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Don Quixote concept art from former Disney artist John Watkiss
Image: Animation Treasures/Disney

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Disney’s many failed attempts to bring Don Quixote to the screen

For more than 80 years, various parties have been trying to make a film happen

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At the Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) in Los Angeles, you’ll find boxes upon boxes of concept art and storyboards detailing adventures we never saw, and projects that were never finished. Among the millions of pieces of art covering the company’s current blockbusters, and among the precisely maintained historical archives of Disney’s classic productions, you’ll find the little-known tale of Don Quixote, thanks to Disney’s various adaptations of Miguel de Cervantes’ epic 17th-century novel.

The story of an old man who becomes convinced he is a knight-errant after reading too many chivalric romances, Don Quixote was considered by Disney for adaptation as early as 1939. But over the next 80 years, the studio struggled to bring the book to the screen, battling labor disputes, internal restructuring, and financial difficulties stemming from World War II.

Disney hasn’t been the only party to wrestle with adapting Don Quixote to the screen. Writer, actor, and director Orson Welles suffered numerous setbacks while working on his Don Quixote film, including studio cancellations, financing issues, and the death of his own Don Quixote, the actor Francisco Reiguera — whom Welles filmed extensively prior to Reiguera’s death in the hopes of completing the project posthumously. Welles never finished the film, though, working on it sporadically from the mid-1950s until his death in 1985 from a heart attack.

The American-born British filmmaker Terry Gilliam faced his own challenges while adapting the work, contending with flash floods, insurance problems, and financial worries. An unfortunate series of events led to his film developing a reputation as “one of the most cursed productions in film history.” While Gilliam finally succeeded in bringing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to the screen in 2018, it wasn’t without overcoming one final obstacle — a legal challenge from former producer Paulo Branco, who claimed this new version was “illegal” and that he, not Gilliam, owned the rights.

Given the caliber of these other names, Disney’s own attempts have been somewhat buried, with their long and arduous journeys lying hidden in storage or remaining close to the chest of those who were involved with the projects. There have been many artists and filmmakers at Disney over the years who have been tasked with bringing the knight to the screen; these are just some of the ones we know about. Many of these creators took remarkably different approaches to the source material.

Don Quixote concept art from former Disney artist Sandro Cleuzo
Image: Sandro Cleuzo/Disney

Tilting at windmills

The story of Don Quixote at Disney begins with one woman: Diana March. March was a reader at Disney’s Story Research department in 1939; her job was to read stories, and outline what about them could work as feature animation and what couldn’t. Coming off the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Walt Disney hoped to capitalize by having a new animated feature come out every year. This is where the Story Research department and employees like March came in, developing concepts that would be perfect for this exciting new art form. This meant that one feature animation project needed to be in theaters, while another entered production, and development began on a third.

“[At the time], Disney were looking at everything,” says Charles Solomon, a celebrated animation critic and historian behind the book The Disney That Never Was, one of the earliest comprehensive records of Disney’s canceled projects.

“They had looked into Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales; they had looked into Grimms’ fairy tales; there were hundreds of Mickey and Donald shorts they had considered and started to develop. And Walt’s method was: As long as he had the artists and the money to put on it, he would let people start developing ideas. […] There was nothing that didn’t interest Walt. He seemed to be fascinated by everything, and the artists were just looking everywhere, saying, ‘What would be a potential feature or short? What would be a great story to tell in a way no one’s done before?’”

While searching for ideas, March created a roughly 125-page summary of Don Quixote, breaking down the plot and making notes of any scenes that might be good for animation. The summary was a startling piece of work, cutting the roughly 1,000-page novel down to something more easily digestible and filmable. This attracted the attention of her boss and the head of the Story Research department at the time, John Rose, who stepped in and did something surprising.

“John Rose says, ‘I’m going to do something that I’m not supposed to do, because I’m not at the department that does that,’” says Didier Ghez, the owner of the Disney History Blog and the author of the They Drew as They Pleased book series, which built upon Solomon’s prior research of canceled Disney works. “He says, ‘I’m actually going to hire an artist and ask him to develop some boards — some storyboards — or at least some visual development drawings, to sell that concept to Walt.’”

Rose hired an Ecuadorian artist, newly arrived in Hollywood, named Eduardo Solá Franco, in May 1939. But because Rose didn’t have the authority to hire artists or the budget to do so, he justified this by hiring Solá Franco on a secretary’s wage. Rose told Solá Franco to keep the project a secret to hide it from his superiors. But after receiving his first paycheck, Solá Franco quickly began to suspect something was wrong. Nevertheless, he was enthusiastic about the project, and he continued working on it.

Eventually, Joe Grant, head of the Character Model department and Walt’s right-hand man, found out about the project. But rather than shutting it down, Grant invited Solá Franco over to the main studio to continue his work under his supervision, with March continuing to work on possible scripts.

Solá Franco struggled to adapt to Disney’s collaborative atmosphere and its studio politics. And at the end of August 1939, the studio made the decision to put the Don Quixote project on hold, due to problems with the script. Disney reassigned Solá Franco to a number of other projects within the studio, including Peter Pan and the “Toccata and Fugue” segment for “The Concert Film,” later known as Fantasia. But the artist was uncompromising and was determined to fix the story, despite his exhaustion.

“I can’t leave Don Quixote now,” Solá Franco wrote in a letter to his father, as published in Ghez’s book They Drew As They Pleased: The Hidden Art of Disney’s Late Golden Age. “They would bury it or give it to someone else which is even worse. I know that it is a long story, but I can fix it. This could be the best movie of the studio. I can’t think of anything else. It’s so real for me. It’s something that is alive and that I love. If they took it away from me it would be as if they were taking me apart from someone I love. They don’t even want to give me time to finish the last scenes.”

Depressed and defeated, Solá Franco considered leaving Disney and traveling to New York. In October 1939, after suffering a nervous breakdown due in part to a combination of burnout and his frustrations with the studio, he left for good. For years, his contributions to the Don Quixote project were forgotten, until Ghez came across a small mention of the artist in a John Rose interview conducted by fellow historian Michael Barrier.

This helped to identify hundreds of concept paintings that Solá Franco had made, many of which were inspired by Spanish painters such as Diego Velázquez, Francisco Goya, and El Greco. As Solomon details in The Disney That Never Was, these images — which he mistakenly attributed to writer Bob Carr at the time — were “elegant” and “calligraphic” in their style. Among the characters depicted are the knight Don Quixote riding his noble steed Rocinante, the bachelor and friend Sansón Carrasco, the windmills that Quixote mistakes for giants, and the Duchess who plays tricks on the elderly knight. One lingering question from the project, though, is how Disney would have translated these fluid drawings into animation.

“Looking at that painting of the giant, how would you bring those watercolor figures into movement?” says Solomon. “If you turn them into outlines, you’re going to lose that brushstroke-y quality that is a lot of their strength.”

The war effort and beyond

Around 1940, the head of Disney’s Character Model department, Joe Grant, revived Don Quixote without Solá Franco. To replace him, Grant recruited Dumbo and Pinocchio artist Jack Miller, one of the three founding members of the Character Model department, who did character designs and sketches for the project. Miller brought with him a more traditional Disney aesthetic, as evidenced by his illustrations of Don Quixote that have since surfaced on Heritage Auctions. They bear a less painterly style, with stronger silhouettes and a more sympathetic-looking lead.

“Jack Miller does a little work on that project,” says Ghez. “But around mid-May 1941, because of troubles at the studio, monetary and labor troubles — including the Disney animators’ strike — Disney decides to shut down the Character Model department. And so, Joe Grant’s department just ceased to exist. All of the artists that were part of that department are reassigned to other projects, and so on and so forth.”

As a result of this shake-up, Miller was reassigned to work on a number of projects. They included the story for the “Baby Weems” animated segment from The Reluctant Dragon, a 1941 film that essentially acted as a tour of Disney’s then-new studio in Burbank, California, interspersed with the occasional cartoon. A year later, though, Miller was growing increasingly restless due to the ongoing labor disputes at Disney and a slew of dull propaganda projects that he had been assigned. Miller left the studio in June 1942, eventually joining the U.S. Navy.

There was also another suggestion for a Don Quixote project in the early 1940s, according to Ghez. While discussing ideas for sequences for a Fantasia sequel, writer Bob Carr suggested Disney produce a segment based on the old knight’s adventures set to Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. But, much like Miller’s version, this too was put aside — in part because of Fantasia’s failure at the U.S. box office and the loss of overseas markets due to the onset of World War II.

To survive during this period, Disney turned to making a series of training and propaganda films for the U.S. armed forces, most notably for the Navy: shorts like The New Spirit in 1942 and Victory Through Air Power in 1943. “The studio paid off its debts from all that wartime production, because the U.S. government budgeted those training films at a slight profit,” says Solomon. “But by the end of 1945, it was several million dollars in debt again, and [Walt] Disney was looking for something to do that could revitalize the studio’s economic prospects, as well as sort of reclaim his place, I think, critically and in people’s hearts.”

When 1946 arrived, Walt Disney, searching for projects to help rebuild the studio, suggested reviving the Don Quixote concept. But this time, Jesse Marsh, an animator who worked on the musical package film Make Mine Music and numerous shorts at the studio, took the lead, developing its story and artwork.

Ghez theorizes that this attempt was not for a full feature, however, but for another segment for an animated package film. Per Carr’s earlier recommendation, Richard Strauss’ tone poem served as an inspiration, but this time, Marsh brought another huge influence to the project: the work of French artist Gus Bofa, who had created a beautifully illustrated version of Don Quixote in the 1920s. This was the book that John Rose had originally brought to the studio in the 1930s.

“He literally makes manual copies of those drawings in color,” says Ghez. “It’s astounding. He does that, and then, after he has done that and he has really immersed himself in that style, he starts developing boards that are inspired by that style but are created by him.”

Marsh did tons of illustrations and storyboards for the film, with the style being much more stripped down, using pen-and-ink and watercolors. Among the images that have since surfaced include a scene where Sancho Panza witnesses a group of shepherds beating up his friend with their shepherd’s crooks, and illustrations of Quixote talking his sidekick into his next big adventure.

We were unable to find out why the project was canceled, but what we do know is that Marsh left the studio only a year later. While still at Disney, Marsh had begun freelancing for Western Publishing on its Tarzan comic series, originally published in Dell Comics’ Four Color anthology series. This was why he eventually left the studio in 1947: to focus on the series full time.

At this stage, it’s easy to believe that Disney had started to see the project as “cursed” or unfilmable, but there was actually one more attempt in the 1950s, following Disney’s first live-action film, 1950’s Treasure Island. Again, Walt Disney was the instigator, wanting to pursue the project as a live-action feature starring Cary Grant and Mexican actor Cantinflas as Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, respectively. Poor timing soon scuppered these plans, however, with Disney’s other passion project, Alice in Wonderland, bombing at the box office, leading to huge losses for the studio.

“In 1951, Disney released Alice in Wonderland, [which] is also a very episodic movie. And when that movie flops, he realizes that, ‘Hmm, you know what? Don Quixote has exactly the same flaws and the same issues as Alice,’” Ghez says. “‘How do we make this a coherent whole?’”

Disney’s work on Don Quixote was put on hold for several decades.

A character reaches out for something unseen in this concept art
Don Quixote concept art from former Disney artist John Watkiss
Image: Animation Treasures/Disney

Disney renaissance and beyond

Following the Disney Renaissance in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Disney revived Don Quixote again — this time under two French-Italian brothers whose animation company Disney had bought in 1994 and moved to Los Angeles. The Brizzi brothers are most famous today for storyboarding the incredible opening to 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, “The Bells of Notre Dame,” as well as the gorgeous “Firebird Suite” sequence from Fantasia 2000. But from 1998-99, they were dead set on being the ones to finally bring Disney’s Don Quixote to audiences. They were attracted to the project because of this “complex and extravagant character living out of reality and reinventing himself as a knight,” says Paul Brizzi. It was a story they thought could be brought to life through the medium of animation, despite the failed attempts to do so.

In fact, the head of development at Disney at the time, David Stainton, showed them a number of boards from a previous attempt that Disney had made, the Jesse Marsh version of the project. These comedic illustrations, though, were a far cry from their own approach, which they say was much darker and more adult.

According to the brothers, the story for the film focused on Sancho Panza finding a piece of a sword in a pile of junk on his farm, and his adventures with Don Quixote to reunite this relic with its owner, Charlemagne. The Brizzis wanted to show the two sides of Don Quixote: the fantasy of the golden knight attacking the giants, and the reality of the old man stuck in the blades of the windmill. To do this, they knew they needed another character for the audience to relate to, someone to ground the elaborate fantasies of the knight and bring him back to reality.

“We developed the role of Carrasco who, in the novel, was the man who brought Don Quixote back to reality at the end of the book,” Paul Brizzi says. “We made him a kind of a psychiatrist who wants to cure Don Quixote. So he joins the odd couple for the quest under the pretext of reporting his exploits as a knight. When, actually, he wants to compile a thesis about craziness and become a brilliant doctor at the academy. But during this adventure, Carrasco is under the spell of the old man who teaches him that the dream is stronger than rational thinking. So Carrasco becomes Don Quixote’s spiritual son and his advocate when people want to lock him up.”

The animation style was set to continue the more mature look that Disney had developed on The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Pocahontas, with characters having more realistic human proportions and more dramatic expressions. Other artists at Disney, such as John Watkiss, Sandro Cleuzo, and Ken Duncan, would submit or be asked to submit character designs, but many of these, which have since surfaced, went unused.

“We had different versions of scripts,” says Paul Brizzi. “We [created] hundreds of pieces of artwork in visual development and the first two acts were fully story-boarded. The animatic was about 60 minutes long. Dialogue was recorded and edited to the animatic. We also had very good temp music. During those two years we had many different versions of the animatic because we were constantly revising it because the scenario was in a continuous evolution.”

Despite the progress, the project came to a brutal stop in 1999. For the two animators, it was a devastating turn of events. The animatics they had created for Don Quixote had received unanimous praise from their contemporaries within the studio, and the project was one of the most fulfilling they had worked on. But unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to save it from the higher-ups at Disney.

“We remember very well that [Disney film executive] Peter Schneider and [Disney animation president] Tom Schumacher were both fond of our project,” Paul Brizzi says. “Let’s not forget that they allowed us to work on it for two years! But when they finally decided to talk to the CEO of the company [Michael Eisner], they got the answer that an old man cannot be a hero for our younger audience.” This, coupled with Eisner’s reluctance to risk another animated feature based on a classical novel after Hunchback, stopped the project dead. The Brizzis would stay at Disney for a few years, working on Tarzan and other projects, but eventually departed the studio in 2001.

All was quiet for over a decade. Then, in 2012, news of another Don Quixote project at Disney spread. Writing partners Jeff Morris and Steve Pink successfully pitched a live-action Don Quixote, with Johnny Depp’s production company, Infinitum Nihil, scheduled to produce. Unlike the other attempts, this was going to be a modern retelling of the story, focusing on a literature professor who suffers a concussion and begins to believe he’s a retired CIA agent brought back into the espionage world.

“We had this idea that when CIA Agents are put out to pasture they have their minds’ scrambled,” Morris says in a message on Twitter. “They go through extensive debriefing/brainwashing. They’re given a new identity and start their life over without any memory of ever having been an agent.” He continues, “But what if that guy has an accident and starts to get his memory back? What if the accident unscrambles his head and he begins to believe he’s a CIA Agent — the way Don Quixote believed he was a knight? We used just that idea and a few central story points from Cervantes as the basis of the movie.”

Morris and Pink together were working on a script for the project with this idea in mind, thinking about how they could modernize the knight’s travails for a contemporary audience. This was arguably a smart decision. After all, a big problem with the original text that many filmmakers and critics have acknowledged over the years is the lack of familiarity that modern audiences have with the source material. Don Quixote contains many references to other works of literature, including the chivalric romance Tirant lo Blanch, the Italian poem Orlando Furioso, and the ancient Roman novel The Golden Ass, to name only a few — texts that modern audiences are unlikely to know of.

“A lot of it is spoofing and playing against works not many people knew — even in the [1940s], and even fewer know now,” explains Solomon. “How many people still read The Song of Roland or Amadís of Gaul ... that Cervantes is poking fun at? So it’s largely unknown territory in terms of its cultural references. And then you have essentially a madman for your main character. How do you make him sympathetic [to audiences]?”

Morris and Pink thought they had the answer to this with their approach to the story. But unfortunately, Disney would cancel the project when their contact, an executive at the studio, left the company.

“It’s very common when execs leave for projects to die,” says Morris, before offering his own take on the Disney curse. “I think it’s really more that it’s just incredibly difficult to get movies made in general. All the stars have to align. And with Quixote, there’s been lots of attempts, but things didn’t come together just right. Unfortunately. I’m sure they will one day.”

Disney wasn’t through with Don Quixote just yet, however. In 2016, Billy Ray, the screenwriter for Captain Phillips and the first Hunger Games film, sold his own script to Disney for a live-action take on Don Quixote. Though little information is available about this project, it was reported to be a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque take on the story set in the 1600s. In our research for this piece, a source close to the project tells Polygon that the Pirates of the Caribbean part of this report — which drew criticism from fans of Cervantes’ novel — is untrue. They also say that the project is no longer at Disney, leaving its future somewhat unclear.

The people we spoke to for this report give a number of different reasons for why Don Quixote has proven so challenging for Disney to adapt. The most obvious is poor timing, with some of the attempts following right after box office failures and devastating losses for Disney that shook the company’s confidence in its own projects. There’s also the difficulty of filmmaking in general, and the numerous pitfalls that productions can face along the way. But the biggest obstacle is the source material itself.

Don Quixote is an episodic novel, with every couple of chapters acting almost as its own individual, contained story. It spans the knight’s battle with the windmills masquerading as giants; his encounter with Marcela, a young Shepherdess who is being accused of murder for the suicide of a lovestruck suitor; and Master Peter’s puppet show, which Don Quixote ends up destroying, believing that the events of the story are actually taking place in front of him.

Now, almost 80 years after Diana March first wrote her treatment for a Don Quixote movie at Disney, there have been many failed attempts in the studio’s past, with generations of filmmakers and animators attempting to revive the project in the hopes that they might be the ones to give the old knight his time in the sun.