FANTASIA: a retrospective on The Rite of Spring

Since their discovery almost two centuries ago, dinosaurs have fascinated people of all ages, stimulating in them the thought of a distant world populated by bizarre creatures of all shapes and sizes. Given their uniqueness, dinosaurs have been an important part of the scientific and technological progress of mankind. During the 1910s, with the birth and development of cinema and animation, dinosaurs began to appear on the big screen with productions such as 1914’s Brute Force and 1918’s The Ghost of Slumber Mountain.

1914 was also the year in which Gertie the Dinosaur was released. It was one of the first animated shorts to be produced, as well as the first to ever have a dinosaur in it, in this case a Brontosaurus.

In the following years, other films with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals were released, among the most famous were The Lost World of 1925 and King Kong of 1933. These films were extremely successful thanks to the stop-motion technique used by Willis O’Brien, which for its time, made the animals look very realistic.

After Gertie the Dinosaur, a long time passed before dinosaurs could made their return to the big screen in an animated film. In 1940, however, Disney released Fantasia, a film divided into 8 segments which, despite its originality, didn’t achieve great commercial success.

Among these 8 segments, the one entitled “The Rite of Spring” was completely dedicated to the evolution of life on earth: from the first animals to the kingdom of the dinosaurs, until their extinction. The animals’ appearance and behaviors were considered accurate for the time, but with new discoveries made over the years, almost everything in it is now considered obsolete.

In this article I will try to list all (or almost) the species that are present in this segment, mentioning the main differences between the vintage version and how they are represented today. Since I couldn’t find an official list of all the animals, I also relied on sites like Disney Wiki and Dinopedia to identify some of them. The most useful source was an article made by Ali Nabavizadeh (Vert_Anatomist on Twitter) which you can read with this link %20Fantasy.pdf?dl=0.

The segment begins during what is probably the Hadean eon (ranging from 4.5 to 4 billion years ago), where the Milky Way, the sun and a primordial version of the Moon and the Earth are shown overwhelmed by huge volcanic eruptions and lava flows.

Subsequently, we move on to the Archeozoic eon (which goes from 4 billion to 2.5 billion years ago), where the formation of the first oceans takes place, and with them the first simple lifeforms.

Then begins the Proterozoic (eon that goes from 2.5 billion years ago to the present) and what follows is a simplified and very accelerated version of the evolution of vertebrates through the Paleozoic, from basal chordates similar to Haikouichthys swimming among some jellyfish and ctenophores, we move on to a more derived form that resembles a fish of the Polypteridae family (although they appeared about 100 million years ago, in the Upper Cretaceous). Later this fish “evolves” into a sarcopterygian similar to Eusthenopteron, which rests on a submerged trunk and prepares to explore the land for the first time.

The scene then changes completely, and we move on to a Mesozoic landscape where reptiles from different eras live in the same environment. A Placochelys can be seen going on the beach. Although it looks a lot like a turtle, it’s actually part of a group of marine reptiles called Placodonts, which lived during the Triassic period.

There are also some mosasaurs (perhaps Tylosaurus, specifically T. proriger, since it is the most famous species of the genus) which have spines on the back and a dorsal sail, typical of those times and present in historical illustrations like those of Charles Knight and Zdenek Burian. Today we know that they actually didn’t have them, and that maybe only some very derived forms like Plotosaurus could’ve had a small dorsal fin.

Illustration by Zdenek Burian
Illustration by Mario Lanzas

In this scene, we can also see some plesiosaurs (probably Elasmosaurus platyurus) which, other than keeping their necks vertically out of the water, they also come out of the sea to rest on the beach with the help of their fins. We now know that plesiosaurs with long necks didn’t have the muscles needed to keep their necks bent out of the water, in that swan-like pose, and that even the muscles of their flippers wasn’t made to move on land, as they spent all their life in the water. However, the most interesting detail of theplesiosaurs, is the presence of a caudal fin. Until recently, these reptiles were thought to lack it, but with new discoveries we now know that it must’ve been present in most of them.

Even if a fossil plesiosaur (Seeleyosaurus guilelmiimperatoris) which was known from 1895 seems to possess the trace of a caudal fin, after its discovery it was completely ignored, and we’re not even entirely sure that it’s a true caudal impression.


After the plesiosaurs, we also see a flock of Pteranodon longiceps on a cliff: some are upside down while others leap from the rocks to take flight. This behavior is the result of an obsolete idea, as we now know that pterosaurs didn’t stay upside down and had no need to leap from great heights to take flight, since they were perfectly capable of taking off from both land and water. And obviously these Pteranodons lack pycnofibers.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto

The next scene takes place in the forest on the banks of a river, where two Dimetrodons (which are not dinosaurs but distant relatives of us mammals) and Nothosaurs (marine reptiles related to plesiosaurs) feast on some fish. There’s also a strange armored animal that is meant to be an ankylosaur. Dimetrodon and Nothosaurus lived millions of years apart, respectively in the Early Permian and Triassic. Fossils of the genus Dimetrodon have been found in North America, with one species found in Europe, while Nothosaurus lived in Europe and Asia.

Model by Max Bellomio
Illustration by Mark Witton

Leaving the forest we go to the main scene, where in a vast clearing complete with lakes and rivers we are shown some of the most famous dinosaurs of that time (many of which are still today), all together in the same environment despite coming from different parts of the world and periods. Among the various dinosaurs there are icons such as Triceratops, Stegosaurus and a herd of sauropods (Apatosaurus or Brontosaurus) in the water feeding on aquatic plants. Although sauropods are shown chewing on plants, they weren’t actually capable of it, as they just scraped food from trees with their front teeth and then swallowed it whole. In the past it was believed that since sauropods such as Brontosaurus were the largest land animals ever, they weighed several tens of tons, and were unable to walk on land, thus being forced to live in water once they reached a certain size. Today, however, we know that the largest sauropods could “only” reach between 20 and 30 tons (maybe even a bit more), and that they were perfectly capable of moving on land. Furthermore, the Brontosaurs / Apatosaurs of Fantasia have a rather short and high skull because at the time we didn’t know what shape it had, so even some skeletons mounted in museums had a skull similar to that of Camarasaurus, because at the time it was one of the few sauropods whose skull was known. However, Camarasaurus was more related to Brachiosaurus, while Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus (which is still valid for now) were more related to other sauropods such as Diplodocus and had more elongated and low skulls.

Illustration by Mark Witton

In a recent study from 2021 it was also discovered that sauropods lived in drier habitats close to the equator.

Painting by Emiliano Troco that accompanied the 2021 study.
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In the scene we can also see a Diplodocus eating with its babies. Aside from the fact that it didn’t have such a mobile neck, sauropods weren’t great parents, in fact, after laying dozens of eggs, they abandoned them (or maybe they just watched over them until they hatched), and in the first years of life, they would’ve had to fend for themselves until they reached a certain size, perhaps allowing them to stay with larger or similarly sized specimens. This reproductive strategy is also the same that living sea turtles use.

Illustration by Mark Witton

After the sauropods, we see a herd of Struthiomimus without plumage. At the time we didn’t know they had them, but then an Ornithomimus fossil found in Canada preserving traces of the plumage solved any doubt.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto
This is Ornithomimus, not Struthiomimus, but since they were closely related, it gives you a good idea of how they woul’e looked.
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Speaking of feathers, in one scene we see a small theropod trying in vain to catch an Archaeopteryx, which is represented as the missing link between reptiles and birds with only some body parts covered by feathers. In reality, he had them almost everywhere, and it’s also possible that at least part of his feathers were black, thanks to the discovery of a fossil feather that could’ve belonged to Archaeopteryx.

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After a little research, I discovered that the little theropod is meant to be Troodon (it was still valid at the time). Its look however, is particular, since it resembles a generic small theropod with small spines on the sides of the head. This is because some time ago it was discovered that teeth belonging to “Troodon” (as a Troodontid) actually belonged to the pachycephalosaurid Stegoceras validum. Today the genus Troodon is no longer valid, and the genus has been separated into two other genera, Stenonychosaurus and Latenivenatrix.

Illustration of Stenonychosaurus by Tom Parker
Illustration of Latenivenatrix by Fred Wierum
And why not, let’s also put this beautiful illustration of Stegoceras by Gabriel Ugueto

Other famous dinosaurs that appear are the Hadrosaurs, those that are often still called “duck bills” even though in reality, the shape of the beak between these two animals was very different, and is the result of the knowledge and iconography of the time. Furthermore, they are shown as bipedal animals, also typical of the time, but in reality they were probably optional bipeds, meaning that they were quadrupeds maybe capable of moving on two legs for short distances. The hadrosaurs that appear are Gryposaurus, Corythosaurus, Parasaurolophus, and finally Edmontosaurus (which at the time was called Trachodon).

Illustration by Davide Bonadonna
Illustration by PaleoHistoric

Parasaurolophus is shown with a sail connecting the end of the crest to the base of the neck, an idea that was already uncommon in the past and has long been considered inaccurate.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto

As for the sauropods, the Edmontosaurus are shown eating aquatic plants, but they too actually had terrestrial habits, and didn’t have webbed feet.

Illustration by Natee Puttapipat (specifically E. regalis, which is known to have a crest, while it’s unknown if it was also present in the other species, E. annectens)

Less known faces also appear among the various dinosaurs, infact in some Plateosaurs appear in a shorter scene digging in the ground. Until recently, alongside its relatives, they were called Prosauropods. Today, however, they are called non-sauropod Sauropodomorphs. There’s also a small quadrupedal animal which, although in my opinion vaguely resembles a strange Protoceratops, it’s actually the dicynodont Kannemeyeria, so not a dinosaur but another non-mammalian synapsid, which in reality was much bigger and different.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto

Very briefly, Chasmosaurus and Psittacosaurus also make an appearance. Chasmosaurus was another smaller ceratopsid related to Triceratops that lived in Cretaceous North America. Psittacosaurus istead, was a relative of ceratopsids and it lived in China and other near countries. Thanks to various fossils found over the years, many of which are preserved in an incredible way, it’s one of the best known dinosaurs so far, of which we even know its coloration.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto
Model by Bob Nicholls
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Suddenly, the calm of that moment is interrupted by the arrival of the king, the one and only, Tyrannosaurus rex, who in search of a prey causes panic among the animals in the area, which in fear of becoming its next meal they stampede in all directions often tripping over and stepping on each other.

For a few seconds we see other animals like Brachiosaurus (which curiously has the nostrils in the right place, even if the skull has a different shape and didn’t have that crest).

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto

We also get a glimpse Hypsilophodon, a small ornithopod with a very messy taxonomy.

Illustration by Jack Wood

And we also briefly see the flying reptile Dimorphodon, which lived in the United Kingdom in the Lower Jurassic, with a head that resembles that of a parrot, even if in reality it didn’t have a beak and its mouth was filled with many needle-like teeth.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto

During the stampede, a slow Stegosaurus gets attacked by the T. rex which begins to bite him on the neck. The herbivore tries to defend itself by hitting the T. rex on the head with its Thagomizer (term used to indicate the tail and the four spines that Stegosaurus and its relatives had) but the fight doesn’t last long. Under the gaze of the other dinosaurs who managed to escape and take refuge into the trees, the Stegosaurus dies to the wounds inflicted by its attacker, who after a triumphant roar, proceeds to consume his meal (and even if dinosaurs weren’t capable of roaring, it’s still a very iconic scene). The Stegosaurus in Fantasia is very chonk compared to how we see it today, it also had a longer neck, alternated plates (not aligned with each other) and tail spines in a different position.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto
Get lost, there’s nothing to see here!

One of the most recognizable traits of Tyrannosaurus rex and its relatives were the two small arms equipped with only two fingers. Fantasia’s T. rex instead, has three, because at the time we didn’t have fossils of its arms. Based on other large theropods with preserved arms, T. rex was also thought to have three, but as time went by and new specimens were found, the truth was uncovered.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto

After the battle, the narration cuts to another scene with a completely different landscape. An arid and bare landscape dominated by drought, in which various dinosaurs are wandering aimlessly in search of food and water. Some Stegosaurus and perhaps sauropods of the genus Camarasaurus get stuck in a huge mud puddle, and become an easy target for opportunistic Ceratosaurus. While other dinosaurs proceed to migrate under a scorching sun, some of them collapse due to the heat and lack of energy.

Illustration by Gabriel Ugueto
Illustration by Mario Lanzas

Oh yes and for a brief moment we also see some Camptosaurs, medium-sized ornithopods that lived in the Upper Jurassic (whose sole purpose in life, as shown in many paleoarts, seems to become Allosaurus’ snack, poor guy).

Illustration by PaleoHistoric

In the last scene, all that is left of the dinosaurs are their footprints and bones. Suddenly, during a solar eclipse, a series of cataclysms start happening all at once: earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes start to transform and reshape the landscape, it’s the end of an era but also a new beginning, as well as an opportunity for animals that until that moment lived in the shadow of the large reptiles that are now gone forever.

We now know that the extinction of the dinosaurs happened 66 million years ago was caused by an asteroid with an estimated diameter of 10 km which crashed into the Yucatan peninsula, in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1940, when Fantasia was released, we had no clue about how the dinosaurs became extinct, infact, at the time it was full of far-fetched or nonsensical theories. The first evidence in support of the asteroid theory was found in the 70s, when here in Italy, more precisely in Gubbio, scientists found a layer of iridium (a very rare material on earth but common in asteroids) dating back to about 66 million of years ago, which separates two layers of rocks which represent respectively the Upper Cretaceous and Lower Paleocene (the so-called K-Pg limit, once called the K-T limit). Later, following discoveries irrefutably proved the asteroid theory, such as the finding of a huge crater in the Gulf of Mexico, which coincidentally also dates back to 66 million years ago.

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So, despite the little success that got upon its release, Fantasia is a very interesting and underrated product, and The Rite of Spring, although it was not a documentary, was one of the best sequences in which dinosaurs were accurately represented based on knowledge of the time, and although today it can no longer be considered reliable, it still remains a milestone in the history of paleo media.

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