Salvador Dalí’s forgotten Disney cartoon

After 57 years in the studio’s vaults, the result of an unlikely collaboration is revealed to the public


An extraordinary cartoon drawn by Salvador Dalí for Walt Disney in 1946 is now being screened for the first time in 57 years at film festivals around the world. “Destino”, a six-minute cartoon that was abandoned by Disney before its completion, has already won the grand prize for best short film at the Melbourne International Film Festival.

While Dalí was in Hollywood working for Alfred Hitchcock, he met Disney at a dinner party. He and the filmmaker were in some ways kindred spirits, each greatly admiring the other’s work; the character animation of Disney cartoons up to that point, which included “Pinocchio” (1940) and “Fantasia” (1940) was nothing if not Surrealist. Yet—in other ways—they were an “odd couple”. Dalí was a sexual libertine who delighted in bad taste and provocative behaviour. At a costume ball on an earlier trip to the US, the artist dressed his wife Gala as the bloodied corpse of the Lindbergh baby, a kidnap and murder case that had scandalised America.

In marked contrast, Disney was an art collector and aesthete who, although his Right-Wing leanings have since been exaggerated, made his fortune through wholesome family entertainment.

None the less, the balance of personal similarities and differences were favourable enough that Disney engaged Dalí to create a cartoon for the studio and a start was made on “Destino”. “Destino” is set to a Mexican love song by Armando Dominguez and its tentative narrative thread, inspired by the 1939 Dalí painting, “Swans reflecting elephants”, follows the journey of a ballerina through a desert landscape punctuated with objects from Dalí’s extraordinarily distinctive visual lexicon, including melting clocks, wavering towers and heads morphing into baseballs.

Disney assigned artist and director John Hench to work with the Spanish Surrealist, who, at that point, spoke no English at all. Now 95, Mr Hench—who is still at Disney and acted as a consultant on “Destino”—worked with Dalí’s original drawings, carefully translating them into the animation stills that would make up the cartoon. Mr Hench recalls “Salvador” arriving at work on time and trying hard to please the studio.

Dalí regarded the Marx Brothers, Cecil B. De Mille and Disney as America’s signal contribution to Surrealism. He was convinced that cinema audiences were more receptive to the surreal image than gallery-goers and that the release of “Destino” would bring Surrealism to a wider public than the movement had hitherto achieved. By the 1940s, Dalí was profiting from America’s vast popular culture industry, though the country was at war. He designed shop windows and perfume bottles, but he had set his sights on Hollywood. The artist’s fascination with capitalism was such that he seemed unbothered by the fact that Disney had broken a strike a few years earlier.

In Europe, his Surrealist friends dismissed him as a sell-out, and André Breton famously developed a pejorative anagram for him: “Avida Dollars” (money-grabber).

As the Disney studio was to discover, however, the profits were in war propaganda, not in innovative animation, and, after months of work, the studio, pleading financial difficulties, abandoned its collaboration with Dalí after hundreds of drawings and paintings had been made. It was not the first time that Dalí ended up on the cutting room floor. The Surrealist could be too much even for Hitchcock, whose producer, David Selznick, cut a scene from the 1945 film, “Spellbound”, which had been scripted by Dalí, and in which Ingrid Bergman lifted her skirt to reveal armies of ants pouring out. The only Dalí scene in “Spellbound” that Selznick left in is the well-known nightmare sequence.

Dalí’s drawings for the “Destino” project, which were assumed to have no value, ended up in the Disney archives. A few years after they were stored there, a young employee stole them, although most were later recovered. According to Roy Disney, Jr, Walt Disney’s nephew and head of Disney animation, two paintings were kept by Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane. “She said that one was hanging over the toilet in the guest bathroom, and her kids were afraid to go in there,” says Mr Disney Jr.

In the 1990s, after Dalí’s prices had risen significantly, Disney was advised that his company would not legally own any of the art Dalí had made for the studio unless the film that the paintings had been made for was actually completed as the artist had planned it. This was undoubtedly one of the reasons behind the completion of “Destino”, which was directed in Paris by Dominique Montfery working with a team of 25 animators who used Dalí’s original drawings and a 15-second screen test.

Finally completed in 2002, “Destino” also includes some computer-generated imagery, used only, says producer Baker Bloodworth, to recreate some of the images missing from the original. The Disney studio will not disclose how much Dalí earned for “Destino,” or how much the studio has spent to complete the cartoon.

Despite awards and enormous public interest, the film has not met with uncritical success, some critics renaming it “Da-Lite”.

After its debut screening at the Annecy Animation Festival in June, “Destino” is now being shown at film festivals around the world before the Oscar nominations are submitted. Disney plan to release it next year on a DVD with a documentary about the completion of the 1946 cartoon.