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Disney's decades-long quest to turn "Don Quixote" into a full-length animated feature

Disney's decades-long quest to turn "Don Quixote" into a full-length animated feature

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"To dream the impossible dream ... "

That's the first line from the hit song from "Man of La Mancha." Which was the stage musical adaptation of  Miguel de Cervantes' seventeenth century masterpiece, "Don Quixote ."


Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories Animation
Art Conservation Center

But in a weird sort of way, that line also describes Walt Disney Studios' attitude toward Cervantes's spoof of chivalry. You see, the Mouse tried four separate times to turn "Don Quixote" into a full-length animated feature. Only to then have this dream-of-a-movie slip through their fingers.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

According to Charles Solomon's excellent "The Disney That Never Was: The Stories and Art from Five Decades of Unproduced Animation" (Hyperion Press, December 1995), the ...  


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... initial work on this quixotic film was done around 1940 by a crew led by Bob Carr. A prolific artist, Carr did dozens of watercolors of situations and characters, many of them inspired by Velazquez and other Spanish artists. His initial studies for the Duchess, the Bachelor of Science (Samson Carrasco), et al. are as carefully detailed as the costume designs for a historical live-action film. Carr also did hundreds of drawings for preliminary storyboards, working in an elegant, calligraphic style.


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Around this same time, another artist (or artists) prepared two additional sets of simpler but more vivid preliminary studies. Carr did finished, elaborately rendered paintings; the anonymous artist employed a looser, less detailed style, using small areas of color to suggest highlights on a piece of armor or a flaring pastel line to suggest the folds of a cape. "Don Quixote" was probably derailed by the war and the studio cutbacks that followed the box-office losses of Pinocchio and Fantasia .


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In 1946, a second crew, under Jesse Marsh, returned to "Don Quixote." This version would have been set to an adaptation of Richard Strauss' tone poem "Don Quixote: Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character for Large Orchestra, op. 35." Marsh prepared hundreds of neat pen-and-ink and watercolor cartoons, noting the musical themes that would accompany the action. He did enough rough storyboards for an entire film, beginning with a shot of the book resting on a table flanked by suits of armor, and concluding with a sort of apotheosis: After Don Quixote's death, he, Dulcinea, and Sancho Panza would ride through the clouds to a glittering castle beneath a rainbow. Like the earlier version, this incarnation of "Don Quixote" was apparently shelved before story meetings were held or dialogue prepared.


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Preproduction work began for a third time in April 1951. This crew used an even simpler style that reflects the influence of such New Yorker cartoonists as Saul Steinberg and Otto Soglow: The rounded characters consist of little more than a few ink lines with monochromatic highlights in dull green or tan. Work on this film must have ended soon after it began, as only a few dozen drawings were completed.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In each case, the artists tried to preserve the major events of the story: Quixote's dubbing as knight by the innkeeper; his battles with the windmills and the sheep; the burning of the books by his niece and housekeeper; the visit to the Duchess; the adventures with Cardenio and Dorotea; the encounters with the puppet theater, the lions, and the Cart of the Parliament of Death. No one seems to have noticed just how much screen time these adventures would require; although it was not unusual for the Disney artists to storyboard more material than they needed. Veteran story man Bill Peet recalled that on "Pinocchio," "If they had animated everything on the storyboards, it would have gone on for two days."


Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories Animation Art Conservation Center

Another factor that the artists apparently failed to consider was how to make a sympathetic character out of a lunatic. The Don Quixote the artists depicted was the farcical caricature of the novel -- not the moonstruck idealist of "Man of La Mancha." The preliminary designs stress the incongruous appearance of the Knight of the Rueful Figure, playing his scrawny physique and flaring mustache against absurdly outsized armor.


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Mind you, the story doesn't end there. In the late 1990s, fresh off their stunning work on the opening sequence for Kirk Wise & Gary Trousdale's "Hunchback of Notre Dame ," Paul and Gaetan Brizzi were tasked with taking another run at Cervantes's episodic tale. Before they locked in the look of Don Quixote & Sancho Panza. So they asked Sandro Cleuzo ...


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... and John Watkiss to both take a stab at designing these characters.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

In the end, though the Brizzis may have settled on a fairly cartoonish look for Don Quixote & Sancho Panza ...


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... Paul and Gaetan opted to go with a fairly adult take on Cervantes's tale. "How adult?," you ask. So adult that -- even though everyone at Walt Disney Animation Studios admitted that the preproduction artwork that the Brizzis had produced was stunning -- Mouse House managers still pulled the plug on the project. Which is why -- sometime immediately after that -- the Brizzis decamped for DreamWorks Animation.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

So does this mean that "The Impossible Dream" is dead at Disney. Actually, back in December of 2012, Walt Disney Studios bought a pitch for a movie from Jeff Morris & writer-director Steve Pink. "And what's the concept for this movie pitch?," you ask. A modern take on Cervantes's "Don Quixote." Which is supposed to be produced by Disney's favorite pirate, Johnny Depp and his sister Christi Dembrowski's company, Infinitum Nihil.


A Ferdinand Horvath concept drawing of Don Quixote which dates back to before "Snow
White and the Seven Dwarfs." Which suggests that Disney Studios -- at one time --
seriously considered turning "Don Quixote" into a Silly Symphony. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Mind you, it's assumed that the pitch that Disney purchased is for a live-action motion picture. But as JHM readers know, it's not always wise to second-guess MIckey.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Anyway, if you'd like to read more stories about animated films & shorts that didn't make it out of development, then I urge you to pick up a copy of Charles Solomon's excellent "The Disney That Never Was: The Stories and Art from Five Decades of Unproduced Animation" (Hyperion Press, December 1995). This is honestly one of those books that every Disney history buff should have in their library.


Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories Animation Art Conservation Center

If you've always dreamed of owning a piece of Disney history ... Well, then you might want to check out S/R Laboratories' Spring 2014 Animation Art Auction. Why For? Because they've got five pieces of concept art from Disney's 1946 version of "Don Quixote" up for bid this time around.


Image courtesy of S/R Laboratories Animation
Art Conservation Center

So if you'd like to own your own little piece of Walt Disney Animation Studios' impossible dream, be sure and be online when the bidding gets underway May 19 - 20th.

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  • I've long been baffled why Disney doesn't try creating a more adult animated film. Not necessarily something that needs violence or sex to get to a PG-13 rating, but something with more adult themes, less fantasy or fairy-tale and more dramatic in character.

    To pull from current headlines, for instance, why is 'Maleficient' not animated?

  • I'd like to think that after attempting this many a time it's gotta be bound for the big screen...eventually. It's time Disney! Let's do it. I'd rather it be animated but a live action take would be fun too. I've always loved the Don Quixote stories. It'll happen.

    Thanks for the article Jim.

  • Given how many Disney films eventually emerged from development hell (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Tangled, Frozen), there is still a chance that this could be made.

    I would like for Disney to take another try at making Chanticleer. Yes, there is Don Bluth's take, but nothing says there should only be one animated adaption of a story.

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