Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Destino (1946-2003): Disney, Dali, and Destiny

It would be impossible to talk about Walt Disney and art connections if you fail to mention the famed Destino project with Salvatore Dali. Destino is the stuff of legends: the top animator in the world working with one of the top artists of the world at the time (and perhaps even all time). You'd think it was something that the whole world would know about: but surprisingly even the combined names of Disney and Dali can't seem to draw many people to this amazing, incredible story. I'd like to begin by saying that the following is a complete mix of my own personal criticism and information and that you should check my sources below for more information. So here we go.
Disney and Dali apparently met in Hollywood in 1945. If you'll recall, that was the year that Dali's collaboration with Hitchcock: Spellbound was released. Dali apparently had been itching to get his work into animation and Disney seemed like the perfect man for it. Dali apparently considered Disney as one of the foremost Surrealist artists in America. 
I thought that was kind of interesting at first. Disney is so common, so approachable, you rarely think of Disney in terms of the Surrealistic genre. We take it for granted, but there is a weird reality to animated cartoons. They are based on the assumption that we'll accept talking objects and singing animals and magical conclusions. In most cases we do, but in art that type of material is pretty bold stuff. But, when I think about it, the great animators of the '30s and '40s really dumbed down some pretty complex artistic stuff for their audience of mainly kids. Maybe that's why younger generations like Dali so much. In a way, we see the essence of our cartoons in motion. 
Disney and Dali: artistic geniuses
That's certainly the future that Dali saw in his work. He, like many of us, saw the magic in animation and saw the unique ability animated sequences would have in bringing his work to life. He is, of course, right. Dali's work features such stretches of reality that live action film could never capture them. If you'll remember from my earlier post, Hitch ran into this problem in Spellbound. But  Dali thought things were looking up. He liked Disney and Disney like (or at least was suitably impressed) by Dali. 
Dali hard at work on Destino 
In 1946, Salvatore Dali began working for Disney. Originally, when Disney pitched the idea to Dali, Walt wanted an artistic animated sequence set to a Spanish ballad. Think Spanish Fantasia.  Dali apparently got very excited over this, especially playing with the idea of destined lovers: hence, the Destino title. All the records say that he was surprisingly punctual for the months he worked at the studio, churning out paintings and sketches, and ideas. He was paired with one of the chief animators of Disney, John Hench. Hench was equally enthusiastic about the project and loved working together. Together, they made a great team and the project began to advance. 
Then, late in 1946 or early 1947 (I forget which), things changed. At this point,  Dali and Hench had animated a single complete sequence: the tortoise/ballerina sequence. Two crazy faces unite, creating a ballerina, whose head becomes a baseball, which is hit by a baseball player. It's insanely beautiful and grotesque but simply fascinating. Dali was apparently awestruck when he saw the short sequence on the screen for the first time. But Disney began getting cold feet. The Studio was losing money in the postwar period: the films were not doing great. Besides, Disney, though excited about the project, feared how it would do if were released. So, he put the project on hold, apparently with intentions to restart it. He never did.
A Dali sketch from Destino
In early 2000, Roy Disney apparently grew re-interested in the idea (especially when he learned he might lose the Dali pieces if the film were not completed). So, looking over the notes and sketches of Dali and Hench, traditional and computer animators began putting the sequence together. The result is a fantastic, 6-minute film, telling the story of Chronos, the personification of time, falling in love with a mortal woman. It was released in 2003 with (not-surprisingly) rave reviews

The film is short but it is completely fantastic and mind-blowing. The sequences and ideas animated are complex and beautiful, even perhaps a little insane. What I'm struck by, when I watch it, how it is completely half-Disney/half-Dali. It has the light beauty and airy movement of a Disney cartoon. At the same time, the subject matter and the themes are so fully Dali. I'm no surrealistic expert, but every time I watch it I notice more typical Dali elements: the empty, flat plain, the ants coming out of the stigmata-type hole in Chronos, the clocks, the weirdly shaped bodies, the eyes (perhaps Dali was thinking Spellbound), the startling mix of the visually clear but mentally confusing. Dali's paintings are noted for their sharpness and I really commend the animators (even if they are using his ideas) for capturing that important aspect of his work.
I think that Disney made a good call, though. Destino is an artistic masterpiece and strangely beautiful but it was not what Disney needed at the time. Disney needed his films to be marketable and popular and Destino would have confused rather than attracted. There are also elements that are certainly not Disney/kid-safe: some fleeting nudity, a lot of terrifying eyes, and the ants are pretty freak too, I'm not going to lie- I enjoy it now as a more art appreciative adult, but I do not think the contemporary Disney audience: children or adults of the late 40s would have liked it at all. 
What I think is really special about Destino is all the aspects of appreciation going on in its story. Dali appreciated the art of Disney. Disney (and the world) appreciate the art of Dali. In Destino we see the merging of these not-so-different styles into a truly magical film. And I'm talking real Disney-magic here, no cheap, knock-off. 

Culture Nova: "Destino"
Collectors Editions: "The Art of Destino"
Dali: Surrealism and Cinema
by Elliot H. King (2007)

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