past the five-minute mark of the finished film, the bit with two tortoises and a baseball player – hoping that the project could be resuscitated. But it wasn’t, and Destino was shelved. Despite how the collaboration worked out, Disney and Dalí remained friends, and met occasionally through the years.
Jump forward to 1999. While working on the sequel to Fantasia, Fantasia 2000, Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, came across the Destino project and enlisted Disney Studios France to complete it. The work that Dalí and Hench did, which included twenty-two paintings as well as nearly 150 storyboards, sketches, and drawings, were used as the starting point, and a team of 25 animators brought Destino to life, aided by Hench, who was still living, and the writings of Dalí’s wife Gala. Directed by French animator Dominique Monféry, the film features traditional animation, with computers used in some spots.
Destino made its first appearance on June 2, 2003 at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival in France, fifty-eight years after it was first conceived. It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
The story revolves around the tragic love of Chronos, the personification of time in ancient Greek literature, for the mortal Dahlia. Dahlia dances through surreal scenes inspired by Dalí’s work. The official plot synopsis reads: “To a song of love lost and rediscovered, a woman sees and undergoes surreal transformations. Her lover’s face melts off, she dons a dress from the shadow of a bell and becomes a dandelion, ants crawl out of a hand and become Frenchmen riding bicycles. Not to mention the turtles with faces on their backs that collide to form a ballerina, or the bizarre baseball game. From the melting clocks and hourglass sand, to the figure rendered in strips, to the character covered in eyeballs, the style and themes of Dalí are clearly recognizable throughout.”