How Pat Carroll’s Ursula, ‘Little Mermaid’ modified Disney historical past

You might describe “The Little Mermaid’s” Ursula as an bold, villainous, octopus-like sea witch, however Pat Carroll would disagree with you on at the very least one level.

Carroll, who died Saturday at 95, lengthy maintained that the spellbinding Disney icon she first voiced within the 1989 animated characteristic is a squid.

“Many people call her an octopus and I’m so knowledgeable I have to correct them,” Carroll defined within 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 could also be debatable, however her legacy is plain. The larger-than-life 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 business and significant hit, “The Little Mermaid” modified the trajectory of animation on the studio and ushered in a brand new golden age of animated options now generally known as the Disney renaissance.

Past that, “The Little Mermaid” and the beloved, campy Ursula are additionally a mirrored image of Disney’s difficult queer canon. It’s a historical past of movies with themes and villains coded queer by means of subtext and (typically troubling) stereotypes on the one hand, and the contributions of (typically unsung) LGBTQ creatives on the opposite.

Disney’s storied historical past is rooted in animation. The studio’s first foray into feature-length movies was 1937’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which broke new floor for animated storytelling. For many years the studio launched animated movies that are actually thought-about classics, together with “Pinocchio” (1940), “Cinderella” (1950), “Peter Pan” (1953), “Sleeping Beauty” (1959) and “The Jungle Book” (1967).

However by the Eighties, when writer-directors John Musker and Ron Clements started work on “The Little Mermaid,” the success and cultural footprint of Disney’s characteristic animation had begun to wane — a lot in order that the animation division had been moved off the studio’s Burbank lot into trailers and warehouses in close by Glendale.

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

Probably the most direct studying of “The Little Mermaid” — a few 16-year-old princess who provides up every thing together with her voice for an opportunity at happily-ever-after with a prince she falls for at first sight — has lengthy been acknowledged as painfully heteronormative and many problematic. She’s 16! She doesn’t really know the prince! She’s 16!

However the story a few teen who appears like an outsider in her dwelling falling in love with somebody she isn’t alleged to whereas she longs to really feel accepted and belong someplace she believes is past her attain has resonated with generations of queer followers. The queer subtext feels significantly poignant after understanding that LGBTQ artists like Ashman had a hand in bringing Ariel’s story to life.

Then there’s Ursula, who shouldn’t be solely flashy and flamboyant but additionally understands the ability of transformation and efficiency — in addition to “body language” and a girl’s voice. She’s humorous, oozes confidence and, in her personal approach, plots in opposition to the traditions of the institution. She’s simply some of the charismatic characters within the film, even when she is evil. And whereas the tendency to make use of queer stereotypes to venture otherness onto a villain has lengthy been a problematic characteristic of Hollywood films, Ursula rings a bit totally different.

Ursula’s design is modeled after Divine, the drag performer greatest recognized for working with queer filmmaker John Waters. And Carroll has talked about in interviews that she matched her efficiency of Ursula to Ashman’s after watching his rendition of the ocean witch’s music “Poor Unfortunate Souls.” Ursula is a reminder that LGBTQ creatives and influences have lengthy been part of Disney’s historical past, even when the queer illustration wasn’t seen.

“The Little Mermaid” went on to win Academy Awards for authentic music and rating and reestablished the importance of characteristic animation on the studio. The movie, in addition to Ashman’s affect, is now credited with launching the Disney renaissance, a interval of acclaimed animated musical diversifications that’s nonetheless creatively mined for every thing from theme-park rides to live-action movies.

Whereas characters like Ursula have been embraced by queer followers, it’s now understood that relegating queer and queer-coded characters to roles as villains or punchlines is dangerous. Queer audiences and advocates have more and more pushed for extra significant LGBTQ illustration in TV and movie, significantly in youngsters’s programming.

Carroll’s loss of life is a second not solely to understand her unforgettable work, then, but additionally for queer followers (and allies) to proceed to anticipate extra from studios like Disney, quite than return many times to the identical handful of classics. In any case, Disney wants the encouragement: Greater than 30 years since Ursula and “The Little Mermaid’s” debut, the corporate’s animated options have made minimal progress total by way of LGBTQ illustration (particularly in comparison with queer illustration in TV animation).

If solely Ursula had a spell for that.