The unlikely collaboration between two of the 20th century’s iconic artists that took fifty years to complete.
In 1945, Walt Disney was arguably at the end of his creative peak – we say ‘his’ guardedly, because Disney was a studio full of creatives and it is all too easy to credit that strange and conservative man with everything that came out of the animation team. Still, it’s fair to say that at that time, he was still very much in control of what happened under the Disney banner.
While I’ve just called Walt Disney ‘conservative’, that’s very much a comment on his political outlook. When it came to art and imagination, he was anything but in these early days, pioneering the form and structure of cel animation, from Steamboat Willie to the first feature-length animated films. And while we think of Disney’s classic features as fairy tale musicals aimed primarily at children, things might have been different if the epic and experimental Fantasia had not been a financial flop (something due to World War II making global distribution difficult as much as to its challenging content), perhaps the history of Disney might have been very different and our relationship with animated cinema as entertainment for adults might have developed in the West decades before it happened. Fantasia, after all, might have featured Mickey Mouse, but it also had classical music, hallucinatory images and – gasp! – bare breasts, with and without nipples. But Disney would become increasingly safe, focusing on fairy stories and family classics that seemed to have a guaranteed audience and wouldn’t frighten the horses.
Maybe the last gasp of Disney’s genuine creativity came – and quickly went – with a collaboration with Salvador Dali that was in the works during 1945 and 1946. In 1940, Dali had relocated to the United States as war ravaged Europe, and became both a surrealist celebrity and a creative collaborator with everyone from ballet companies to advertisers. In 1945, he worked with Alfred Hitchcock on the dream sequences in Spellbound and then moved on to work with Disney on a short animated film, to be called Destino.
How much Walt Disney was personally involved in the project is open to question. Disney studio artist John Hench was the person who worked with Dali over eight months on storyboards before the project was pulled – in the WW2 era, Disney was under financial stress and an experimental film like this – even as a short, even as a project involving an artist who was a household name by this time – was considered a risk too far. After all, what would the commercial market be for a short film? Song of the South and musical anthology films seemed a less risky proposition in the post-war years. Hench tried to kick-start the project with a 17-second animation test but Disney had lost interest and the project was shelved indefinitely.
It might have remained lost, forgotten, a ‘what if?’ idea amongst the many unfinished or abandoned projects that all film studios have. But the film was resurrected in 1999, thanks – rather fittingly – to Fantasia. In the years since it originally came and went, Fantasia had slowly built a reputation as one of Disney’s best films, a masterpiece of animation that stood out amongst the more generic populist work. Never a company to miss the chance to profit from past glories, Disney made the sequel film Fantasia 2000 in 1999 – a film that has yet to achieve the same critical standing of its predecessor – and during the production, Roy Disney – Walt’s nephew – unearthed the Destino footage and thought that something could be done with the idea. Initially, the 17 seconds of existing footage appeared in Fantasia 2000 and the project was then handed to Walt Disney Studios Paris, a small French animation unit, to be completed.
The finished film from 2003 is essentially a new work, with a running time of six and half minutes. The existing footage – a segment involving two tortoises – is seamlessly inserted into a film that is a mix of traditional cel animation and computer animation, carefully used to look as though the entire film is a classically animated project – a form of animation that had already been entirely superseded by CGI for commercial feature films.
The film follows the story of Chronos and his love for a mortal woman, Dahlia. There is no dialogue, the story instead being told visually and through the music of Mexican composer Armando Dominguez. Director Dominique Monféry worked on the original storyboards – which were not always entirely coherent – with help from the diaries of Dali’s wife Gala and input from John Hench, and took its look from Dali’s paintings and film work – there are clear visual references to Un Chein Andalou that might feel a bit obvious but are brief enough to work within the context of the film.
Like any short film, Destino remained a commercial conundrum. In 2004 it played as a supporting programme with the animated film The Triplets of Belleville and, bizarrely, Calendar Girls before becoming a staple of Dali and surrealism exhibitions at arts centres and museums, most recently Objects of Desire: Surrealism and Design 1924 – Today at London’s Design Museum in 2022-2023. It has been included as an extra on Fantasia 2000 Blu-rays and is now on Disney+. It also pops up on YouTube but is invariably struck down with copyright claims, so grab it while you can.
Traditional animation tends to have its own quirks, beauty and uniqueness, based on the artistic style of the director, producer or artist-in-charge. Computer animation – at least the feature films from the major studios – all seems to look the same, from film to film, studio to studio. This does not feel like progress. Seen now, Destino feels like a last gasp of individuality and imagination from American studio animation (even if it is technically a French film and based on the images of a particular artist) before everything became cynically identical and contrived.
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