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Kay Nielsen, Disney, and the Sanitization of the Modern Fairy Tale

Folk tales about princesses and magical creatures were originally cautionary tales designed to scare children, with the aim of instilling contemporary social mores or protecting them from tempting dangers. Authors such as the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen took some of the edges off when they published those stories in books, and Disney changed them completely in order to give movie audiences a sunny, colorful experience with a happy ending. Into that transition came the well-regarded Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen, who moved to Hollywood in 1936, hoping to work in the movie industry. By then, Walt Disney was already thinking of how to bring the story of The Little Mermaid to the silver screen.

Kay Nielsen strode into this Disney-studio atmosphere in 1940 ready to embrace the uncanny, the odd, and the unnerving. According to Noel Daniel, a sort of internationalism followed in the wake of Romanticism, bringing a more cosmopolitan version of folk and fairy tales with it, and “took a seat at the same table of widespread interest in vernacular culture.” Nielsen, like many of his fellow artists, illustrated folk works for multiple nations and cultures, his source material as diverse as his artistic influences—a mix of Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Modernism, and Japanese woodcuts and watercolors. Before following his star to the animation studios, he had lived in Paris, London, and Copenhagen. But he arrived in Hollywood too late. Nielsen was hired to work on Fantasia, and he designed one of the most original sequences in all of Disney’s films, the “Night on Bald Mountain” piece. After that, he began work on conceptual art for an upcoming film version of “The Little Mermaid.” But by the end of World War II, a soft nationalism had firmly settled into the works of American animation, and in particular the work of Walt Disney. Nielsen’s multicultural, mythical designs for the film were too dark, too morally ambiguous. The artist’s slow, painstaking style was at odds with the assembly-line speed of Disney Studios, and even when other artists were brought in to take his concepts and develop them into animations, he was worn down by the pace of the work. Nielsen and Disney parted ways, and his concept drawings were shelved. He was brought back briefly to work on Sleeping Beauty—in my opinion, the most visually striking of all the Disney films, with a strong Gothic look inspired by the period—but was let go again in the fifties.

See some of Nielsen's illustrations of fairy tales, including concept art for The Little Mermaid, at The Paris Review. -via Digg

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