The secret history of Salvador Dalí’s Disney film

In 1946, the Surrealist artist created a short film with Walt Disney that didn’t see the light of day for 58 years

It’s difficult to picture what a Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney collaboration would have looked like. Yet the two artists did collaborate, and the outcome – a short film called Destino released in 2003 – is beautifully weird.

Before their fateful meeting, Disney dabbled in WTF. There’s an entire underworld of dark, surrealist Disney. A whistle-stop tour through some of Walt Disney’s earlier works yields undeniable nightmare fuel in some of his most popular films. Dumbo (1941) has that visually trippy “Pink Elephants on Parade” bit, where technicolour elephants balloon and shrink to a creepy overture. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) features a scene where Snow White races through a forest, narrowly dodging the snapping jaws of anthropomorphised log crocs. And then, for the self-hating, there’s the wordlessly terrifying Fantasia (1940).

Dalí’s first visit to Hollywood came in 1937. He was keen to create an animated film, a medium he saw as ideal for bringing to life the metaphysical. Writing to the French founder of Surrealism, André Breton, Dalí noted that Surrealism’s influence had become so “enormous” that “creators of animated cartoons are proud to call themselves Surrealists.”

“I have come to Hollywood and am in contact with the three great American Surrealists – the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. DeMille, and Walt Disney,” he told Breton.

THE TWO ARTISTS MET AT A WARNER BROTHERS STUDIO PARTY

Dalí first encountered Walt Disney in 1945 at a studio party he attended for Warner Brothers, at executive Jack Warner’s house. Dalí was in town working on a dream sequence for Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound. A mutual appreciation for each other’s art drew them together, and it didn’t take long until they agreed to collaborate on an animated film. “Apparently, they were fairly close,” Walt’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, once told animation historian John Canemaker. “It always seemed to me they were both really relentless self-promoters and they must have seen that in one another.”

IT WAS A STORY OF A GIRL IN SEARCH OF LOVE

In January of 1946, Dalí signed a contract with Disney. Although Dalí’s price was never publicly revealed, Disney admitted, “He was expensive.” Destino is as much about photorealistic visuals as the unrequited love between a woman and Chronos, the personification of time. She dances around a desertscape that morphs into a maze while she drops trou and slips into a stunning dress, catching the eye of an unreachable man. Dalí explained the film to press as “a magical exposition of the problem of life in the labyrinth of time.” Disney attempted to break down his art-speak, saying it was “just a simple story of a girl in search of her real love.” Disney was planning on it being a short that he could slot into one of the popular post-war “package features” he created, such as Make Mine Music. Dalí got to work in early 1946, reportedly clocking desk job hours of 9 to 5 for three months.

THE LOST MASTERPIECE

Amassing over 135 storyboards and 22 paintings from Dalí’s eight months in the studio, Disney’s short film was on track. However, the project soon lost steam due to a variety of factors: Disney couldn’t afford to keep Dalí employed with $4.3 million owing to the Bank of America; he felt it was no longer the time for packaged anthology features; and a battle of egos may have also played a role. “The picture was not becoming quite what either of them hoped when they started,” wrote animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston in their book Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life. The project was put on the backburner and never revisited.

Rumours of animosity were dispelled when Disney wrote to one of his biographers, “I consider [Dalí] a friend, a very swell guy and a person whom I thoroughly enjoyed working with. Our association with him was a happy one for all concerned. It was certainly no fault of Dali’s that the project we were working on was not completed – it was a case of policy changes within our distribution plans.”

DESTINO RETURNS FROM THE DEAD… 58 YEARS LATER

During the re-release of Fantasia in 2000, Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney chanced upon Dalí’s original artwork for the unrealised project. Enthralled with the idea, he secretly enlisted a team of animators and a director in France who could replicate their vision for $1.5 million (a bargain for Dalí and Disney). A few minutes were cut from the final version, directed by Dominique Monféry, to create a visually stunning 6-ish minute short that landed an Oscar nomination in 2003. While we’ll never know the true potential of what their two minds could have cooked up, the eye buffet they served up (albeit via a midwife) is a reminder of how transgressive and transcendant both of their art could be. It was a match made in Surrealist heaven.

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