Los Angeles Times

Ursula’s powerful legacy

- By Tracy Brown

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

Carroll, who died Saturday at 95, long maintained that the spellbindi­ng Disney icon she first voiced in the 1989 animated feature is a squid.

“Many people call her an octopus, and I’m so knowledgea­ble I have to correct them,” Carroll explained in the documentar­y “Treasures Untold: The Making of Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ ” “She’s not an octopus, she’s a squid. … She has six tentacles instead of eight.”

The cephalopod that Ursula embodies may be debatable, but her legacy is undeniable. The larger-thanlife character is a key piece of the magic that propelled “The Little Mermaid’s” success and its ascent into the pantheon of Disney animated classics. A commercial and critical hit, “The Little Mermaid” changed the trajectory of animation at the studio and ushered in a new golden age of animated features now known as the Disney renaissanc­e.

Beyond that, “The Little Mermaid” and the beloved, campy Ursula are also a re

flection of Disney’s complicate­d queer canon. It’s a history of films with themes and villains coded queer through subtext and (often troubling) stereotype­s on the one hand, and the contributi­ons of (often unsung) LGBTQ creatives on the other.

Disney’s storied history is rooted in animation. The studio’s first foray into feature-length films 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), “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) and “The Jungle Book” (1967).

But by 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 animation had begun to wane — so much so that the animation department had been moved off the studio’s Burbank lot into trailers and warehouses in nearby Glendale.

Among the stars that aligned for “The Little Mermaid” is the involvemen­t of producer Howard Ashman. The gay playwright and lyricist envisioned the fairy-tale adaptation akin to a Broadway musical and tapped his collaborat­or, Alan Menken, to help write songs and compose the score of the film.

The most direct reading of “The Little Mermaid” — about a 16-year-old princess who gives up everything, including her voice, for a chance at happily-ever-after with a prince she falls for at first sight — has long been recognized as painfully heteronorm­ative and plenty problemati­c. She’s 16! She doesn’t actually know the prince! She’s 16!

But the story about a teen who feels like an outsider in her home falling in love with someone she isn’t supposed to, while she longs to feel accepted and belong somewhere she believes is beyond her reach, has resonated with generation­s of queer fans. The queer subtext feels particular­ly poignant after understand­ing that LGBTQ artists like Ashman had a hand in bringing Ariel’s story to life.

Then there’s Ursula, who is not only flashy and flamboyant but also understand­s the power of transforma­tion and performanc­e — as well as “body language” and a woman’s voice. She’s funny, oozes confidence and, in her own way, plots against the traditions of the establishm­ent. She’s easily one of the most charismati­c characters in the movie, even if she is evil. And while the tendency to use queer stereotype­s to project otherness onto a villain has long been a problemati­c feature of Hollywood movies, Ursula rings a bit different.

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

“The Little Mermaid” went on to win Academy Awards for original song and score and reestablis­hed the significan­ce of feature animation at the studio. The film, as well as Ashman’s influence, is now credited with launching the Disney renaissanc­e, a period of acclaimed animated musical adaptation­s that is still creatively mined for everything from theme-park rides to liveaction films.

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

Carroll’s death is a moment not only to appreciate her unforgetta­ble work, then, but also for queer fans (and allies) to continue to expect more from studios like Disney, rather than return again and again to the same handful of classics.

After all, Disney needs the encouragem­ent: More than 30 years since Ursula and “The Little Mermaid’s” debut, the company’s animated features have made minimal progress overall in terms of LGBTQ representa­tion (especially compared to queer representa­tion in TV animation). If only Ursula had a spell for that.

 ?? LGBTQ Walt Disney Pictures ?? creatives shaped “Little Mermaid” villain Ursula, voiced by Pat Carroll.
LGBTQ Walt Disney Pictures creatives shaped “Little Mermaid” villain Ursula, voiced by Pat Carroll.

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