How Pat Carroll’s Ursula, ‘Little Mermaid’ changed Disney history

You could describe Ursula from The Little Mermaid as an ambitious, villainous, octopus-like sea witch, but Pat Carroll would disagree on at least one point.

Carroll, who died Saturday at the age of 95, has long claimed that the alluring Disney icon she first voiced in the 1989 animated film was an octopus.

“A lot of people call her an octopus and I know enough about her that I have to correct her,” Carroll explained in the documentary Endless Treasures: The Making of Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ “She’s not an octopus, she’s a squid. … It has six tentacles instead of eight.”

The cephalopod Ursula embodies may be controversial, but her legacy is undeniable. The larger-than-life character is a key element of the magic that fueled the success of The Little Mermaid and her rise into the pantheon of Disney animated classics. A commercial and critical hit, The Little Mermaid transformed the evolution of animation in the studio and ushered in a new golden age of animated feature film, now known as the Disney Renaissance.

Additionally, The Little Mermaid and the beloved, campy Ursula are also a reflection of Disney’s intricate queer canon. It’s a tale of films with themes and villains queer-coded through subtext and (often unsettling) stereotypes on the one hand, and the contributions of (often unsung) LGBTQ creatives on the other.

Disney’s turbulent history is rooted in animation. The studio’s first feature-length foray was 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which broke new ground for animated storytelling. For decades, the studio released animated films that are now considered classics, including Pinocchio (1940), Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953), The Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Jungle Book (1967).

But in the 1980s, when writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements began work on The Little Mermaid, the success and cultural footprint of Disney’s feature film began to wane — so much so that the animation department moved out of the studio Burbank was renting out mobile homes and warehouses in nearby Glendale.

Among the stars who have teamed up for The Little Mermaid is the involvement of producer Howard Ashman. The gay playwright and lyricist envisioned the fairy tale adaptation to resemble a Broadway musical and hired collaborator Alan Menken to help write songs and compose the film’s score.

The most direct reading of The Little Mermaid — about a 16-year-old princess who gives up everything, including her voice, to be happy with a prince she falls in love with at first sight — has long been recognized as painful heteronormative and rather problematic. She is 16! She doesn’t really know the prince! She is 16!

But the story of a teenager who feels like an outsider in his home and falls in love with someone who shouldn’t, while longing to feel accepted and belong in a place he believes he does beyond his reach has resonated with generations of queer fans. The queer subtext feels especially poignant after understanding that LGBTQ artists like Ashman helped bring Ariel’s story to life.

Then there’s Ursula, who is not only shrill and extravagant, but also understands the power of transformation and performance – as well as “body language” and a female voice. She’s witty, oozing with confidence and planning in her own way, against the traditions of the establishment. She’s easily one of the most charismatic characters in film, even if she’s evil. And while the tendency to use queer stereotypes to project otherness onto a villain has long been a problematic trait of Hollywood movies, Ursula sounds a little different.

Ursula’s design is modeled after Divine, the drag performer best known for his collaboration with queer filmmaker John Waters. And Carroll has mentioned in interviews that she matched her performance of Ursula with Ashman after seeing his rendition of the sea witch song “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Ursula recalls that LGBTQ creatives and influences have long been part of Disney’s history, even though queer representation hasn’t been visible.

The Little Mermaid later won the Oscar for Original Song and Score, and restored the importance of feature animation in the studio. The film, as well as Ashman’s influence, is now credited with ushering in the Disney renaissance, a period of acclaimed animated music adaptations that’s still creatively mined for everything from theme park rides to live-action films.

While characters like Ursula have been embraced by queer fans, it is now clear that relegating queer and queer-coded characters to roles as villains or punchlines is harmful. Queer audiences and advocates are increasingly pushing for more meaningful LGBTQ representation in television and film, particularly in children’s programs.

So, not only is Carroll’s death a moment to honor her unforgettable work, but also for queer fans (and allies) to continue to expect more from studios like Disney, rather than always going back to the same classics. Finally, Disney needs the endorsement: More than 30 years since the debut of Ursula and Little Mermaid, the company’s animated features overall have made minimal progress in terms of LGBTQ representation (especially compared to queer representation in TV shows). animations).

If only Ursula had a spell for it. How Pat Carroll’s Ursula, ‘Little Mermaid’ changed Disney history

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