Whatever Happened to Destino?

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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From an official Disney Company January 20, 2008 press release:

Destino began in 1946 as a collaboration between Walt Disney and the famed surrealist painter Salvador Dali. A first-hand example of Disney's interest in avant garde and experimental work in animation, Destino was to be awash with Dali's iconic melting clocks, marching ants and floating eyeballs. However, Destino was not completed at that time. In 2003, it was rediscovered by Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, who took on the challenge of bringing the creation of these two great artists to fruition. In addition to the completed Destino, this exciting addition to the Walt Disney Treasures line also includes an all-new feature-length documentary that examines the surprising partnership between Dali and Disney plus two new featurettes: The Disney That Almost Was, an examination of the studio's unfinished projects; and Encounters with Walt, which addresses the surprisingly diverse group of celebrities and artists who were attracted to Walt Disney's early work.”

The film was scheduled to be officially released on DVD on November 11, 2008. (It had originally been scheduled for an earlier release through the Disney Legacy collection that released the True Life Adventures.) In June 2008, it was announced that the DVD would not be be part of the Disney Treasures series that year and would be released sometime later. That was roughly two years ago.

Apparently, Dali contacted Walt Disney briefly as early as 1937 on a trip to Hollywood. During that era, Walt was always bringing high-profile artists, writers and more to the Disney Studios to share ideas with his artists.

However it was a dinner party, nearly a decade later, in 1945, that resulted in an official collaboration between the two high profile celebrities. Dali was staying with Jack Warner and his wife to paint their portraits. Dali had been in Hollywood to design sets for a dream sequence in the Alfred Hitchcock film Spellbound (1945). Walt attended the dinner party at the Warner home in 1945, and Disney and Dali immediately bonded, resulting in a friendship that would last until Walt’s passing two decades later.

Besides the similar artistic recognition the two men had each received for their innovative work, Disney animators commented that Dali and Disney were also both workaholics, loved controlling their work, were terrific self-promoters, and filled with a seemingly endless supply of ideas, optimism, and humor. So, this unusual friendship began with a good many strong connections in place.

Dali officially moved into a room on the third floor of the Animation building at the Disney Studios in 1946. Originally, the project was top secret because they had not settled on exactly what that project would be. At the time, because of financial and labor restrictions, Walt was producing what was known as “package films”—a feature comprised of several short self-contained segments. Walt had purchased a romantic Mexican ballad by Armando Dominquez titled Destino that Walt thought might be a good vehicle for South American singer and dancer Dora Luz, who had recently appeared in The Three Caballeros (1945). It was intended to be a segment in another upcoming package film and Walt felt that Dali might provide some interesting backgrounds for the piece.

However, Dali disliked the song but loved the word “destino” (meaning “destiny”) and his imagination began to run wild as he created an entire elaborate scenario. Dali visualized two lovers in an ever changing dreamlike landscape and the effect that time and other obstacles had on that relationship. It would be a combination of animation, live action (live ballet dancers in a Daliesque landscape) and special effects and would run six- to eight- minutes long. As work progressed on the story, Dali continued to add new ideas and symbolism so that the story became ever more complicated and unwieldy.

“It is a magical exposition of the problem of life in the labyrinth of time,” proclaimed Dali. (Walt added that it was really “just a simple story about a young girl in search of her real love.”)

“We have to keep breaking new trails,” Walt announced in 1946 at Dali’s arrival. “Ordinarily, good story ideas don’t come easily and have to be fought for. Dali is communicative. He bubbles with new ideas.”

Dali in his own publication, Dali News, declared, “Dali and Disney will produce the first motion picture of the 'Never Seen Before,' and the most rigorous secrecy on this subject will prevail.”

Walt assigned John Hench and Bob Cormack to assist Dali so that his visions could be adapted to the necessities of animation. Dali painted the key scenes while Hench and Cormack made continuity sketches to help segue from one image to another.

As Hench remembered, “Walt came in and looked at the work from time to time. He saw the storyboards in progress and decided to let Dali go ahead and see what would happen. Dali was given complete freedom.”

That didn’t prevent Walt from contributing ideas. “Well, they had a Roman god and it represented a blockage to a labyrinth, but the hummingbird opened it and it became a passageway. I don’t know if people got that or not but that was Walt’s suggestion,” Hench recalled. Perhaps that might explain why Dali’s painting of the head of Jupiter from the film was framed and hung in Walt’s office until he passed away. Dali said that Jupiter determined the course of all human affairs which is why a giant sundial emerged from that great stone face in the film.

“Now the metamorphosis! We see the face of Jupiter, which becomes a big stone sun dial. His hair is a magical arch. Time stops the way into the labyrinth of life, and true love is not possible until time is destructed,” stated the cryptic and flamboyant Dali.

The film is filled with Dali symbolism. The ravaging ants signify humanity’s desolation. The crutches suggest that mankind cannot live without support. The famous melting watches denote the death of time. The whole idea of a sculpture coming to life was something Dali originally proposed for Hitchcock’s Spellbound. However, actress Ingrid Bergman vetoed the idea in the dream sequence because Dali wanted to cover her with live ants when she came to life. Dali was not adverse to borrowing ideas from his previous work. The heroine in Destino seems similar to the woman from his painting Suburbs of the Paranoiac-Critical Town done nearly a decade earlier.

For more than two months, Dali arrived no later than 9 a.m. each day at the Disney Studios to diligently work at his easel. He was often accompanied by his wife Gala who not only helped inspire him but interpreted for him since he often chatted away in an odd mixture of French, Spanish, broken English and his own unique language. Dali sometimes had lunch with Walt and Hench in the Disney Studios' Coral Room restaurant. Disney Legend Ward Kimball remembered that Gala would sometimes pin directions to Dali’s house on Salvador’s jacket if he came to studio by himself so if he got on a bus someone would be able to help him find his way home.

For several months, Dali worked out of his Monterrey, Calif., studio, near the old Del Monte Lodge Hotel and Hench would commute there on weekends.

As interest in the project was starting to wane at the studio, Hench put together what might be considered a 15-second “animatic” of a scene to help everyone visualize what the finished film might look like.

“I thought I’d shoot this one scene because I thought it was so astonishing," said Hench to interviewer Bill Desowitz. "It was an appearance of the female character, the ballerina, and it was an empty field with just a white ball floating on a field and then two turtles, one approaching fro the left and then the right, and I used sliding fills because I didn’t have an animator that I could use. But we pulled these slides across and then when they met, the negative space turned into the ballerina and the ball was her head. And I thought, yeah, I can show that to Walt. He may just go ahead with the thing anyway. But it was very surprising and I thought it would interest him. And it did interest him too but he put it aside, though. Years afterward, whenever Walt and I talked about Dali, he always said we should have made that thing anyway.”

“Salvador was back in Monterrey, so once I finished filming the test, I drove up to show it to him," Hench told Christopher Jones, the son of Tom Jones who worked in Disney publicity, beginning in the 1950s, and tried to put together information on the abandoned project. "I tipped the manager of this little theater that was showing some B Western to show it after the film was over and the audience had left. The lights went out, and Salvador saw his artwork in full motion. He loved it. Just then the projectionist came out and practically roared,’What was THAT?’ Dali and I looked at each other, and we both knew that it was a unique moment in art.”

Officially, Walt told Dali that the Destino project was unfortunately canceled because he felt, supposedly urged by his film distributor RKO, that the market for package films was gone. This didn’t prevent Walt from releasing Melody Time two years later, considered the last of the package films.

Actually, the little-known final package film, Music Land, was released October 5, 1955. Disney had by that time created its own company to release its films to theaters but still owed its current distributor, RKO, one more film under the existing contract. In order to fulfill that final film commitment, Disney took a combination of four sequences from Make Mine Music and five from Melody Time to create a new compilation film titled Music Land. The poster boldly declared it was “The Big Parade of Mirth and Melody!” The film was never shown again except once at a retrospective “Tribute to Walt Disney” at the National Film Theater in 1970.

Dali remained convinced that he and Disney would collaborate on something eventually, perhaps even reviving Destino. Walt did, in fact, visit the artist at his home in Spain several times during the 1950s. They talked about a possible animated sequence from Dante’s Divine Comedy (that Dali had illustrated for the Italian government), an animated feature version of Don Quixote and even El Cid (Dali supposedly developed a story concept) that might have included a live-action Errol Flynn.

Walt prepared an “Art of Animation” museum exhibit in 1958 that would tour the United States (eventually ending up as a display in Tomorrowland at Disneyland), Europe and Japan. This exhibit was to promote the upcoming release of Sleeping Beauty in 1959. To put the exhibit together, Walt sent people to the animation "morgue" where the animation art was kept. Walt wanted some specific pieces and it wasn't just cel setups but backgrounds, concept art, story sketches, and more. There were three versions of this exhibit and each featured different original art.

Walt felt the inclusion of art done by Dali would add another dimension (and additional publicity) to the exhibit. Walt was shocked to discover that practically all of the major Dali art had disappeared from the morgue. Walt never had the heart to tell Dali what had happened.

When Dave Smith started the Disney Archives in 1970, he began making an appeal to Disney employees to donate any Disneyana they had. Five Dali paintings mysteriously reappeared and they were cleaned and put safely away. Also in the 1970s, Albert Field who was a New York-based appraiser, approached Dali and showed him some unsigned, newly discovered artwork from Destino. Dali couldn’t distinguish the drawings by Hench from his own work so he signed them all.

Roy E. Disney stated, “They [Hench and Dali] worked closely together to the point where they couldn’t tell each other’s drawings apart … John was the only one in the world, until he died, who could sit down with us and say: ‘That’s mine; that’s his.’”

There is some dispute about how much of the Destino artwork was recovered by the Disney Studios, although at least one reliable source indicated that 55 sketches by Dali and 75 by Hench were preserved at the studio in the early 1990s. Supposedly, the original portfolio for the project had almost 375 sketches and 22 completed paintings.

Robert Descharnes, recognized as one of the foremost experts on Dali artwork, has pointed out that some enterprising seller has faked Dali signatures on some of the unsigned Destino originals and even painted some phony Destino artwork that has been sold over the years.

I got to talk with Hench at the Disney Institute in Florida where host Leonard Maltin interviewed him on stage and showed the 15-second test footage of Destino. Hench said, “Walt abandoned Destino very regretfully. He hoped to pick it up later. He had gotten a great kick out of the project and besides admiring Dali’s talent, he liked him personally.”

While working on Fantasia 2000 on the interstitial with actress Bette Midler that made reference to Dali’s work, executive producer Roy E. Disney thought about using Dali artwork to promote the film. He was shocked when the Disney lawyers told him that, while Disney possessed the artwork, that it didn’t actually own it. The contract between Walt and Dali stipulated that the artwork didn’t become Disney property until after the movie was made.

It was at that point that Roy decided to complete the film with input from Hench who still worked at Disney and fondly recalled the project. Approximately 20 percent of the finished film had CG work to help move the virtual camera around objects. It was directed by Dominique Monfery and produced by Baker Bloodworth.

“Some of it was incomprehensible." Bloodworth explained. "Dali had always said, ‘If you understand this, then I’ve failed’. We pulled together the love story and compressed. And yet there is a long baseball sequence that no one could make sense of that we only touched on. We were true to the look that Dali painted. Dali would start with an image, which would become another one, and just when you thought it would hold on that image, it would become something else. Monfrey took the best of the drawings and then went back to the Dali works to find patterns.”

The finished film played at several film festivals in 2003, including the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and the Chicago Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award but did not win. Some people love the film while others find it completely incomprehensible and boring but there is no denying that it is a unique achievement.

Kira Obolensky wrote a play titled Lobster Alice, a fictionalized speculation about Dali spending six weeks in Hollywood working on Destino in conjunction with an animator (called “John Finch” in the play). The animator is also working on Alice in Wonderland, and Dali transforms Finch’s life and the world of a secretary named Alice.

Apparently, Destino is transferred and ready to be released along with some tantalizing extras, but there is still no official announcement of when since that vague announcement a year and a half ago. While I am grumbling about that delayed release and waving my grumpy old man cane in the air, let me also plead that the Disney Company assist in the releases of The Sweatbox, Walt & El Grupo, The Boys (the documentary on the Sherman Brothers) and Waking Sleeping Beauty on DVD (not just Blu-Ray) for all of Disney fans who don’t live in a major city where theaters run these type of documentaries to enjoy.