Disney’s Age of Dinosaurs

As ugly as they were, some of Fantasia’s dinosaurs were ahead of their time

The Tyrannosaurus in Fantasia
The Tyrannosaurus in Fantasia was given a nearly-accurate, tail-off-the-ground pose like this mount of Gorgosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History. From Matthew and Brown, 1923

Dinosaurs have changed a heck of a lot since I was little. I’m not just talking about how science has altered what we know about their biology. During the early part of my dinomania in the mid-1980s, there were no computer-generated dinosaurs. Puppets, stop-motion creatures, and traditionally animated dinosaurs ruled the day. Some were better than others. Phil Tippett’s sauropods, ceratopsids, tyrannosaurs, and hadrosaurs in the documentary Dinosaur! were the best I had ever seen, while late-night showings of movies like Unknown Island, The Land Unknown and The Land That Time Forgot introduced me to bad puppet dinosaurs. But there was one film that kept showing up over and over again as representative of the Mesozoic: Disney’s mash-up of classical music and animation, Fantasia.

I didn’t care all that much for Mickey Mouse as the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” To me, the real stars of the movie were the dinosaurs. They made their appearance about midway through the film to the slightly rearranged melodies and dissonances of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring“—a composition meant to represent archaic humans choosing a sacrifice to bring back warm weather. The piece wasn’t just about dinosaurs. Although the word “evolution” was never actually said during the piece’s introduction in Fantasia, composer Deems Taylor told audiences that the animated interpretation was meant to be a “coldly accurate” retelling of the growth and development of life on this planet. The origin of the planet through the evolution of early, single-celled life is included, but dinosaurs take up a greater part of the screen-time than any Precambrian organisms.

Criticizing the accuracy of the dinosaurs in Fantasia by today’s standards—or even by the scientific image of dinosaurs when I first saw the movie—would be pointless. Fantasia premiered in 1940, and paleontologists have drastically revised their understanding of dinosaurs since then. The general image of dinosaurs from the Fantasia era is probably best represented by a huge mural made a few years later for Yale University’s Peabody Museum of Natural History—Rudolph Zallinger‘s The Age of Reptiles. The fat, lumbering, splay-legged dinosaurs of Zallinger’s mural are a beautiful and well-rendered representation of everything that turned out to be wrong about dinosaurs, but the painting was considered to be scientifically accurate at the time. Many of the Fantasia dinosaurs look like moving versions of the dinosaurs Zallinger would paint a few years later.

But Disney’s animated dinosaurs created a contradictory image of what life was like during the reign of the non-avian dinosaurs. Before the start of “The Rite of Spring,” Deems Taylor told audiences that dinosaurs ranged from “little crawling horrors” to “100-ton nightmares.” They primarily ate plants and, as a rule, “they weren’t very bright.” Nevertheless, there were “bullies and gangsters among them”—towering predators such as the Tyrannosaurus that takes a starring role in the segment. This was the entrenched view of dinosaurs at the time. They were big, dumb, and ruled the world through brute force.

All of these points can be seen in the dinosaurs Disney’s animators created, but there was more to the segment than that. The dinosaurs were actually quite active and displayed some complex behaviors. Small groups of ornithomimosaurs strutted together through the forest, and cute baby Triceratops remained with their parents. The box-headed, three-fingered Tyrannosaurus was given a slightly more horizontal posture than was common for the time, and many of the dinosaurs appeared to be active, almost bird-like creatures. This was a common occurrence in restorations. The cold-blooded, ugly, reptilian nature of dinosaurs was emphasized in words, but the animals themselves were often restored as dynamic and agile.

There was plenty that Fantasia got wrong, but the film also got some things right by breaking from the scientific image of dinosaurs as crocodiles writ large. Maybe that’s part of why I kept seeing the film clip for so long during the dinosaur revival of the 1980s and 1990s. Fantasia‘s dinosaurs were squamous and drab, but they were also relatively nimble and social animals that fit into the emerging image of dinosaurs as unique, complex animals. How could anyone look at the skeleton of a dinosaur and not imagine the living animal as something more bird-like than reptile-like? It just took some time for science and art to really hear what the bones had to say.

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