"Destino," the fabled collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney, has finally been completed -- a mere 58 years after work on it began. That's something of a record, even in Hollywood, but given the towering talents involved, it's worth the wait.
The animated short has been the subject of speculation among animators for decades, as the pairing of the flamboyant Spanish surrealist and the Midwestern master of animation sounds so improbable. They met at a dinner party Jack Warner gave while Dali was working on "Spellbound," and their friendship continued even after the "Destino" project collapsed.
Originally conceived as a segment for one of the postwar animated musical collections of shorts called "package features," "Destino" is an adaptation of a ballad by Mexican songwriter Armando Dominguez. Disney planned it as a vehicle for South American performer Dora Luz, who sang "You Belong to My Heart" in "The Three Caballeros" (1945).
Dali spent eight months, from late 1945 into 1946, working with studio artist John Hench to create visuals inspired by the music. After financial problems halted the project, Hench made an 18-second test in hopes of rekindling Disney's interest: two distorted heads mounted on the backs of turtles slide toward each other; the space between them forms the figure of a ballerina with a baseball for a head.
Walt Disney Co. Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney became interested in finishing "Destino" while shooting the live-action lead-ins for "Fantasia 2000."
"During the filming, I learned from one of the attorneys that we actually didn't have legal possession of the Dali art, because the contract signed in 1945 stated that it wouldn't become the company's until the film was made," Roy Disney says. "When I've told this story, some people think my motivation was to make a lot of money by acquiring the valuable artwork. The fun of it was the idea of finishing something that had grown to almost mythic proportions, and getting it out to the public."
In 1957, Disney visited Dali in Spain to discuss the possibility of collaborating on an animated version of "Don Quixote." His daughter, Diane Disney Miller, recalls, "Salvador Dali came to our home and rode Dad's train, and although it was the middle of summer, he was dressed in a black overcoat, with a collar and cravat. He sat on a little boxcar with his cane upright in front of him.
"Dad was delighted with Dali, with their friendship and with the kind of art he did. He also recognized Dali's fantastic draftsmanship and his imagination."
But reconstructing their collaboration proved more challenging than Roy Disney expected: To fulfill the contract, the studio had to come as close as possible to making the film the artists originally planned, more than 50 years earlier.
"When we started the project, six or seven of us looked over all the surviving material, including photostats of the storyboards, but they weren't numbered," Disney explains. "There was a fairly clear beginning and a relatively clear ending, but what happened in between didn't make sense. One thing didn't lead into another, because we were reading the rows of drawings on the individual boards as you normally would, left to right, then down.
"At some point, [story supervisor] Don Ernst looked at three boards lined up in a row, and said, 'If you read them all the way across, then go back to the second row, it makes sense.' That was our eureka moment: A bunch of guys who didn't have a clue found their way in."
Further clues came from a journal that Dali's wife, Gala, kept during the production. "Apparently Dali would come home at night, tell Gala what they were doing, and she'd write it out as a narrative," Disney explains. "It stopped and started, because he'd change his mind about things, but it served as a guide."
The reconstructed "Destino" is a striking, dream-like collage of images without a conventional narrative. As a dancer moves through bizarre settings, she undergoes a series of transformations, becoming the shadow of a bell in a campanile and a dandelion puff. Her movements relate to dance and baseball, which Dali described as "an obsession." The backgrounds are filled with classic Dali imagery: forced perspectives, classical ruins, eyeballs, insects and the signature melting watches.
But producer Baker Bloodworth cautions that the animators had to add elements: "In his original painting of the Tower of Babel and Apollo, there's a big center space that's vacant. When the dancer character falls off the tower, we thought, 'What's she going to fall on?' Director Dominic Manfrey created a character holding this eyeball sack, which she falls into, gently bounces, then goes dancing off. It's a great Dali moment that is not Dali at all."
"Destino" has attracted favorable attention on the festival circuit, winning prizes in Melbourne and New York. The film and 22 pieces of original artwork will tour with the exhibit "Dali, Mass Media and Culture," honoring the 100th anniversary of the artist's birth. The exhibition is slated for Barcelona, Spain; Madrid; Rotterdam, Netherlands; St. Petersburg, Fla.; and, possibly, Los Angeles.
Roy Disney clearly enjoys the audience response to one of his uncle's oddest projects. "As it grew from all the sketches into a film, we got used to the eyeballs and the transformations; even the two turtles coming together doesn't take me aback anymore. But watching other people watching it is really astonishing," he says with a chuckle. "There aren't any pauses; everything is new and changes constantly. There is a consistency to its look and a continuity of action, but then you wonder, 'How did those turtles get there?' "
Where: ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 Sunset Blvd.
When: Friday, 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, noon, as part of the AFI Fest; also Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m., as part of "Alice's Wonderland: Walt Disney the Independent" at REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles (www.redcatweb.org or  237-2800)
Price: $10; students and seniors with valid ID, $5
Contact: (866) AFI-FEST or www.afi.com