Over the years, we (OK, I) have been taken to task on several occasions for sticking the Vintage label on books that aren’t that old and, more to the point, often quite mediocre (or even bad). And as I say every time, it’s because the name of the series stuck. However, here we have one of the oldest things that I’ve covered in quite some time – Stories from Walt Disney’s Fantasia, published in 1940 by Random House. Yes, it’s a tie-in for the movie on its original release, and yes, it features the none-more-memorable Rite of Spring segment, quite possibly the single piece of media that got me interested in dinosaurs in the first place (on its re-release around 1990). What’s more, there’s a charming narrative that I can’t help but imagine a young R T Bakker reading…
This book was scanned for me by Arthur Williams back in September of last year (!!) – thank you Arthur, and sincere apologies for taking so long over it. The cover features a variety of characters from the film, including Mickey (haha), a dancing hippo in a tutu, and – yes – a generic sauropod dinosaur. Such is the selling power of dinosaurs. Apparently, the dinosaurs were originally conceived as more cartoonish, more stylistically in line with other sections of the film (and, indeed, the Disney oeuvre generally), but this was toned down over the course of the film’s development. Disney wanted something more realistic and immersive, and as anyone who encountered this film at an early age will surely testify, it worked.
As one might expect, the art in this book tends to follow that in the film, but also seems to feature some earlier, more cartoonish dinosaur designs from the concept stages of the film’s production. Unfortunately, it would appear to be uncredited, described simply as ‘art from the film’. The above Stegosaurus, with its fat tail and squared-off muzzle, is certainly in line with what we see in the film, although arguably the film’s version is even more ungainly and portly. (Admittedly, the Stego here is a little foreshortened.) I love the shading, and the subtle detailing like the lumpy, warty scales around the base of its plates; it also seems to have a horizontal pupil, which I’m sure was changed for the movie (probably to make it more expressive during its big fight). It also has a musical note emerging from its head, like it’s singing, although I think that’s just part of the book’s design. Amusing, though.
My lasting impression of the sauropods in Fantasia consisted entirely of seemingly disembodied necks. Surreal, snake-like necks that bent and twisted all over the place, hoovering up vegetation, exactly as described here. Again, this Diplodocus appears close to the film design, complete with dangling mushy water plants and seemingly toothless mouth. (We’ll put that down to stylisation.) Note that Triceratops is here abbreviated to “Tritops”, which really does remind me of Bakker’s use of “T’tops” in some of his books. It’s also described as Stegosaurus‘ neighbour because, you know, it was in the film. As well all know, it was an anachronism stew, or rather, swamp.
Speaking of the Triceratops, its illustration here is notably much more cartoonish than its film counterpart, what with its huge, adorable eyes, wrinkly smiling mouth and pudgy proportions. I do remember seeing this illustration, specifically, being shown (somewhere) as an example of the earlier concept art for the dinosaurs in Fantasia, before the shift to a more realistic style. It does suggest that perhaps everything here is, if not actually concept art, at least based on it. I do remember the Triceratops in the film looking quite intimidating and massive in one scene, before fleeing like great big wusses when T. rex turned up (to be fair, it was unfairly armed). Why couldn’t we have had a T. rex versus Triceratops fight in that film? That wouldn’t have left 5-year-old me with quite so many questions. Someone dig up Walt’s frozen head and ask him.
Because Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs are mashed together in Fantasia (and Dimetrodon too! But not Tigger), here’s “Bronto”. And it’s not only Bronto’s demonic, solid red eyes that make him look mean – he’s surprisingly muscular for a 1940s sauropod, to boot. The text may expend far too many words on the dinosaurs’ tiny brains (as authors were wont to do back then), but this emphatically does not look like a creature you’d want to tangle with.
And on the subject of entanglements, here’s a surprisingly realistically-styled Stegosaurus taking on “REX, KING OF THE TYRANT BEASTS,” although referring to him (for He is surely a He) as ‘Rex’ makes him sound like a good boy, yes you are, yes you’re such a good boy, yes you are, oh yes you are. Anyway, the Stegosaurus really does look it might have walked out of a Knight or Burian illustration; it’s a marked stylistic departure from the creatures in the film and earlier in this book, and the theropod opposite. By way of contrast, Rex is quite obviously stylised and contorted into a very unlikely position, its leg raised up in the air like it’s auditioning for a Crash McCreery artwork. (You know the one.) Its bendy limbs may look a little silly, but this is still a remarkably dynamic and active depiction of T. rex for 1940, much as the creature in the film was. Like the movie version, this Tyrannosaurus has three fingers, although its forelimbs are notably more puny-looking.
Rex has “only one thought…to destroy Stego”. The text describes a battle raging for “hour after hour”, which was presumably edited for time in the film. The movie memorably depicts various other kitten-brained dinosaurs hanging around to spectate, which is presumably what the chaps in the above illustration are doing. But what are they? It’s not entirely clear. They might be ornithopods, or they might (based on their hands) be anachronistic early sauropodomorphs. They might just be there to fill space.
Of course, Rex emerges victorious, and rears up to roar triumphantly against a stormy sky. Again – and it’s almost certainly a coincidence brought about by lightning being all dramatic and cool – the resemblance to Jurassic Park merchandise is uncanny. Funny how dinosaur media separated by 50 years of evolution can nevertheless converge in so many ways. In any case, the Rex in the illustration sports a very boxy head, like the one in the movie, and an erroneous number of oddly uniform teeth. Unlike the creature in the film, it doesn’t sport a pair of giant canine-like fangs, nor do its teeth go all the way back beyond its orbit. It’s significantly less ‘monsterised’, and more like an honest 1940s attempt at depicting Tyrannosaurus. I can’t help but wonder if this, too, is based on concept art, and the creature became more monstrous as it was developed for the screen – or if this is an original illustration for the book.
And finally, Rex skulks away. And I do mean skulks – look at how low to the ground he is here! I’m pretty sure he’s dislocated one of his legs, but it’s still a really interesting perspective. Although somewhat hidden from view by the perspective, the creature’s head does appear less monstrous than in the film. The use of shading to indicate the animal’s surprisingly (for the time) substantial thigh muscles, and the ridge of muscle down its back and tail, is quite excellent. “His time would come too…and soon…” And wasn’t that memorable, too. I’ve been listening to The Rite of Spring while writing this (why not? Thanks Natee!), and I’ll never not associate it with dinosaurs feeding, fighting, and collapsing of exhaustion in an apocalyptic heatwave. Stravinsky might not have liked his composition being chopped up in the way that it was, but I’ll wager that an awful lot of people have sought out more of his work after seeing Fantasia.
But I digress. This book is an interesting little bit of history, and I’m very grateful to Arthur for sending me the scans. As is the case with anyone who sends me scans – I’ll get to them eventually!